Wednesday, 10 September 2014

My Country Has Nine Days To Live

This is a politcal post. I considered  setting up a politcal blog to put it on but to be honest, no-one would read it and I don't think about politics enough, or enjoy thinking about politics enough to make a habit of it.

Plus my policy here has generally been the opposite of internet best practice, I just dump what I like on the blog and let you filter it.

 So here it is, its under a break so you can just avoid it if you want.

So it looks like my country is dying in nine days, so I should say something about it.

'Dying' is something of a strong word. If the vote goes one way then the political union between England and Scotland will be over. England will still be there and Scotland will still be there. Britain will effectively be dead.

There will still be Wales and Northern Island as addendums to the English state but by that point it will be the English State. Using the word Britain or British in anything but the most refined geographical sense will essentially be meaningless. I will no longer be able to tell people from other countries that I am British, I will be English.

I like my country. I have occasionally wanted to kill everyone in it and burn it to the ground, but I consider that feeling a necessary part of patriotism. If you have never actually hated your country then you probably don't understand your country. Therefore your love for it has little meaning. The counterpoint here is the patriotism of someone like Margaret Thatcher, someone who absolutely, utterly believed in Britain and who probably played a meaningful part in destroying Britain.

Because she didn't really understand what Britain was. She thought it was England writ large and that’s why she found it easy to believe in. Whenever she came face to face with the parts of it that were not England writ large, you could sense her discomfort.

Believing in the identity of a nation state is an utterly mad thing to do and people have used this as a strong argument against it. None of the people making that argument have provided anything less mad to believe in so it hasn't stuck.

(Class, Race and Religion seemed to be the big ones. But things worked out mildly-less-destructively when you managed to jam a bunch of those inside one nation without them trying to kill each other rather than the other way round.)

People need a big idea to stand between them and the ferocity of the world and, given a reasonable range of choices, Nations are the one they went for. The idea has gone horribly horribly wrong a fair number of times, but we've been doing it a while and we've probably worked most of the kinks out by now.

There is an idea that if we get rid of nations, people will stop fucking each other over. They won't. The human capacity to fuck each other over is a protean force that renews itself in each re-organisation of the world. The worst thing you can do about it is pretend you've found a magic way to make it disappear. It's why revolutions tend not to work out.

So, believing in a country is a challenging thing. It's *all* the people inside it and *all* of its complex past and all of that bound together in a particular slice of time and space. Britain’s past is much more complex than most.

There are probably few, or no, nations in which a history of greatness and horror are so closely bound. Britain’s past is pitch and gold, brimstone and silver.

On one side we have a major force in the construction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the famines in India and Ireland. Those are the really big killers. Then we have all the smaller colonial wars, from the especially-horrid-and-racist to the mildly-less-horrid-and-racist. You have the industrial revolution. Still not clear how that one will work out. Add to that all the not-directly-super-evil-but-still-catastrophic-colonial-fucking-about.

If you look at the nastiest British crimes you see a combination of racial contempt, naked greed, hypocrisy and corporate callousness. It's greed and race, working together, that allowed the most harm. Those are the dark points of the British soul.

On the other side we have the fact that for almost all of its history, compared other countries right next to it, Britain was a relatively safe and peaceful place to live for most of the people in it. If you want to examine Britain’s effects on its colonies you would have to point out that almost all of them rebelled to get Britain the hell away from them and also that a very high percentage of them ended up as functional democracies. Britain didn't make India and America work out, but both those polities have a shitload of British political DNA, either introduced or stolen-and-adapted. A meaningful number of the functioning democracies on earth have British-derived parts in them.

And you have Napoleon, the two world wars and the cold war. For the entire existence of Britain, every time the European continent has been threatened by the tyranny of one man, we have stood against them. Not, usually for the right reasons, often for slightly wrong reasons, but we did it. And we won. Or at least survived, every time.

(Could we take a moment to think about how deeply unlikely it is that Britain still exists when you think about the level of shit we have gotten into?)

Hitler is the obvious one. Stalin a little less obvious. Any sane person can think WW1 was a gigantic fuck-up rather than a crime but very few would say we should have watched while Germany took France. Napoleon will have his defenders.

I think we were right. I would have avoided any of those conflicts starting if I could, but, once begun, I think we were right to fight in them and I am glad we won. I think the world is a better place because we fought and because we won.

To the political history, we must add the history of Science.

The British are generally not that good at art and a bit 'meh' at philosophy. We have had some decent ones but really most major European nations outweigh us on that.

We are really fucking good at science though. This tiny speck of a nation has had an outsized effect on the unravelling of the nature of the material world. That has been our deepest exploration. Counting backwards: Gravity, Evolution, the Computer, a shitload of the basic elements. No matter what happens through the rest of human history, if there is any continuity of thought, anyone looking back through time at the origins of the understanding of the material world is going to see a lot of British names waving back at them.

A world without Britain is a world less free, less knowledgeable, less connected and probably a bit less racist.

The English state could not have done that alone. Britain could. Not just because the addition of Scotland adds a few million people but because the idea of being British is a much wider idea than that of being English. Britain is a global identity, England is a ethnic  tribe.  To go from being British to English is to become smaller.

There are not many people in this country that think that. I am in a minority. Most are happy to be English. I don’t really want to be part of an ethnic tribe. The British identity suits me better. It suits a lot of people who find themselves on the edge of the English better. It includes more people with less strain. Boris Johnson made this point pretty well in the Telegraph, which was ignored by anyone who might have gotten anything useful out of it as its Boris Johnson and it’s the Telegraph.

Believing in something so strange and huge is difficult and requires a deep well of passion and imagination.

It's passion and imagination that we lack.

The campaign to keep Britain alive has been fronted by the least-charismatic most-disliked most-mediocre elite we've had for quite a while. It's been based almost entirely in quasi-threats, legalistic wrangling and grim warnings of unknown dooms. The warnings and wrangling’s may be true. It doesn't matter. Nations are not shaped by laws. Laws are secondary. They are shaped by emotion and identity. You can have all the laws you like and without that emotional core you have nothing. If you have identity and belief then you have a nation that will survive anything and re-constitute itself regardless of its circumstances.

Whatever the Scottish vote we have already lost. The idea of Scotland is old, powerful, simple and gives people the thing they want more than anything else. An identity to stand between themselves and the world. The British identity has shown itself to be the less-powerful dream and therefore whether it wins or loses this election, without a massive injection of passion and imagination, it is screwed. I am screwed.

If you are going to tell a people that they should vote to be less free than they could be then you have to offer them something pretty important . Monetary bribes won’t do it.

There are all the Vast Negative arguments. That Europe will fracture more, making it less safe. That the Russians and ISIS will snigger at us. That English politics will go into a tailspin and god knows what will result. But these are negatives. They don’t really count

You could argue that England is lessened without Scotland. Just as Scotland would become more free but less safe, England would become more alone and that the rejection and the aloneness will bring out the darkest qualities of the English character. I suppose that’s the ‘Stay With Me, I Need You’  argument.

You could say that the world is moving into a dangerous zone, where the effects of massive wealth and its deeply uneven distribution, the interconnection of global cultures and the massive backlash against that and the possibility of environmental decay squeezing humanity could create a kind of global pressure-cooker where things like Storms and Ebola and ISIS all run together into one continuous march of chaos. That the things Britain is good at could be meaningfully valuable in stabilising and saving such a world. That Britain is small and rich and tough and flexible enough to be a nation that could do good in the midst of chaos. That in chaos new challenges would be faced and new purpose found. This is the ‘Come With Me Into The Storm’ argument.

You could add to that that England and Scotland did the most harm, and the most good, when they were linked together, and if you are the kind of person who worries about the darker effects of Britain on world culture, and if you want, somehow, to put that right, then you can’t actually do that as Scotland on your own. You can’t atone singly for what you did as one.  This isn’t an argument I would make but if it was it would be the ‘Let Us Jpin Hands And Pray’ argument.

You could simply argue that the Union has worked really really well. It’s a hard sell to make to a Scottish electorate because the most powerful sense impression of Britain is the deep feeling of isolation and difference they get when they look at the last 30 years of their relationship with Westminster. The Union does look like a really good idea, but only when you compare it to other countries and their fucked-up histories. When you compare it to how Scottish people have felt over their directly-lived experience then it feels wrong to them. I suppose we could call this the ‘Raise Your Eyes From The Ground’ argument. Or the anti-darth argument. “Search your feelings, you know them not to be entirely true.”

And finally we come to the possibility of the Renewal Of Britain argument. Scotland votes no. This leads to a real desire for constitutional change in the UK. The nation does something like light Federalisation, making it less like a Westminster dictatorship. Quasi-states for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, North England, London and the South. The re-connection to politics helps re-energise people’s sense that they have some control over their own lives. The ability to shape your local environment makes everyone resent each other a little less. Britain becomes a little less efficient and a little more free for everyone. All the inner city ethnic minorities, and the Northern Irish, and the Welsh, and Cornish (and me,) who don’t mind being British but don’t ‘feel’ English, still have something to call themselves. This is the ‘New Jerusalem’ argument.

That is the one I would go for if I was on a stage in Scotland. 


  1. Thank you for posting this. As someone who is British but does not feel English, I feel the same way. The problem is that the Better Together campaign have failed entirely to give the vision of hope and reform that they need... the 'New Jerusalem' argument lies in the mud. If there is a no vote, I think that'll be when the hard work will start, because there's an opportunity to create that renewed Britain and it needs to be seized quickly.

  2. Even worse this might be a dress rehearsal for the "sleepwalking out of the EU" referendum.

  3. Makes you the third person I follow online regularly that is going to be directly affected by this. It has been interesting to see all three people have fairly different opinions/reactions to it. So, thanks for putting this up for us to read.

    As with most things, it'll be interesting to see where it all ends up.

  4. 'If you have never actually hated your country then you probably don't understand your country. Therefore your love for it has little meaning.'

    Well put. There are many people in my country who could stand to hear this bit.

  5. You can count on us Americans to still not understand if we should call you British or English.

  6. This is wonderfully put, and the most/best patriotic thing I've read in a long time.

  7. I was born in England but raised in Wales so I have always thought of myself as British and that Britain is better for having all the nations as part of it. So on one hand I will be saddened if Scotland becomes independent; it will affect my sense of identity on one level.

    On the other hand, if I had the opportunity to escape the influence of the shower of idiots in Westminster I would, so I can't blame the Scottish people if they do so.

  8. I would like Dorset to be its own independent state. We have a national anthem already

  9. Thanks for writing this, it was very illuminating.

  10. I have to echo Kelvin, I want to scream "run for your fucking lives!" at the Scottish. I completely understand the desire to break away from a system where the national government is basically decided by the south east. As a northener I want Scotland to stay, only because I selfishly want their leftwing votes to balance things out.

  11. The whole thing is completely absurd. I think the 'no' campaign will win handily whatever the polls say: voting 'yes' is a titillating prospect that will dissipate at the ballot box. Also look at the bookies' odds. William Hill still have it at 1/4 ON that the 'no' campaign will win. Trust people who have money riding on it, not unaccountable pollsters.

  12. this is really the first thing I've read about the referendum that Makes me go "hell yes." I'd vote for you.
    When can we undo Whitehall?

  13. Very interesting post, thanks!

    On the subject of self identify, I always call myself English, as I have no immediate Scottish, Welsh, or Irish heritage (though it is, of course, there if you go back far enough in the family tree) and have no experience of those countries -- I've been to Scotland once (Edinburgh) but have never set foot in Wales or Ireland. It feels a bit odd to associate my own identity with something about which I know so little.

    And I agree with the others about the "flee while you have the chance!" sentiment, though that may be short sighted.

    Let's hope your vision of a refreshed and reassessed union comes to pass.

  14. When the dust has settled a bit on this we'd love a follow-up. Unless that follow-up can be taken as read as "Well...Good."

  15. I didn't really want to do any more politics posts as its not really what the blog is about, but I have been thinking a lot about it. I will just put it here in the comments so no one else has to read it..

    Firstly I am very very glad that the vote went the way it did.

    Secondly, it shows pretty clearly that the current national settlement is unacceptable. Things need to change.

    Lots of people have proposed constitutional change semi-recently. There was a vote on a northern assembly and a vote on PR (Proportional Representation) the response of the public to both was "eh".

    The British Government over the past few years has been a pretty good reflection of the British mind-state: vague, wooly, lazy and greedy. The question is, will this change? Will people wake up?

    I don't know. There is a strong possibility that Westminster will immediately backtrack on everything they promised. It’s in no-ones political interests to give the Scots a fair deal. The Tories have legitimate complaints over the West Lothian question. They will pull for an English Parliament, or at least the right to kick Scots and Welsh out when voting on English matters.

    Labour will fight to keep scots in as it helps their majority if they form a government, which means they will effectively be fighting against english self-determination, a precarious position indeed. They are scared of change, scared of not-change. Scared of arguing for a British identity as firstly, its not that popular (only me and Rory Stewart actually give a shit about being British in anything other than a BNP 'immigrants out' way) and secondly they know it sounds hollow in their mouths. National identity is playing with magic and it is a sorcery they Left is unfamiliar with and suspicious of. They do race and class and systems and gender, flags are not their ju-ju.

    Assuming there is constitutional change, and I think there will be, not out of any deep plan or boldly-imagined system, but hectically and crazily as politicians try to keep up. Scottish nationalism has unleashed and provoked english nationalism, a much more powerful force. The power of english nationalism will, must, provoke some kind of response from the left.

    So I think the battle will be not over devolution, but the nature of devolution

  16. The Tory/UKIP version will be a strong English state governing its own affairs. A kind of minimal British overstate will exist but the other nations will be small. The result is that while Wales, Scotland and N Ireland have freedom to do what they want, they will effectively be compelled by the enormous power of the English economy and population. They will be legally equal, but England will be in charge.

    What will the lefty response be?

    The most 'rational' will be for them to try to break up england into smaller sections so that it can't outweigh the outer nations. Chunks of 5-10 million each. Its a neat solution but I think it won't work. The English don't really want it, even, I think, the North. And it's an extra layer of governmental bullshit, which is very bad as part of the problem is disconnection.

    However it lines up I think the main battle will be between the City (I mean the City Of London, its financial core) the home counties and the tory/UKIP heartlands on one side and the north and outer nations on the other. I think its entirely possible that parties could collapse and re-form around this. Parts of UKIP make a neat fit with the right of the Tory party. Woollier parts of the Tories in some ways might actually care more about Britain as an idea than anyone else.

    The Left never needs a reason to split. Will Labour be able to persuade the periphery to fight 'in' England 'for' Britain instead of 'against' England 'and' Britain? They need a big powerful idea and they don't have it. They need passion and they don't have it. they can fight against, but not for, and in the long run against doesn’t mean shit.

    My response.

    Any change in the UK has to be based on hacking existing systems. Its a (soft) conservative country. New things are ok if they are really old.

    How do you create a more representative system and close the gap between the people and government without new layers or an English dictatorship of Britain?

    My best idea is Proportional Lords. Or even Proportional-Regional Lords.

    We already have an upper house that essentially does fuck-all. They can vote but can be overruled, both legally, and, crucially, morally by the lower house. They are not elected so have no moral grounds on which to fight.

    And we are already paying for them, and we have the costumes and the rituals already (never underestimate the power of costumes and rituals). So, maybe, we could have PR elected Lords, so there is an election where everyone’s vote really does count. And, maybe , we could separate them out by nation or region. So there are Lords for Scotland, Wales, the North, London and the South. Elected by PR for each region.

    A house like this would be quite weak at first, so the change would not be that great. But, they are now democratically elected. Battles between the commons and the lords wound go quite differently. Bills would need to pass the peoples elected dictatorship of the commons, but also the fluffier more representative lords.