Britishness is about pop and fish ‘n’ chips
KENNY FARQUHARSON identifies an emotive case for the Union that has so far eluded Unionist politicians
IN MANY interviews down the years, usually when rebutting suggestions of latent anti-Englishness within the SNP, Alex Salmond has been fond of describing himself as an anglophile.
This has always puzzled me, because I’ve seen little sign of it. Salmond’s cultural reference points, in as much as they can be discerned, contain nothing that suggests an abiding love of the green and pleasant land furth of the Tweed. His political hero, Charles Stewart Parnell, is an Irishman. His favourite poet, RS Thomas, is Welsh. His favourite singer, the wonderful Paul Robeson, is American. When Salmond was on Desert Island Discs his musical choices were, for the most part, predictably Caledonian. He holidays on Colonsay. His favourite book from last year was James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still.
True, Salmond loved his time as an MP in London, preferring it in many ways to being an MSP in Edinburgh. But I always put this down to his love of the clubbable atmosphere in the House of Commons and the relative absence of aggressive Scottish reporters, rather than the ability to amble around picturesque villages in Sussex and Cambridgeshire, or frequent the Royal Academy and National Theatre. But we must take the first minister at his word, so an anglophile he must be.
Maybe it’s just as well. Salmond’s deep appreciation of all things English may ultimately prove to be a political asset. Because it seems to me that the English may have more of an influence on the debate about Scotland’s future than any of us may have realised.
I came to this conclusion while watching BBC’s Newsnight last Monday, when most of the UK-networked section of the programme was devoted to the prospect of Scottish independence, and its potential consequences for England. I admit, I switched on with a heavy heart, expecting little in the way of enlightenment. I was wrong.
What surprised me was the tone struck by most of the English participants as they put the case for the survival of the United Kingdom. Frankly, it was a far more subtle and persuasive argument for the Union than I’ve ever heard from any Scottish Unionist politician. Instead of the usual scaremongering, number-bashing and constitutional nitpicking, what we were treated to was less an argument and more an emotional response, a very human reaction to a potentially momentous political event. One of the participants was Don Letts, the black British musician and film-maker who was a collaborator with The Clash and was influential in the marriage of punk and reggae that was one of the most interesting aspects of music in the late 1970s. He rejected a suggestion that a Scots breakaway would be a good thing for English identity. No thanks, he said. That was “a step backwards”. He was more comfortable being British.
And how was this Britishness defined? According to the English people in the audience it was predicated on common British values: tolerance; diversity; shared endeavour; unity; moderation; fair play; innovation; solidarity. All were presented as good reasons for the nations of these islands to stick together, to accentuate what we had in common rather than what divided us. The participants were clearly unsettled by the prospect of this commonality being lost. The idea saddened them.
I’ve never heard a Unionist argument this effective in 20 years of covering Scottish politics. Sometimes, it seems, you don’t know what you’ve got until you see it defined by someone else. This argument for the survival of Britain does, I believe, have real resonance for Scots. It rings true, and is far more effective than the usual politics of fear.
Gordon Brown, aided and abetted by Douglas Alexander, spent a lot of time trying to define a positive sense of modern Britishness and failed to come up with something this persuasive, and with such an emotional tug. They failed to convince because they concentrated unduly on the influence of great British institutions such as the National Health Service, the Welfare State and the shared experience of the Second World War. These have their place in the British mindmap, but they are tired memes whose power to move people is limited and diminishing.
Far more important, and much more resonant, and almost completely unexplored by Scottish politicians arguing the case for the Union, is the sense of Britishness that was on display on Newsnight last week. And that’s before we factor in the shared popular culture that Brown and Alexander simply didn’t have a feel for. More powerful than the NHS, Lancaster bombers, the monarchy and the British Legion, are alternative emblems such as Blue Peter, the Grand National, fish’n’chips and – most powerful of all – the cultural heft of half a century of distinctively British pop music.
The emotional power of this alternative definition of Britishness is a problem for the SNP. Because the Nationalists now make a very strict distinction between the ‘social’ Union (a good thing) and the ‘political’ Union (a bad thing). Increasingly, the fight for Scottish independence rests on the SNP’s ability to drive a wedge between these two aspects of Britishness, to persuade Scots they can have the social Union in all its warmth and richness, and still live in an politically independent Scotland.
That’s a tall order, because the referendum on independence is not going to be a coldly analytical argument about constitutions – it will be a tug-of-war of emotions, identities and loyalties. And the SNP cannot bring innate Scots patriotism into play without also allowing the innate sense of British belonging. Here’s to a fascinating voyage of self-discovery.
Kenny Farquharson is Deputy Editor of Scotland on Sunday, where this column was originally published. Follow Kenny on Twitter at @KennyFarq.