When discussing Scottish independence, England always seems to duck into the conversation. To whatever extent Scotland might want to proclaim its potential, England is where the strings are pulled; the power to enact constitutional change resides there as does much of the wealth of the United Kingdom. England is geographically and historically inseverable from Scotland and these facts were not lost on the political thinker and activist Tom Nairn. Nonetheless, he took the unflinching view that Scottish independence was inevitable. Sadly, he died in January 2023. In November 2023, in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, progressive thinkers met to discuss his work and its implications. As we go into 2024, how likely is a break up of Britain?
Whoever controls history controls the present
The conference drew together the thoughts and aspirations of progressives from Scotland, England, Wales, Italy and even Poland. What emerged was a complex and incomplete picture of conflicting forces. The centre of mass was clearly England, and much of the debate concerned how we should understand its political makeup and how its politics tend to pull the union together. Working in the opposite direction is the energy that national identity brings, from which Scotland gains much of its disruptive potential.
A notable theme of the conference was that historical events inevitably shape the present. Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South, and Laura Trevelyan, a former journalist, worked together to tell the story of her family in a podcast. The Trevelyan family part-owned ten plantations in Granada until slavery was abolished in 1834. Lewis is descended from Africans slaves and what struck him as their friendship grew was how the family had deceived itself into thinking it had acted nobly on behalf of the British empire. When the family confronted its past, the reality hit them “like being woken by a bucket of cold slops”. Lewis said that there had been a deliberate forgetting of the imperial story.
The Trevelyans have occupied prominent roles as historians, civil service reformers and Labour Party secretaries of state. Without the wealth from slavery they may never have enjoyed such successes. To their credit, they have since apologised to Granada and made reparations.
Extrapolating from the Trevelyan podcast Lewis concluded more generally that Britain’s colonial past had been a “crime scene that spanned the globe”, and those crimes had been wilfully disconnected from the wealth and power they had generated – wealth and power that now resides with the exploitative corporations and financial institutions that we see today.
The wealth of the British empire can be traced and quantified. In contrast, the stories we tell about how that wealth came into being can be malleable and deceiving. Lewis noted how Enoch Powell, famed for his “rivers of blood”speech, had exclaimed in 1950 that “Britain without an Empire is like a head without a body”. By 1965, in his book A Nation Not Afraid, he had decided that the empire had come about almost by accident and was not that important. As Lewis put it: “the British empire was born by Immaculate Conception”.
Myths of greatness
Stories of national greatness help erase the atrocities of colonialism. They contain the familiar accounts of swashbuckling Britain and the concept of England being at the centre of the world – an exceptional nation, brilliant at everything it does. Nairn, with his familiarity with Gramsci, the Italian political theorist, would have understood the power of such ideas, especially when they cease to be contested.
Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton, sketched out the failing institutions that hide behind the cardboard scenery of mythical Britain. She bemoaned the “archaic and undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system, an over-centralised governance system, the unelected Lords […] the populist abuse of sovereignty, the vast network of patronage, the stuffy and outdated conventions and public-school atmosphere – the whole damn lot of it!” Her speech was one of the most enthusiastically received of the conference.
Lucas linked British delusions of grandeur with the uncomfortable observation that they must spring from something lacking. As several speakers commented, Britishness and Englishness are interchangeable in ways that are not possible with Scottish and Welsh identities. The question of what it means to be English can produce baffling answers. Moya Lothian McLean, journalist and contributing editor at Novara Media, used the example of far-right thugs descending on the Cenotaph, a British war memorial, to illustrate how weak this sense of Englishness can be. When asked what the thugs were defending, they could only answer: “We were born here.” If Scotland left the union, the English would be left with a big problem in defining who they really are.
Without question it was England that drove the pro-Brexit vote and thereby gave impetus for Scottish independence. Brexit was delivered by ruthless campaigns that, as Professor Richard Wyn Jones pointed out, drew their strength from the Conservative success in the 2015 general election that could be partly attributed to anti-Scottish sentiment following the independence referendum. English nationalism was clearly an important factor in English identity and is certain to be mobilised again for the next general election.
However, Lucas and others pointed to feelings of powerlessness rather than an outpouring of nationalism. With most wealth concentrated in London and the South East, the poorer regions took revenge on what they saw as a detached elite for not sharing the spoils of EU membership. The rift that opened between Leavers and Remainers also reflected a cultural divide. When Lucas spoke to Leave voters, she found many resented “how some expressions of Englishness were allowed while others were not”. As an example, she described a flag hanging from a church in a quaint village that was deemed acceptable but one hanging from a council house was somehow racist.
Not only did Brexit override the Scottish desire to be part of the EU but it seemed to confirm England as an inward-looking nation “resentful of lost glories”. The two nations now have very different outlooks and the tensions between them are clear.
The outward-looking character of Scotland was described eloquently by journalist and writer Neil Ascherson. Its cultural roots have been strengthened by ties with European countries and migration both inwards and outwards, arguably making it more attractive to the EU than the UK as a whole. He spoke of the medieval connection with Scandinavia, the Scottish settlers on the Vistula, the export of agricultural expertise to Poland, the Scots who returned from Poland; some of whom had fought the Russians in 1863, the Scots who fled to France, the Flemish who brought their crafts and skills to Scotland and the German expressionism that came to the Glasgow School of Art inspiring a new movement. The EU is more obviously aligned with Scottish values than those of Westminster.
Ascherson sees Scottish independence as an opportunity to rejoin the EU but he also acknowledges that it would be better if England did too. He did not see this happening quickly.
Will Britain break up?
Ultimately the overwhelming view of the conference was that Scottish independence cannot happen without momentous changes taking place in England. Tom Nairn viewed it this way. He saw England as the principal location for any revolution. Regarding how the UK might reconfigure itself, the conference was less sure-footed. England would have to lose its obsession with empire and recognise that it is just a normal country. It was not clear from any of the speakers why this should happen, let alone be inevitable. Neither was it made clear how a more progressive England would make Scottish independence more likely. Arguably, if Westminster moved closer to the Scottish world view, the case for independence would diminish. Nairn certainly appreciated these problems. In The Break-Up of Britain he wrote:
“The English revolution is the most important element in the general upheaval of British affairs described in this book. It is also the hardest to foresee, and will take longest to achieve. Upon its character – conservative nationalist reaction or socialist advance – will depend the future political rearrangement of the British Isles as federation, confederation, or modernised multi-national state.”
In the end, this excellent conference, full of profoundly important ideas, fell short of answering the most difficult question of all.