The Left has so much to answer for

After the referendum we are left with division – division between Scots voting ‘Yes!’ and Scots voting ‘No!’ With any luck they will find a way to come to terms with the result, but my suspicion is that things will be raw for a long time yet. I also suspect we are embarking on a period of even greater trauma that could well lead to a split some time in the future.

And it is difficult to see how divisions between Scotland and England will not now intensify. A light has been put on the stupendous idiocy of the original devolution settlement that allowed Scottish MPs a say on English issues while not returning the favour. The English can be slow to identify injustice, but when they do…

But all this is in a sense incidental – it will happen as it happens. All this could have been avoided a long time ago, but various acts of destruction were perpetrated that may well make division more likely – not less. I am interested in why politicians do stupid and destructive things. I am interested to know who to blame. Whose fault is all this?

Not, mind you, because blame games are good in themselves – they are not. But it is always important to understand why things happen. If we do not, and if we make no effort to find out, we are destined for things to continue their sad decline, and one day we will wake up to be living on an island divided by arbitrary lines, cutting families, friends and fellow-countrymen off from one another.

Britain is – and this needs saying more often, despite the shrill invocations to the contrary – a great country. Probably one of the greatest ever to have existed on this earth. To kill it, I assure you, will not make the world a better place – and it will certainly not make the lives of the inhabitants of the British Isles any better.

It is easy to blame David Cameron. He agreed the referendum. He agreed the wording, which gave the separatists an inherent advantage – co-opting the positive word ‘Yes!’ and focusing attention on Scotland’s independence rather than Britain’s end. It would be interesting to know how many extra votes these simple affirmative exclamations garnered for their cause. He was also, as people are beginning to say, far too cavalier in his approach, at least until the panic in the week leading up to the vote.

But it wasn’t really his fault. Once the Scottish electorate, in 2011, returned to parliament a majority for the SNP of 69 seats out of a total of 129, Cameron had little choice if he was to avoid being called a Tory naysayer (or words to that effect). The wording of the referendum remains unfortunate, and he should have fought a bit harder, but he remained mostly aloof because he assumed, quite logically, that Conservative involvement would haemorrhage votes from the ‘No!’ campaign even before a word was uttered.

Alex Salmond and the Scottish nationalists are another culprit. Well, this is obvious; but an end to the Union is what they want so they can’t really be blamed. Yes, he will say anything to get votes out, and he has no identifiable scruples, but that is the modus of the demagogue and that is what he is for. The fault lies much deeper. Forty-five percent of the Scottish electorate didn’t have to vote his way; something of far greater import has gone wrong with the Union and with Britain.

But what?

Nick Cohen, writing in the Spectator, has an idea. A number of left wing English intellectuals, he writes, were possessed by a loathing of England. Anyone who sets themselves up against England, so the logic goes, cannot be all bad. But this is not just left wing loathing of England. It is every bit as much left wing loathing of Britain and pretty much everything you might lump in with traditional understanding of those two entities.

Nick Cohen, of course, impeccable left winger that he is, raises the point because he doesn’t want the left to become an anti-English movement. It’s easy to see why. There’s a lot to admire about Nick Cohen. He writes with the clarity of an Orwell, and he takes a principled stand against state regulation of the press, and exposes to great effect the hypocrisy of many left-wingers over some of their most cherished shibboleths – feminism, equality, anti-racism.

But what drives Nick Cohen in this instance is a fear that left wing politics might be rejected in England because of crude anti-English sentiment. If socialism is to control Britain then it needs to control England, and in the new post referendum paradigm, England has woken up to not only the unfairness of the West Lothian question but also the imbalance in public spending between Scotland and the rest of the UK. If Labour does not get this right, they could suffer, especially as they might be about to lose the influence of the Scottish Labour MPs in future English-only business.

But here’s the problem. The dominant strand of left wing politics today is very much about anti-Englishness – and anti-Britishness too. There was a time when the Labour movement did patriotism; there was a time when the Labour party would have no truck with ideas and movements plainly anathema to British civility. But somewhere in the mists of time the Labour movement was almost completely captured by those who hated Britain and all she stood for. Those who took their inspiration from the toxic theories of Karl Marx rather than the compassionate example of Christian socialists. That is why the left has worked so hard to change so much about the country – they weren’t reformers; they were vandals. What sort of love is it that seeks to change everything about a person? I love you, darling; I love you so much I want you to become a completely different person. Doesn’t wash.

It is noticeable in the way many on the left assume that anyone criticising England and Britain can’t be all bad. It’s been going on for decades – complacent toleration of Soviet sympathisers while eviscerating the career, political or otherwise, of anyone even taking the piss out of Nazis by wearing their clobber at a party; the lazy equation of Britishness and Englishness with inherent racism; the implacable desire to keep handing power to the nation-destroying EU; the mass immigration which seems to be viewed as a means to dilute the existing, obnoxious British population; and accompanying all this are the insidious, oblique references and attitudes that there is something wrong with Britain and England at the most basic level.

What Nick Cohen is asking for is perfectly reasonable – that the left shows a little more love for the English. His fear being that the left ‘will not get a hearing unless they give the impression that they like their fellow citizens; and don’t regard them as irredeemably prejudiced xenophobes and creeps.’ True enough. Neither does he want Labour to ‘find itself portrayed as the enemy of the English.’

The problem is, in so many ways the modern left is precisely those things. They don’t like a good proportion of their fellow citizens, particularly those who remain quite attached to the history and achievements of their country, and especially the ones who don’t accept this leftist characterisation of their country as racist, xenophobic and bigoted. They want to be permitted their traditional English and British identity without being sneered at. If the left can alter this attitude then that would be a good thing, for the left and for the country. But it would have to be genuine. Gordon Brown perfectly demonstrated the two faces of the modern left in his response to Gillian Duffy in 2010. When he left her he said, ‘Very nice to meet you.’ But when in the supposed privacy of his car he let his true feeling out: ‘Just a sort of bigoted woman.’

I would suggest Nick has his work cut out. Leopards and spots and things.


Twelve final thoughts on the Scottish referendum

The Scottish electorate may have rejected independence and the end of Great Britain by 55 to 45 percent, but what these figures alone show is that this is an issue that runs deep; it will not go away. But what do these last few weeks tell us about British politics and the future of the country? I’m not sure, but here are a few observations:

1. Perhaps the most certain point is this: the independence debate is not over. Politicians of all hues have said that it is over for a generation, Salmond even suggesting for a lifetime, but this is not so. There might not be a vote for a long time yet, but the campaign will continue – and it will continue right now. There is an insatiable desire, deep in the DNA of Scottish nationalists like Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, to be rid of England. Sadly it’s not just about Scotland; it’s also very much about England, the country many believe oppresses, in various ways, the Scottish people. Sad that.

2. The Scottish electorate may have rejected independence, but we now face an almighty constitutional mess, from which it is not clear we will be able to extricate ourselves. The Labour party is not going to be happy with English votes for English measures, for electoral reasons, though it is not clear how successful they will be challenging it. Scottish nationalists will watch gleefully at the spectacle of English politicians squabbling among themselves, and they will do their best to identify points of grievance that they can use in their continued campaign against the Union and the English. Devolution, as implemented in 1999, was always a lop-sided mess; it never made true sense, because it was never balanced. The West Lothian Question – Scottish votes on English matters – illustrates the exact problem. For this, we have the Labour Party to thank.

3. Even if the politicians now institute a more or less balanced devolution settlement, the Union will continue to weaken. The imbalance created by England’s sheer size will continue to provide Scottish nationalists with the ammunition they require to continue their fight. There’s a possibility that this will create a positive tension; but we should prepare ourselves for the brick-throwing. It will only work if we all get behind the Union and our common British identity – and it is not clear the separatists will ever be able to do that.

4. Scotland is now a country divided more than ever in its recent history. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, neighbours, friends and relations, and communities and cities have found themselves in opposition to one another over this issue. But this is not like some everyday dispute over whether the council should pick up bins once a week or once a fortnight; it’s one of those existential issues that in the past would have caused civil war. Many ‘Yes!’ voters think ‘No!’ voters are traitors; and many ‘No!’ voters think ‘Yes!’ voters are foam-flecked lunatics. This has led to a feeling of betrayal, especially with the ‘Yes!’ voters, and it will linger a while yet.

5. Despite the positive spin put on things by Ed Miliband, the Labour Party will be most damaged by the fallout from these past weeks of vitriolic campaigning. The English will blame Labour for this scare to the Union, because they set us down this road with their botched devolution, and because they are the party that spends most effort undermining British national identity; Labour will lose their Scottish Labour MPs in the new English parliament; the English will be woken to the injustice of the West Lothian Question; and, perhaps more importantly, the Conservatives will see this as a once in a generation opportunity to refashion English affairs and dismantle Labour’s Socialist state. Perhaps Ed Balls is the only Labour front-bencher who truly understands all this.

6. This has damaged British standing in the world. The Scottish nationalists think this a good thing, that British pretensions are part of the problem with the Union; but that is because they do not face geo-political realities. The world is not a very nice place; Britain has serious enemies; the problem of nuclear weapons is not going to be solved by unilateral disarmament; and if Britain steps back too far, bad people and bad regimes will fill the void. There are many who do not wish to believe this, but a credible and properly governed Britain makes for a safer and better world. These internal British divisions, exposed to the world, has undermined all this, and politicians will have their work cut out to make good the damage.

7. It is also worth noting that separatist movements are not restricted to the United Kingdom. Various countries around the world will have been watching the vote with mixed feelings. Spain would not have welcomed a ‘Yes!’ vote; neither would Turkey or Russia. Depending on your attitude, separatist movements are good or bad. What is certain, however, is that separatists that do not follow democratic principles are a source of serious instability. We should be thankful that this vote has been an advert for democracy; but we should also not delude ourselves that Scottish independence would have provided a fillip for more unsavoury separatist movements across the globe. Not necessarily Scotland’s problem; but worth considering, especially for those who don’t think separatism is a solution to any serious practical problem.

8. Perhaps the best outcome of all this will be the reduced likelihood of the Labour party directing English finance, spending and budgets for years to come. This could be an opportunity to move away from social democracy and embrace liberal democracy, which is much more likely to liberate people trapped in the welfare ghettos created by Labour’s brand of socialism. In time, when this is shown to create better outcomes for the people, especially the poor, perhaps the rest of the United Kingdom will follow England’s lead and cut loose the anchor of socialism and trade unionism that has been holding the country back for so long. But then again, if Labour are right about things, England could be in for a world of pain. We shall see.

9. It is also possible that the Conservative Party will not make the most of this situation (some will cheer at that). Many backbench MPs are fuming at their leadership: first, for allowing Britain to gets so close to breakup; and second, for promising further constitutional change seemingly made up on the back of a fag packet. This is the same group who rile against the failure of successive Conservative leaders adequately to express Conservative attitudes to the EU, Lords reform, immigration, international human rights law, initial devolution and now this – all of which revolve around the complicated question of the British constitution. If the Conservative Party cannot find a way to unite in the coming months, the party may end up losing out again.

10. Devolution, so the Labour Party said, was meant to ‘kill demand for independence stone dead.’ But it has not. Scottish nationalism, thanks to proportional representation, is going to be a major force in Scottish politics for years to come. And even if support for the SNP now dips – because, a) it failed to deliver independence; and b) because its seriously unpleasant underbelly has been exposed, most obviously in the quite frankly fascistic approach some of their members took to the campaign trail – their prospectus is going to be a feature of British politics for the foreseeable future. And while the country engages in this navel-gazing, the country will have less energy for solving the more serious problems it faces. Internal division is always a distraction. Britain is now characterised by separate national conversations. Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English are going to speak less with each other and more among themselves. Rather than one people, Britain is increasingly going to be four peoples. This is not necessarily a disaster, but if left unchecked will promote division and mutual wariness of each other’s motives.

11. The Conservative Party is, unfortunately, largely an English party. They don’t want to be, but they are. The strong Conservative footprint in Scotland in past decades was thanks to the Unionist party’s footprint. Since the unionists were subsumed into the Conservative machine, they steadily lost support. They do OK in Wales but they have no representation in Northern Ireland. This need not be a problem. It reflects the reality of national sentiment below the level of Britain. They should perhaps think about stepping back from Scotland permanently, allowing a new centre-right party to form, which has a stronger connection to Scotland, and trusting in a centre-right alliance in the Westminster parliament. It used to be that way; why not again? Labour, on the other hand, is the only truly British party. We do not know if this will be an asset for them, or a liability.

12. This campaign, perhaps more than any other in recent years, has exposed the difficulty politicians have in dealing with rhetoric that twists the facts. There’s an asymmetry between honesty and dishonesty. In a democracy, it seems, honest and courteous politicians face something of an uphill struggle. Libel laws perhaps prevent specific mention of these dishonesties, but they were there, in spades. The vote went the way of ‘No!’ but ‘Yes!’ had the momentum. The debate on the NHS, Defence, and the currency all suffered. The lesson? Politicians must never be afraid to enter the debate; they must have the courage to risk the eggs and the verbal abuse. If they do not, the platform is left to those with fewer scruples. None of this is to say that there is not a noble dimension to the desire for Scottish independence (there most certainly is), but it is to say that politics needs people to stand up to the bullying. For this we should thank people like Jim Murphy MP. We need more like him.

This has been a difficult period of British history, and it is by no means certain that those difficulties are on the wane. The present situation suggests quite the opposite. One hopes our politicians are up to the job of finding a new unity in the British Isles. It’s just that their track record doesn’t fill the casual observer with much confidence. We can only hope that, as they say: cometh the hour, cometh the man (or woman).

Britain is not just a bigger England, and neither is this what the English believe.

“The English, until relatively recently, seem to have imagined ‘English’ and ‘British’ to be interchangeable, as if Britain was just a bigger England.”

We hear this a lot, or a version of it, and no more than now, just when the Scots are voting on independence from the United Kingdom. To an Englishman and a Briton, this is immensely frustrating, because it is plain wrong. Others, no doubt, will agree with the statement, but I see no truth in it.

Let me clarify:

I do agree with the first part of the statement: that the English see English and British as being interchangeable (Not all of them, but as a general rule, and certainly those who feel no shame at being both English and British). But there is no sin in this. Englishness and Britishness should be almost interchangeable. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish should feel the same way, especially if they want the Union to survive and Britain to endure as a meaningful entity.

The problem comes form the second part of the statement: that Britain is just a bigger England. This really is not true. You will, of course, find examples where this seems true, from the uncouth and the ignorant, which, I’m sorry to say, inhabit parts of the Union outside England as much as they do England itself. But not the average person. That they are English also makes them British, but ask them if the Welsh and the Scots are also British and they will look at you as if you are a fool and say ‘Of course they are!’

It is sad we have this divide within the Union. It implies that the English are inherently arrogant, and dismiss everyone who is not like them. It also implies that the English think there are tiers of Britishness, the English sitting at the top, followed by the Scots, the Welsh and Irish.

But I’m afraid this is not the reality; it is a false impression that distorts how people think of the Union and of Britain; sometimes people benefit from enquiring into their own minds, and from challenging their own prejudices and misunderstandings.

It’s perfectly possible that what they are seeing is the consequence of England holding the vast majority of the British population. But no, Britain is not England, it is all of us, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. It just seems that not everyone likes that idea very much. And I say again, this is sad.

Of course the Union could be restored. It would be difficult, but doable.

“If Scotland votes yes, the UK will split, and we will go our separate ways forever. We must be very clear there’s no going back from this. No re-run. This is a once-and-for-all decision.”

Comments like this, reputedly from the Prime Minister, aren’t helpful. This is because they just aren’t true. If Scotland votes for independence next week, and a few years down the line decides this was a mistake, and as long as the rest of the UK is in agreement, the Union will be re-established. Simple.

We know why people on the ‘No!’ side of the campaign say such things. They do it to put the wind up the undecided. Vote to split the Union and that’s it, over, the end, no going back to the cosy embrace of the Union. It is a political ploy to shore up the vote for the Union.

But this is part of the problem, isn’t it? The sense that Westminster politics ignores the people, takes the electorate for granted, and that politicians play these sorts of games. The thing about parliamentary democracy is that one parliament cannot hold a future parliament to its decisions. If the future government of Scotland, headed by Fraser Nelson, and the future government of rUK, headed by Charles Moore, decided, having been prompted by electoral support, to restore the Union, it will happen.

Of course it will. So why do politicians say what is plainly untrue? Wouldn’t it be better to say that restoration of the Union would, of course, be possible; but that it would be a very difficult process? That way, you get the message across that, a) breaking the Union is not like suspending you membership of the municipal golf club, to be taken up again if you decide you miss golf terribly; and, b) the Union could, though with a great deal of difficulty and wasted effort, be restored.

One reason why I want Scotland to remain in the Union

The thought of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom is depressing for a number of reasons, but, as I’ve mentioned earlier, my thoughts dwell on the future of the Armed Forces. They will be diminished, that much is sure. And I don’t think I could bear the British Army losing its kilts and trews. It will be sad to see the bagpipes go, too, but I accept that not everyone feels the same way on this particular point.

It’s not clear we fully appreciate the impact of Scottish separation on the military capabilities of these islands. Alex Salmond talks like a pacifist. He takes great care to couch his arguments in terms of British warmongering and nuclear arrogance. But he plans to take approximately 10% of British military capability for his putative Scottish defence force. And neither is it clear he understands that separate commands operating in close proximity – for that is what we will have – constitutes serious military weakness.

We can argue the flip side of the nuclear issue: that it is a weapon system that cannot be uninvented, and that it would be irresponsible in the extreme for the democratic west to decommission without securing a guarantee of wider global repudiation, especially from unreliable, authoritarian regimes such as Iran, North Korea and Russia. And we can remind ourselves that recent British military deployments have been supported by Scottish politicians (yes the SNP voted against the Iraq war in 2003, but not all Scottish politicians are SNP) as much as their English counterparts. But this would be too much like talking to Salmond’s hand.

We are well used to hearing that the NHS is our most treasured institution; but perhaps there is another that stands even higher. I refer to the Armed Forces, plus those subordinate institutions that comprise the whole: the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force; our ships, our regiments and our squadrons.

It is hard to see how the Armed Forces can be anything other than weakened if Great Britain breaks up. The services will of course continue to exist in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and in Scotland, as a separate entity), but their diminishment will be even greater than it is now. Some might say ‘Good!’ particularly those who see the services as agents of repression. Sure, there are low points in the history of the Armed Forces, but they are vastly outweighed by the high points. Most Brits, both north and south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, recognise this. To us, the Armed Forces is the institution that stood for freedom against Communism and Nazism in Europe, and against slavery on the High Seas, not to mention quite a few other authoritarian psychopathies of history.

And every time the Armed Forces of these islands fought as one, they fought better – and with greater style. Together we have Arthur Wellesley, mad Irishman, who beat Napoleon, the greatest military commander who ever lived, at his own game; we have mad Lord Lovat’s mad piper, Bill Millin, who played his bagpipes on the beaches of Normandy; and who could forget Douglas Bader, the mad legless English fighter pilot, who enjoyed nothing more than strafing Nazis from his Spitfire; and finally, if this wasn’t enough to subdue the enemy, there was the killer weapon – the Welch regiments and their devastating all-male close harmonies.

The history of the British Armed forces is the richest military history in the world, ever (opinions may vary). To break them up would be a supreme act of vandalism. These islands would be left with armed forces of a sort, but they would be severely diminished. Lets keep them together; lets keep the United Kingdom together too.

The Prime Minister is going to Scotland to debate the Union – and about time

We hear that David Cameron is off to Scotland tomorrow with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. The panic is on. But why has the Prime Minister stayed so aloof from the debate on Scottish independence? He is the Queen’s lead advisor and the head of her government – that is the government of the United Kingdom, of which Scotland is an integral part. Yet he has seen fit to play almost no part in the debate over whether his, our and Her Majesty’s country should be split in half by Scottish separatists. Why?

The answer is actually quite simple, and depressing. He has hitherto been concerned that his posh accent and his southern Tory identity will convince voters to vote ‘Yes!’ even before he’s got his point across. In a way this is understandable; a certain strand of Scottish nationalism has long fed and sustained itself on anti-English and anti-Tory prejudice. It has been a crude calculation, but Cameron has taken the view that it is better to stay away and hope the Scots see sense. It is ironic that this aloofness compounds the stereotype of remote and privileged Englishmen who don’t care one jot for the Scots. They just assume, yah… But he does care, very much.

This is depressing for a number of reasons. The decision not to enter the debate has smacked too much of moral cowardice. That’s a strong charge, and perhaps unjustified, but politics is about ideas and the willingness to get stuck in and argue for those ideas. That cannot be done if you are not prepared to enter the debate and risk the eggs. Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy seems to have no such qualms, even when subjected to serious abuse from the more chauvinistic wing of Scottish nationalism.

It is madness to think people will see the sense in your political manifesto if you are not even prepared to tell them what it is; yet that has been the Prime Minister’s approach. You can see why the strategy meetings concluded this the right way to win the referendum, but the polls are suggesting there is a void that Labour politicians cannot fill by themselves.

It is also depressing because it has left the field open for the Labourites (Liberal Democrats seemed as uninterested as the Conservatives). This is a problem because they are not the solution; they are a significant part of the problem with the Union today. It is Labour anti-Tory rhetoric of the most shameless kind that did much to stoke Scottish resentment and a belief that there is something especially vile about conservatism – but it’s all been politics.

Labour and anti-Tory politics entrenched the myth that the Poll Tax was ‘tested’ on the Scots as if they were mere lab rats. But the real reason was in fact born from a wish to ease the burden of a particularly punitive rate re-evaluation in Scotland. What’s more, Margaret Thatcher only did this because of strong argument from Scottish ministers. But the lab-rat narrative suited Labour’s wish to denigrate their political opponents. Spinning a line was not invented by Blair.

The central problem with left-wing politicians leading the Unionist campaign is that they define their politics largely through anti-British attitudes and measures. They are wedded to the nation-dismantling EU. They wallow in the ‘crimes’ of British history and do their best to link them to Tory politics. They support levels of mass immigration which dilute British cultural cohesion. All these things undermine the very concept of Britishness, so when the Scottish Nationalists come along and say they want an independent Scotland, the counter narrative of British identity no longer seems that appealing, perhaps even irrelevant.

But really! If Conservatives are not prepared to roll their sleeves up and argue the passionate case for the Union of these islands, then it is difficult to see how this can end well. Even if the ‘Yes!’ vote fails to cross the line this time, Salmond and his crew will immediately set their sights on the next vote. Perhaps not for five or ten years, but it will be their lodestar. And they will continue to attack the very concept of Britishness; it will be like a festering sore. Maybe, just maybe David Cameron does understand this. We shall see from his visit tomorrow.