What on earth is up with British unionism? Although not especially reflective at the best of times, this ideology has recently been thrust into explicitness in disturbing ways. It’s often said that Brexit is in part driven by an upsurge of English nationalism, but I don’t buy that – if only because there’s no such extant thing (yet) as English nationalism. It is, rather, the laying bare of the nationalism that England has instead of its own, which is the nationalism of the UK – aka unionism. And while it isn’t necessarily worked out in any compellingly abstracted form, it is still not properly understood.
This nationalism is profoundly Anglocentric, to be sure, but its commitment to the United Kingdom is just as profound – when Theresa May insists that she won’t countenance dividing the kingdom in order to ensure an open border in Ireland she’s not just parroting the DUP’s lines. But the UK it has in its heart is one in which English dominance is taken as read, and which is hostile to any serious checks on the sovereign power located at Westminster and Whitehall. Devolution is fine as long as it can be overruled when necessary, and as long as it’s the centre that gets to decide when it is necessary. But everything touching on the constitution that has happened with the approach to Brexit makes clear that the Westminster government’s freedom to propose and dispose must be untrammelled and unchecked.
In its death agonies, the vestigial remnant of Scottish Labour is convulsing in some entirely predictable ways. One of them, particularly evident recently, has been an even more ferocious assault on the independence movement in Scotland, which they corral – not, a lot of the time, unfairly, but not always entirely accurately – under the label of ‘Scottish nationalism’. Once again, those of us happy to support or work for the goal of an independent Scotland are being balefully admonished for fomenting a ‘politics of division’. This line is common to both Labour and the Tories, of course (and the Lib Dems, but who notices them?). But it’s Labour who make a particular habit of suggesting that this ‘divisive’ politics necessarily has something of the night about it.
Don’t mind me, I’m an oxymoron. Or at least, I think I used to be – which is as much as to say I wasn’t really anything at all. But perhaps I’m oxymoronic no more. I can stand up if I want to and say, hey, everybody, get this – I am an English Scot.
There’s still a good chance that anyone within earshot, even if listening and inclined to give a toss, would be hard pressed to say what that particular label means. It’s new, undoubtedly – it first gained currency during the independence referendum, when a group of English-born supporters of independence launched the group ‘English Scots for Yes’. Math Campbell-Sturgess, one of the group’s most prominent members and an SNP councillor, penned an eloquent account of his own motivations for Wings over Scotland. The label itself went largely unexplored, what with the pressing business of the referendum and all that. Perhaps now, though, we can come back to it. What does it mean?
‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ That’s what Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson wrote in memory of him, a mere seven years after he died, and long before some kind of posterity had had a chance to show its hand. Such claims were not that uncommonly made for poets of the period; but in Shakespeare’s case, almost uniquely, they’ve so far proved true.
What kind of stature is this? For Jonson it’s the capacity to transcend the narrow interests of an era, of a particular time and place – to have the more universal appeal of the great classical authors. We take all this as read, of course, now, in Shakespeare’s case. Yet we’re often reminded, too, that Shakespeare also has a more local habitation.
One of the funniest byproducts of recent political campaigns in Scotland has been the irresistible rise of Angry Salmond. Starting off as a parody twitter account, and now aspiring to the status of monetised meme, Angry Salmond has epitomised the irreverence of the Yes campaign and the new, metamorphosed SNP. This parody celebrates rather than satirises the utopian element in pro-independence politics – a tweet such as the one below, posted on the day of the referendum itself, somehow manages to affirm rather than undermine the cause.
And the funniest thing about Angry Salmond is that he isn’t actually all that angry. Sure, he swears a bit and insults his – and the SNP’s – opponents, but he does so from underneath a pink beret and from behind some very silly sunglasses. When people dress up as Angry Salmond for photos – as they do – they always make sure to smile. The anger, such as it is, is just part of the schtick.
I didn’t mean it to happen – but for a short period, around the age of 18, I think I was an English Nationalist. I liked to go shopping for bad clothes and bootleg tapes in Kensington Market, and one day chanced upon a stall piled with books, pamphlets and pictures that had a beguiling whiff of Albion about it. Albion looked cool, in a fuzzy sort of way. I was hopped up on Blake, enamoured of the martyrologies of Burford, Peterloo and Tolpuddle – I couldn’t get enough of books with titles like The English Revolution, The Making of the English Working Class, and A People’s History of England. Among the literature, the stall had a small stock of badges. I wasn’t sure about some of the symbols, but a neat little St George’s Cross lapel pin looked just the thing. To me, it said Jerusalem – radical promise, utopian affirmation, the memory and hope of a world turned upside down.
I stopped wearing it a couple of months later. Pausing at a table in a pub where an old friend sat chatting with some blokes I didn’t know, I said hello. To my surprise, one of them froze, then recoiled: he was staring at my badge. There was fear, anger, and confusion – it was all hugely embarrassing. If the badge spoke of England, it clearly wasn’t the millennial England I’d been carefully confecting for myself. (With hindsight, I suspect my crew cut, nine-hole docs and MA1 weren’t helping either.) The incident grew a moral or two – that words and symbols couldn’t just be made to mean what I wanted them to mean, damn them, and that the emblems of nationhood had a distinctly unnerving power. It wasn’t a power that could be innocently invoked. My utopian imaginings ought not to be knitted into a dream of England.