Jubilee reflections 2: Pondering who we are in the UK

Iain Mcwhirter says we could not have asked for a more definitively English celebration of national identity than the Queen’s celebrations last week

The Top Gear motormouth Jeremy Clarkson has said that if Scots vote for independence it would be like losing “a somewhat violent but much loved family pet”. Last week Ed Miliband said he wanted to persuade England that, on the contrary, Scotland’s departure would be a “disaster for Britain”, though he never explained exactly why. Instead he promised that Labour would embrace English nationalism. “We have been too nervous to talk of English pride and English character,” he said.

Questioned on Channel 4 News as to what these distinctively English characteristics actually are, Miliband answered, rather hesitantly, that it was things like “mustn’t grumble” stoicism that has made England great, and also what he called the “English NHS”.

Now, I would have to concede that Scots do their share of grumbling and moaning – the difference between a ray of sunshine and all that. But I fail to see how the NHS can be declared a uniquely English institution. Last time I looked, the National Health Service was being dismantled under the privatisation policies of the Westminster Coalition.

In Scotland, the NHS has been preserved intact as a wholly-funded public service. What Miliband meant to say, I think, is that the NHS is one of those great institutions that kept the union together in the decades after the Second World War. But by posing it as an answer to the question “what is it to be English?”, he missed the point entirely.

Why stray into this territory in the first place? Why not let sleeping bulldogs lie. Well, English Labour MPs, like the former deputy leadership challenger Jon Cruddas, have been arguing that Labour needs to combat the appeal of the British National Party, which has been making inroads into Labour’s council vote, by showing that English nationalism isn’t simply the property of the far right. Why shouldn’t Labour be patriotic too?

Miliband also feels he needs to assuage English suspicion that moaning Scots get favourable treatment from Westminster. However, Ed is not prepared to contemplate any English parliament or any reforms to the West Lothian Question. He still needs that cohort of Scottish Labour MPs if Labour is ever to win a majority.

Having spent much of my working life living and working in London and Westminster, I’d say that, in my experience, Clarkson pretty much sums up what most English people really do think about Scottish independence, though they might express it less robustly. They don’t feel any animosity towards Scots, and rather respect their rugged and no-nonsense image. But they aren’t going to weep buckets if Scotland, which accounts for only one-eleventh of the UK population, goes off on its own. Not so much good riddance as thank you and goodbye.

Moreover, in my experience, English people don’t have any problem about their own national identity. They know perfectly well who they are: they are English and they are British, and for most the two are interchangeable. This was most clearly evident at the Queen’s Jubilee bash last week. You could not have asked for a more definitively English celebration of English national identity. Yet people waved, not the St George’s Cross, but the union flag. Why? Because they always have and they don’t see why they should change colours because the Scots don’t really feel a part of it.

I fear that in raising all this stuff about English nationalism Ed Miliband is creating a problem that doesn’t really exist, and threatening to undermine the very British identity that he says he wants to save. Last week, he warned Scots that if they vote Yes to independence they will “no longer be allowed to call themselves British”. Really? How does he intend to stop them? Make it illegal to sing God Save The Queen at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo? Prosecute people for waving the Union Jack north of the Border? People are entitled to call themselves British if they live in the British Isles, just as they call themselves English or Scottish.

I don’t believe English people or Scottish people have any problem articulating their various national allegiances. Anyway, Scottish nationalism isn’t a chauvinist movement based on notions of ethnic supremacy or racial exclusivity. It is a constitutional, not an emotional, nationalism – with civic objectives not cultural ones. It’s not about identity but about taxation and representation – more immediately it is about the Scottish Parliament winning the power to reshape the Scottish economy by gaining fiscal autonomy. David Cameron seems to get this rather better than Miliband. Last week, he let it be known that the Chancellor, George Osborne, is now minded to hand over all income tax-raising powers to Scotland, provided Scots vote No in the 2014 independence referendum. This is designed to shoot the Nationalist fox by giving them what they have asked for.

It is also a trap, of course. Scotland raises considerably less in income tax than is spent here on public services, and handing this power in isolation would force the Scottish Government to raise taxes to unacceptable levels or live with an ever-growing deficit. As the centre-right think tank, Reform Scotland, has argued, tax devolution only makes sense if you include revenues from oil, which is the only way to balance the Scottish books north of the Border. Reform Scotland also say that corporation tax needs to be devolved too if the Scottish Parliament is to have any influence over investment.

Last week, the Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney, announced the setting up of a Scottish Inland Revenue to collect the stamp duty and landfill taxes devolved by the recently passed Scotland Bill. A pretendy revenue to go with the pretendy parliament, as Billy Connolly might put it. But is this the embryonic Scottish treasury that will ultimately collect income tax, and hydrocarbon taxes? This is what the debate is about, not whether you weep at the sight of the flag.

I think the process is now unstoppable and Scotland will be functionally independent in 10 years. But in our shifting kaleidoscopic identity culture, people will still wave their flags of choice and call themselves British or Scottish or Pictish or Polish or whatever. In these islands you can be whoever you want to be, wherever you happen to be. You don’t need Ed Miliband to tell you who you are.

Iain Mcwhirter is a columnist with the Scottish Sunday Herald where this article first appeared

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