I will never forget that day in England 70 years ago, Tuesday, May 8, 1945. There was a peerless blue sky and as much free lemonade as I could drink, along with as many cakes as resourceful mothers could produce—remarkably, considering that food rationing had reduced the supply of tasty goodies to an occasional, almost illicit trickle. It was VE Day and for us it was the equivalent of a block party.
The war was over in Europe. For five years my schoolboy’s world view had been shaped by the news, invariably read on the “wireless” by posh BBC voices—a reliable, patrician, and stoic source of information about events good and bad, filtered through censorship but always quintessentially British: “Keep calm and carry on.”
The BBC had educated me on faraway places better than any atlas or teacher, reporting fearsome battles from Tripoli to Corregidor, from Stalingrad to New Guinea. My daily diet of global geography was supplemented by the more immediate personal experience of war. Early on, I watched, from 30 miles away, London burning in the blitz and later, more directly, the random and far closer impact of missiles, first the “doodle bug” V1 and then the V2 rockets that fell at such velocity from the stratosphere that nobody heard them coming, sometimes killing hundreds in one blast. My father narrowly escaped a hit and gave a grisly account of its effects.
In London and southeast England the V2 attacks ended only in late March 1945, so our VE Day celebration was very much that of people who had lived under bombardment in the civilian frontline for years, not merely a reverie honoring the lives of loved ones no longer at risk in distant battlefields. Few families had escaped without a loss of someone—in my case it was my mother’s brother, an RAF pilot, whose absence cast a pall that lasted for years and robbed me of the most exciting uncle I ever had.
But there was no gloom at our party. Synthetic cream congealed with jam on the lips and chins of the youngest as they were allowed to stuff themselves. They were too new to the joys of gluttony to be able to sing. The rest of us, having shown a little more restraint with the cakes, sang the lyrics already imbibed as rote at school: Jerusalem, the William Blake poem put to music by Sir Hubert Parry at the height of First World War jingoism; Land of Hope And Glory, an Edwardian burst of national pride composed shamelessly, at royal request, by Sir Edward Elgar; and, of course, God Save The King, a national anthem of resolute banality that few have ever really enjoyed.
Three weeks later this spirit of native exceptionalism had its apotheosis in the form of Empire Day—the same music but this time at school when on this day each year our teachers pointed to the world map and picked out huge areas marked in pink, the colonies and dominions of the British Empire, which, as the teachers always affirmed, occupied at least a quarter of the earth. (Pity about that bit across the Pond that was carelessly lost in the 18th century.) By 1945 there was a little less conviction in the permanence of this arrangement. Winston Churchill, the greatest wartime leader anyone ever had, was unable to imagine the loss of India, “the jewel in the crown”, and partly because of his failure to represent the future rather than the glories of the past, he lost the 1945 general election.
The war had rendered Britain virtually bankrupt. Colonialism was an apparatus too costly to sustain—and it did not sit comfortably with the ethic of liberation that had driven the war.
One thing that seemed never to be in doubt, though, was the unity of Britain itself. God Save The King was not the anthem of England, it was the anthem of the United Kingdom. The flag that had colored, in multitudes, every street in the land on VE Day was the Union Jack. The flag was a lamination of constituent identities—the red cross of St. George, for England; the white saltire of St. Andrew for Scotland; and the red saltire of St. Patrick for Ireland. Sainthood in triplicate. What could possibly tear this fealty apart?
Well, as it turns out, Scotland could.
David Cameron, back in Downing Street with a totally unpredicted Conservative majority, could well turn out to be the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. There is no hung parliament, as feared. But there is a new tribe in Westminster—56 members of the Scottish Nationalist Party. The three main nationally-based parties, the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats, are each left with only one seat in Scotland. It’s a wipe-out. In Scotland, the Scots rule.
And there is no doubt what ultimately the Scottish tribe wants: Independence and the end of the union.
Although the Scots rejected secession from the union in a referendum last September by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, a poll conducted for The Economist showed that almost half of Britons expect that Scotland will be independent within 20 years—there is, apparently, already a majority for independence among those Scots aged under 50. And, indeed, within months of the referendum, the SNP was acting as though it had already turned defeat into victory.
Much of the resurgence in Scottish political clout is due to the SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon. She was impressive during the election campaign. On the one occasion when she appeared in a TV debate with David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband I thought she gave both of them a lesson in self-assurance and lucidity. Nobody embodies and articulates Scottish resentment toward England more formidably. In her red suits and with a jaw as firmly set as another politician she closely resembles, Angela Merkel of Germany, Sturgeon is the ultimate Scottish avenger for all the English predations, both real and perceived—Braveheart in a tailored skirt instead of a kilt.
The trouble is that this kind of animus, while it plays well to the crowd, isn’t remotely politically negotiable. Even worse, it sets up a counter-response in the rest of the union and, particularly, in the English. Just why, the English demand to know, are the Scots such peevish ingrates?
Indeed, it seems to me that, as Sturgeon rode the wave of inevitable victory she overplayed her hand. Her main objective, she said, was to get Cameron out of Downing Street. She assumed—along with the pollsters—that with no party winning a majority she would be able to form a left-wing arrangement with the Labour Party and send Cameron packing. Instead, the English woke up, as though they had suddenly remembered the words of a stirring poem by G.K. Chesterton—“We are the people of England, and we have not spoken yet.”
Well, now they have. And they didn’t want the Scots, representing 15 percent of the electorate, dictating an outcome to the remaining 85 percent. Enough already.
Unlike the English, the Scots already have their own parliament. It is responsible for education, which has always been to a high standard in Scotland, for running the free National Health Service, social services, and for much of economic development. Defense and national economic policy remain in London, but the Scottish members of the British Parliament have historically had great influence over national policies. Many of them have served as cabinet ministers and several as prime minister.
The Scots wangled for themselves a combination of regional and national powers that no other part of the United Kingdom enjoys. But they want more, including “fiscal autonomy,” which means the ability to raise taxes and dispense the result. This will be too much for the English to swallow.
The English are not fans of the way the Scots use theater in the game of pretending to have an inviolate culture of their own handed down over eons—the wardrobe of national identity that is paraded ad nauseam, the clan tartans, the dirk in the socks, the tassles on the kilt, bibulous banquets honoring the national dish concocted of sheep offal called haggis, the ferocious bearded visage of the suicidal charging infantry driven forward by the squawk of bagpipes.
And the English note that along with these distinctive habits there is an odd and very selective social pathology that Scottish self-government has done absolutely nothing to rectify—one of Europe’s worst national mortality rates and, in Glasgow, an inner-city locality, Calton, with a male life expectancy of only 54 years (for the city as a whole it’s 71.8 years).
It is, though, notable that as the Scots have perfected their wailing, ornery national pageants the English have nothing much to signify with equal clarity what being English means. There is no national costume and no longing as in Scotland to relive battles to keep alive irredentism that is centuries old and completely irrelevant to the challenges of the times.
The one thing you’ll hear the English point out in this heritage contest is that they have been a whole nation for at least a thousand years before the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 (and they will point out that until 1707 the Scots had been little more than an unsteady alliance of psychopathic tribes).
But there is actually some doubt about how far the continuity of England really extends—and an increasing debate about what this means.
For example, the first stamp of coherence on England is generally reckoned to have been the work of the Romans, who arrived at what later became the site of London on the banks of the river Thames at around 40 AD. The Romans built the first national infrastructure—a network of roads linking all of their garrisons. (After several attempts to civilize the Scots they gave up, building Hadrian’s Wall to keep the barbarians out.)
But the Romans upped and left Britain after 400 years for a variety of reasons, some to do with internal stresses in their empire and some with English intransigence. Then something remarkable happened. London, which the Romans had fashioned into a thriving and sophisticated metropolis, disappeared for 200 years.
Why? I’ve been investigating. I talked to archaeologists who are trying to explain this phenomenon with a new surge of excavations enabled by the construction of a vast new mass transit system, Crossrail. As immense tunneling machines churn through the layers of London’s history the archaeologists follow.
They make two points that have bearing on notions of English national identity.
The first is that the country seemed to function quite effectively for two centuries without anything resembling an urban center. In effect, this period represented the ultimate in devolved power—there was no center and there was no central ruling class. The country was agrarian and, apparently, occupied by self-sufficient tribes.
The second discovery is ethnic. For a long while it has been believed that the English were reinforced in their character by cross-breeding at the hands of successive waves of invaders—the Germans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. However, when archaeologists recently compared the DNA of people living in England in 1500 with remains from Bronze Age inhabitants (3200 to 600 BC) there was an unexpectedly high level of continuity. Rape and pillage left very little trace.
In any event, after the Industrial Revolution cities came into their own and of all the cities it was London that grew to be an international powerhouse and it is London, at least symbolically, that the Scots now feel represents English dominance both politically and economically, to their disadvantage.
On the numbers, they might seem to have a case. By 2012 London’s output by gross value added per capita was 175 percent of the British average. The combined property markets of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are worth only about the same as a combined 10 of the 32 boroughs that make up London.
But numbers miss the cultural lesson of London’s success. More than a third of London’s population is foreign-born, and more than 300 languages are in everyday use, so it’s not actually English in the way that Scottish fury at inequality may imply. Viewed from London, Scottish nationalism is a bout of reactionary parochialism that’s out of place in the modern world and, if triumphant, would consign Scotland to the fate of a peripheral Ruritania like Luxembourg, with the natives addicted to strange costumes and rituals to assert their independence.
But, of course, the departure of Scotland from the union would seriously diminish the weight of the kingdom as a whole. The alarm that this prospect causes is deeply felt. As The Economist put it: “If England, Scotland and the rest retain any ambition to have a say in the world, culturally and commercially if to a diminishing extent militarily, Britain is their beautifully appointed tool.”
Without Scotland, England would be reduced to a rump state, psychologically like an amputee still feeling a ghost limb but no longer able to use it. England itself would be the last of those “pink bits” that we once celebrated in my school assemblies with the sturdy choruses of Elgar and Blake to reinforce the belief that we were part of a very special and wholesome arrangement that kept the world in a civilized balance.
Après nous, le déluge.