Partial transcript: Liberty & the National Question

Below is a talk by Gerry Hassan from the Liberty and the National Question session.

Gerry Hassan: What is the UK? British political science says that the UK is a unitary state. But it is not: it is what’s called a union state. A union state is shaped by national and regional differentiation beginning with 1707 and the negotiation of Scots autonomy, the retention of pre-union rights and so on. These are political concepts known across the world, yet the political centre has increasingly understood the UK as this unitary, regimented state. It has forgotten the evolving unionisms that have held us together. It has increasingly become a neo-liberal space, polity, and state dedicated to the furtherance of neoliberalism which prioritises certain kinds of economic relationships. 

What was Britishness in the past? It was a popular project. It wasn’t just a Tory project. There was a progressive version of it, a Labour story about working people getting a fairer deal, and income redistributed across the isles to areas that needed it. This Britain would take us out of feudalism and the Dark Ages to a better opportunity for all. There was an emotional strand to that and there was also a spiritual and metaphysical strand. People saw the 1953 coronation as a national communion, and there were a set of stories around that that meant something at a popular level, linking a political and an everyday discourse. It was thirty years ago that Tom Nairn wrote about the break-up of Britain but we are obviously still living through that in the UK. But something major has happened to it quite recently. Britishness still exists at a governmental and an elite level. But a gut emotional unionism is no longer there, and the stories and narratives told about Britishness are increasingly threadbare, and problematic often to the point of being laughable – as in ‘golden thread of liberty’. The Brown project seems to be straight out of the Ladybird books, and has some essential lacunae – it misses talking about London, the world city; it never talks about Ireland; and there I no mention that we are still living with the defeat of British imperialism in 1921. 

The laughable nature of this only crept in with the failure of a ‘new Britishness’ project which did hold out some hope in 1997 around new Labour. Maybe we were kidding ourselves at the time because a lot of it was risible even then: Britain TM, Creative Britain, Cool Britannia. How we laughed even then. But there was seriousness around a political project. There had been Charter88 which hadn’t quite won over new Labour to a different model of popular sovereignty. But there was a programme around decentralism and a sense that a different kind of country and political culture was possible. 

Why didn’t it happen? It is too easy to say that Tony Blair didn’t understand constitutional reform. Or even that the ‘war on terror’ got in the way. Some things much deeper were at work and I think they go to the heart of what the UK is. There had been an erosion of the old gentlemanly checks and balances as the state got larger, and those fell into abeyance at the same time as the gentlemanly model of capitalism, with all its problems, was taken to a level of utter grotesqueness. In the gap created, there has arisen this misunderstanding of the UK as this unitary state -  by both the politicians and the civil servants and most of the UK’s media. This gives us an over-reaching, unreformed centre which misunderstands the set of the relationships that it has with the rest of us – and then, as I mentioned, to cap it all there is the neoliberal state. 

So – some thoughts on sovereignty, voice and power. I am generalising and summarising here, but the majority public opinion and the political elites of Scotland and Wales generally know they are living in a union, the United Kingdom. They have that union state view, and they have a shared post-nationalist idea of sovereignty, such that even if Scotland becomes independent, its sovereignty wouldn’t be absolute. But in England, certainly at the level of the political class, they are still obsessed with old-fashioned notions of sovereignty. They have no idea that they are living in a union. The union the English political class live in, of course is the European Union, and that they see as a threat, precisely to that absolutist view of sovereignty. They are right to do so. Some of us would see that very threat as an opportunity for something better. The Scots and the Welsh and the Northern Irish have our own active ideas and embodiments of popular sovereignty in our national, devolved bodies. England has neither voice nor power. 

This makes for a very confused picture and it looks unsustainable. Yet one answer would be to say: The English question only needs to be answered if the English want to answer it. As Robert Hazell said: “It’s not an exam test: you don’t have to sit it.” And even if you want to answer it, you don’t have to go down the same route as the devolved Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You can express it, instead of in devolved institutions, in terms of culture and identity. But the relationship of Englishness and Britishness is crucial. The Tories were once brilliant at managing that balancing act between the two, at least until Thatcher came to power. Labour, historically, have tried to subsume all indentities into this British project of which Brown’s is just the latest version. But the status quo -  the unitary state on a neoliberal model – isn’t sustainable in the long-term. The challenge, the hope, as Raphael Samuel put it, is to “invent a new set of island stories” that can evolve a level of Britishness in which there is some kind of political cooperation and cultural areas, but could also put in place all sorts of different sets of governmental and democratic relationships – four separate nations; Scotland being independent and England finding a new identity with other nations and a new name if United Kingdom goes. Whatever it is – clearly the old model needs to be killed off and a stake driven through its heart.   

There are many different Englands out there and we have to hope that whatever happens we are not left with the Rupert Murdoch playground. There are many different Scotlands and Wales’ and Northern Irelands too. It is true that in Scotland, for all its faults, the SNP Government is the most social democratic government in the UK, beginning with saying no to PFI-PPP. Within the limitations of the Scottish settlement and the limitations of the SNP, it has broadly developed a centre-left politics that New Labour would not have dared to have advanced post-1997. There are problems. There is a homogenising project in Scotland, advanced by the SNP which involves piling everything into one Scottish identity basket. This seems to me, as a Scottish nationalist, to be just taking one problem area, the British project, and putting it into another one. So the SNP will take one of our most successful plays – Blackwatch – a play about the Iraq war and a regiment of Scottish soldiers who were involved in the attack on Fallujah and disbanded by the Blair Government – and use it to invoke one, over-prioritising Scottish identity. Those of us who want a different Scotland that is self-determining and that challenges Westminster, will have to resist those nuances within the SNP too.  

Meanwhile, there is a fundamental problem about how the left think of England, which isn’t just a fear of xenophobia and racism. It is a fear that England is an innately Conservative country and that if Scotland and Wales are not somehow kept on board, you will be left high and dry. It isn’t true – England voted only once by a majority for the Conservatives. That was in 1955 and in that year a Scottish majority voted the same way because the Tories were just very popular in that year.   

What is at heart here within the small nation project is a set of conflicts between minority nationalisms and majority nationalism. Gordon Brown is a majority British nationalist and majority nationalisms very rarely understand that they are that when they say, “Grow up and join the real world!” or “You’re all separatists and you want divorce!” We have got to recognise the way that kind of majority nationalism is problematic around the world.

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