The Debatable Land #6: In Search of Lost Britain
A strange, mysterious place that's harder to find than you might think...
Hello! I’m sorry this week’s newsletter is arriving rather later than is usually the case. I have been laid up in bed with a dose of covid all week and while I’m much better now it has taken a toll on productivity, largely, I think, because covid saps the mind rather more than - at least in my case - it wracks the body. Still, onwards and vaguely upwards and with luck I should escape covid-gaol on Monday…
The land that wasn’t there
A couple of years ago The Atlantic, that venerable America magazine, made good on the promise of its name by expanding, just a little, into the United Kingdom. It hired Helen Lewis and Tom McTague, each of whom are on my list of writers to “Always read, regardless of subject”. Last week the magazine published an essay written by McTague and gave it the headline: “HOW BRITAIN FALLS APART: A road trip through the ancient past and shaky future of the (dis)United Kingdom”. Aye, aye, I thought, let’s have a look at this.
In truth, McTague’s essay is less a taxonomy of the various ways in which the UK might shuffle off to join the Austro-Hungarian empire or the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in the graveyard of history - fine ideas, better than what followed their demise, but very, very dead - as much as it is a mood-essay speculating on some of the forces that might yet cause this demise. It is a fine piece of work and I commend it to you without reservation. Here is the essence of the argument:
The grim reality for Britain as it faces up to 2022 is that no other major power on Earth stands quite as close to its own dissolution…. [Today, it faces] something close to a spiritual crisis….
From England, we ventured north into Scotland, which today feels almost like a foreign country… The overwhelming sense that I came away with from my time in Scotland was one of loss, not enduring stability.
Visiting Scotland today is to very obviously visit a land from which the British state has all but withdrawn. The national industries and national institutions that once existed have gone. By the time we arrived in Glasgow, we’d passed an abandoned British nuclear-research facility and an abandoned British military base. The only signs of the British state were the partially privatised post office, the pound, and the monarchy. Is this really enough?
Boris Johnson leads a government that is for the most part an English one, and only occasionally a British one…
It seems to me that if Britain is to survive, it has to believe that there is such a thing as Britain and act as though that is the case. Joseph Roth wrote that the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy died “not through the empty verbiage of its revolutionaries, but through the ironical disbelief of those who should have believed in, and supported, it.” In time, we might well say the same of Britain.
[…] If my travels are anything to go by, Brexit is unlikely to be the decisive factor either way. Unless people in Scotland believe that they are also British and that the British government and state is their government and state, nothing else matters.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland remains an unusual country, but its vital memories are dying. To survive, it must be more than empty pomp
Do read the whole thing. So of course I loved this and not just because nothing is so sweetly melancholy as decline and few things as romantic as wintry rot. McTague quite reasonably uses “The Leopard”, Lampedusa’s great novel of desiccation, as a frame upon which to hang his essay but he might as easily have cited the final lines of Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings”:
We slowed again, And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
Larkin might be a most English kind of poet but here, ripped from context as it might be, you may find a presentiment of Unionism’s current troubles: “Somewhere becoming rain”. Aye, indeed.
And I admired McTague’s essay because, frankly, in recent years I have devoted some time to writing many of the same things. The United Kingdom is such a strange kind of country it does not even appreciate the depth or scale of the crisis in which it finds itself. But then the English, 85 percent of the population, are a people unusually incurious about their own past, save to the extent it may buttress an idea of its present.
So what follows here is not so much a critique of McTague’s argument as an attempt to sketch some of the ironies and contradictions which have led us to this present moment. A reflection upon his essay, not a repudiation of it.
Because, consider this: there has never been a time since 1707 when a visitor from England could cross the Tweed or Solway without immediately being struck by a sense of moving into a different zone of identity, even of being. Expeditionary journalists are duty bound to note these differences. They have not donned their pith helmets to find continuity or commonality. The difference is the point.
To be sure, these differences are real and often hard. They always have been. They are keenly prized by Unionist Scots as much as they are demanded by those who support independence. For a Scottish idea of Union cannot survive assimilation or the extinguishing of difference. It is not, I think, a surprise that the cults of Wallace and Bruce flowered in the second half of the nineteenth century just as, for in many ways for the first time, Westminster’s grasp reached beyond the border. The key idea, however, was that there need be no contradiction between Scotchness and Britishness; indeed the latter might be soil in which the former could flower.
Despite everything, that sentiment endures. The 2014 referendum was not an argument between Scotland and Britain but, rather, a dispute over different ways of being Scottish. While many voters rejected independence on the basis of its unnecessary risks, the single greatest reason for voting No was an attachment to dual identity. If this was prudent, it was also interesting. Any fool may be a nationalist; it takes a different kind to be a Unionist.
As so often, many things may be true. Opinion polls suggesting 45-50 percent of Scottish voters favour independence are an obvious demonstration of crisis. Yet so much attention is paid to this that insufficient space is left for examining something which, given this crisis is now universally accepted, may actually be more surprising: Unionism’s resilience.
This resilience may, as the SNP avers, be the last wheezing chorus of an old song. More than 60 percent of Scots under 50 support independence; the old-time religion is kept alive by pensioners and, sure, how sustainable is that in the medium-term let alone a longer-view? A fair question.
Yet, hark: despite the quadruple-whammy of Iraq, financial meltdown, Brexit and Boris Johnson - each of them, in their different ways, a demonstration of state failure on an impressive, if dispiriting, scale - Unionism endures. Unsteadily, perhaps, but it endures nonetheless. If it is axiomatic that Britain is failing, it might be interesting to know why 50-55 percent of Scots still believe in it. At least, they believe in it at some level. The dug that didnae bark is more interesting than the one which did.
Add covid - a bona fide disaster - to the mix and the Union’s continuing vitality may seem more surprising still. This is not a matter of fiscal largesse or state-accountancy - though it is this too - but something deeper: Nicola Sturgeon cannot have a second referendum on independence because, despite winning election after election, the people of Scotland have not consented to a referendum. (The 2014 plebiscite was accepted even by those who wished it might never happen; that gave it the legitimacy is required and the absence of that consent is what constrains Sturgeon now, not Boris Johnson’s indifference.)
As an imaginative idea, then, Britain’s leathery old hands still grip more firmly than you might expect. And look, this is important too: Scotland and England have never been more alike than they are now. We do not see Britain in Scotland now because it is, in at least some important respects, the common water in which we swim.
The Britishness of Scotland may often be hidden but it is still there and sometimes to a degree unthinkable in past times. Consider this: the English are Scotland’s largest minority. There are half a million people born in England living in Scotland and while some of these will consider themselves Scots it remains the case that, measured by non-Scottish birthplace, there are more people in Scotland born in England than there are from the rest of the world combined. Modern Britain is not a place in which every road leads to London for there are as many English living north of the border as there are Scots south of it.
Other similarities also go unremarked upon. It is a long time since we ceased to believe in God but the almighty’s demise in Scotland is more significant than his (or, sure, her) eclipse in England. As anyone schooled even for a moment by the Church of Scotland may tell you, the Anglican church was only a pretendy church anyway. We did things differently and more strictly and better here. (A reminder that Unionism requires the assertion of a certain Caledonian moral superiority just as surely as nationalism does). No traveller from the south could ever fail to be aware of Scotland’s difference and not just on the sabbath either. The kirk, not parliament, was the dominant institution.
All with Ninevah and Tyre now and, as I have previously remarked, is it entirely coincidental that the rise of modern Scottish nationalism coincides with both the discovery of North Sea Oil and the beginning of god’s demise as a going concern? I fancy not in as much as the decline of a spiritual - and cultural - sense of Scottish distinctiveness opened a path to the political expression of that distinction. (The SNP’s success is built on sensibility, not policy.)
In 1988 the Claim of Right - a text of unsurpassable humbug but nonetheless, or perhaps on account of this, arguably the key document published during the campaign for a Scottish parliament - quietly implied this too, sonorously declaring that “the Union has always been, and remains, a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland”. Guff, not least since this was a document calling for devolution not independence, and guff easily refuted by the continued existence of a distinct Caledonian sensibility. But revealing nonsense, too, in as much as it gives voice to certain assumptions - even certain prejudices - upon which much else may be built.
Hence this Janus-faced truth: Scotland and England have both never been more alike - popular culture, like the Scottish and English high streets, is largely proof of this and even where local variations arise they are rule-proving more than rule-breaking - and this Britannic flattening is both easy to live with and a source of irritation.
Wheels turn, however. If Britain seems recessional now - and it does - it is, in part, because its highpoint is within living memory. Empire and the world wars built one idea of Britain and the post-WW2 nationalisations constructed another. All, in different ways, belong to history now. If 1914-79 (or, more provocatively, 1939-79) marked the zenith of Britishness as a state matter, the retreat from that takes us to a place that is in some senses alien to us but also strangely in tune with the greater part of post-1707 British history. On a long, long view the twentieth century might be thought the exceptional era and our 21st century Britain is, as an imaginative space, sometimes closer to the 19th century than the 20th.
For the greater part of two centuries Westminster largely left Scotland to its own devices and for much of that time this suited Scotland tolerably well. The slow rise of mass democracy and mass politics helped put an end to that but the idea of Britain as a kind of joint enterprise nonetheless flourished. The cartoon above is a reminder of that even if - “United we stand” - it is also vigorously opposed to Irish Home Rule.
Fast forward 120 years or so and covid has required some folk at Westminster to learn something about the realities of their own country. Or countries. As McTague notes, for much of this emergency Boris Johnson has only been prime minister of England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have been free, within certain financial limits, to do their own thing. For perhaps the first time, people in England have been required to discover something called “Four Nations”. If there is a degree of conceit here - and there is - it is also an imaginative return to the kind of polity familiar from Victorian and Edwardian cartoons: Caledonia and Hibernia and Britannia all feature together (even if not always happily).
For it isn’t actually “four nations” but “five”. England, Scotland, Wales, (Northern) Ireland, and the idea of Britain itself. This is a pick-n-mix range of identities for a pick-n-mix, deeply unusual, country. Pre-modern in its multinationalism; modern in its multiculturalism which itself is a different, older, kind of multiculturalism to that often meant by the term. (Then again, a trip to 95 percent white Scotland is also a trip back in time to a different kind of Britain too.)
Politically this is problematic, at least for those who have a weakness for uniformity. Imaginatively, however, it might be liberating. Difference is not proof of failure - even where policy leads to disagreeable outcomes - so much as it is proof of concept. Like the Trinity, Britain is multiple and singular concurrently. The trick is to see that as an opportunity but this in turn requires a certain relaxation of the mind.
Initiatives designed to galvanise a new sense of Britishness will fail (especially if they are in any way polluted by Brexit) mostly because most of them will be risible. You cannot win an identity war by asserting the supremacy of an identity rejected by so many of those you seek to impress. What will matter will be what will work: Britain’s survival, then, is in part dependent upon the solid, secure, successful management of the British state. Clearly, then, we have a problem.
Even so, we should appreciate our ironies: it is precisely because they are so British that so many Scots wish to shed themselves of their Britishness and it is precisely because they are so Scottish that Unionists feel unthreatened by any over-arching idea of Britain.
The British thing to do, however, is to cease banging on about Britain. Journalists may be exempted from this stricture (yes, special-pleading: what of it?) but politicians are required to rise above it. There is a story to be told here but it must be done quietly and with tact and historical perspective. It is the united Kingdom’s difficulty that those entrusted with its maintenance are largely devoid of these qualities. But that, perhaps, is stuff for another day. There is, despite it all, more blood and life in the old girl yet than many currently care to think.
Buy Starmer, Sell a 2023 election
Political stocks go up and down like any other and, like companies, they are sorted into different categories too. Sir Keir Starmer has never been what you would consider a “growth” stock. He is not sexy or flashy or a great disruptor or even, really, the future. No-one buys Starmer in the hope of making extravagant, market-eclipsing, returns. What you see is largely what you get. He is a “value” stock if ever there was one.
Well, “value” is suddenly in fashion and not just on the world’s stock markets either. The New Year has seen a sharp fall in enthusiasm for “growth” stocks promising jam tomorrow as investors reappraise long-unfashionable “value” shares that offer the safety of real, if plodding, returns now. As always, the wheel turns.
And so, all of a sudden, it is dawning on people that a Labour victory at the next election may be under-priced too. Here is the current state of play as measured by Electoral Calculus:
[Note that this does not include the Northern Ireland seats but the SDLP (2 MPs at present) and the Alliance party (1 MP in 2019) could reasonably be expected to support a Labour government and in any case Labour would not necessarily need a formal coalition to govern quite effectively as a minority government. The SNP could only damage Labour by allying themselves with the Conservatives. That might come at a price.]
Labour’s lead in the polls may be temporary and it is true that Labour currently looks good chiefly because the Tories look so bad. Labour’s growth is part of the story but not as large as portion of it as the Tory’s self-inflicted decline.
Nevertheless there are other reasons, structural and historic, to suppose that despite their 80-seat majority the next election could be trickier for the Conservatives than everyone assumed back in the far-distant, innocent, days of December 2019.
This isn’t really a Covid problem save to the extent to which the public’s exhaustion seeks an outlet in protesting against the government. It is a time problem. By 2024 - I think it most unlikely there will be an election before then - the Conservatives will have been in power, albeit under three different prime ministers, for 14 years. Long enough and certainly long enough to make a compelling “Time for a Change” argument. That will be a harder charge to make if Johnson is replaced as Tory leader but it will still be a credible one.
And it is a charge likely to be given greater force by the events of 2022. Inflation, tax increases, rocketing fuel bills, higher mortgage (and credit card) rates: all of these will combine to make a recession-sized hit on household disposable income even if the economy continues to grow overall.
Combine that with the government’s palpable lack of an agenda and you create a situation in which the question “What is this government actually for?” becomes a good and haunting point. In such circumstances Labour does not have to do nearly so much - at least not yet - as Starmer’s critics suggest it does. At some point, certainly, Labour must have some ideas but its big selling point at the next election will be “stability” and “we can do a bit better than this”. Granted, that lacks excitement but, for the time being anyway, exciting things are suspicious things.
I know very little about Kazakhstan but this week I learnt that 18 percent of the world’s Bitcoins are mined there. Also this:
If Kazakh rap is your thing - and, look, it could be - this song, which @ymatusik calls “a hyper political and satirical track from 2020 mocking incompetent and corrupt Kazakh elites” has had more than 40 million YouTube views since December 2020. No, I don’t know what it means but I suspect it must mean something.
They still have Teletext in the Netherlands! And on the web too! (Also: when you see snippets of Dutch presented in this form you get a clearer-than-ever understanding of how closely connected English - and Scots - are to low German etc etc)
Political Compass: Edwardian Edition! (I scored as a Lloyd George Liberal, FWIW, which was mildly disappointing. I think.)
Duncan Robinson is the new custodian of The Economist’s Bagehot column and his first outing is a beezer: “Two centuries ago David Ricardo came up with the notion of comparative advantage, that countries should focus on producing goods and services in areas where they are relatively efficient. Britain’s politicians have turned this on its head: comparative disadvantage is in vogue.”
Mr Johann Hari, alas, is back and armed with another booky-wooky arguing that we’ve all lost the power to concentrate and all the usual villains - social media, capitalism etc etc - are to blame. As a pal observed, if this is true how does one explain Fortnite Kids? Anyway, Stuart Ritchie has read Hari’s work so you don’t have to. Conclusion: “If he’s right to say that our moments of focus are becoming ever-more precious, isn’t it time we started paying attention to someone — anyone — else?”
Jonathan Chait patiently explains a simple thing which ought not require explaining but, at least in America, increasingly does: fascism and conservatism are not actually identical. “The idea that conservatives can’t pursue their policy goals democratically is dangerous. Treating all conservative politics as undemocratic is paradoxically to reinforce that poisonous belief.”
Lyle Lovett, a pony and a boat. A song which always makes me smile.
That’s all for this week, folks. As ever, thanks for being here and were you to recommend this newsletter to chums I’d be very grateful. See you next time. If we remain spared.