Saturday, 13 September 2014

1000 Words to Screw the Union: Against Yes and No in the Scottish Referendum

The Queen: symbolically efficient

Until a a few days ago the only remarkable thing about the debate over Scottish independence was the orderly manner in which the media had conducted the whole row. Carping on the Right there may inevitably have been, but the immovable objects of civilised opinion - from the Times to the Economist - were largely sanguine. Predictably though, as the No-lead narrowed in the run-up to the vote, the whole of the British establishment ground cohesively into action. The usual hysterics of the Daily Mail ("10 Days to Save the Union!") were tempered in familiar fashion by more sober economic reservations; a raft of quality dailies (the Independent to name but one) confidently republishing the idle threats of mass relocation by top firms and banks. Whatever shrill cries met the narrowing polls, there was an underlying sense of business as usual. Heaping the pressure on referenda - always sneered at for their unintricate populism - is well rehearsed; more a matter of routine than an expression of fear at the impending outcome, the result of which has never been in great doubt.

A few days from now the British establishment expects the Union to be popularly reaffirmed, its existence rubber-stamped for at least another generation. The fear pummelled into the electorate will no doubt have played its part in this. Yet the job was completed long before by the ineptitudes of the "Salmondite insurgency" (to coin a not very convincing phrase) and its uninspiring cheerleaders. The No campaign - headed by Alistair Darling - has been no more interesting at the level of ideas, but they are at least excused the burden of proof. After all, the proof is there in the United pudding. What has de facto been offered by the two sides is either the continuation of a political and constitutional existence no one really understands, or an even more opaque and fiddly set of new divisions. Neither holds out much hope for what, time and again, the British public says it wants: decent jobs and a functioning state. The SNP's historic gamble is that enough Scots will conclude that deepened insulation from Westminster talons will clear space for both of these to grow independently of specific internal arrangements. The pose of national liberator assumed by Salmond remains unconvincing, even for many committed to Scotland's distinctive claim to nationhood. W.H. Auden once advised,

"One should never give a poisoner medicine
A conjurer fine apparatus
A rifle to a melancholic bore."

Nor, one might add, the dream of a nation to a national dreamer.


What might, in the most optimistic of assessments, the legacy of the independence vote be? The obvious and intended one, though still not impossible, slightly stretches the rubric of optimism (seguing into blind faith). Rather, the vote risks reminding the English above all that the mysterious power of the British state - what Tom Nairn calls "Ukania" - can yet be demystified. In other words, and as Nairn has repeatedly forecast, a jolt may be delivered to the English in what George Orwell described as their "deep sleep." Guaranteeing this sleep since the end of the War - through decolonisation and de-industrialisation; mass unemployment and mass immigration; corruption and crisis - has been the dream-image of "the people" generated by its resilient ruling class. The very success of the symbolism of the British state - the pomp of Monarchy to the fore - has shielded the flimsy and at times baffling constitutional reality of the United Kingdom from too piercing a popular gaze. The Union's symbolic unity in the face of otherwise complete Imperial decline both insulated the population from the effects of its colonial losses and helped reproduce the legitimacy of the ruling class.

Time was when the Monarchy went unloved by a liberal bourgeoisie that, though it commanded the media, did not yet command the state. An obituary for George IV read: "There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king." Not the words of a radical-democratic pamphleteer but those of a Times obituarist. The essayist Walter Bagehot in the Economist took to calling the Prince of Wales an "unemployed youth." (These quotes are taken from David Cannadine's illuminating essay on the British monarchy from 1820-1977) Indeed Bagehot advocated a ceremonially refined and symbolically efficient monarchy, which after 1870 he would get. As popular suffrage expanded and the Empire grew, the Monarchy developed into a powerful modern political symbol. No royal family in the world commands such deep respect today as the Windsors. The unassailable position of this tribe in popular lore has acted - especially since the loss of the institutional clarity given by colonial administration - as a veil over the internal confusion of the state proper. Its material effect since the 1950s has been to knot the Union together by sublimating the complexities of the constitution within itself. A challenge to the Union in the form of Scottish Nationalism is also a de facto challenge to the zombified imperial state-without-an-empire which has been quietly elevated from view these past seventy years. The Postwar contradictions buried within the British state are finally rippling its surface. A reminder that the British State is neither ethereal nor eternal, but quite material and deeply inegalitarian, may yet prove worthwhile.


The arguments around the Scottish vote have underlined the paucity of the British political imagination, capable of serving up only post-imperial pomp or anti-imperial ethnicity. Needless to say, neither will do a proper job of governance in the modern, multicultural world. Wary of falling into the trap of Austrian Marxists who advocated the prolongation of the Hapsburg Empire in the hope of some future democratic federalism developing in imperial territory, I hardly wish to come out in favour of the British state. Nor do I wish to deny the strength of national feeling - surprisingly widespread - on the part of both the British and the Scots. My point is simply that the solutions on offer reproduce the old imperial mystifications and do nothing to advance the social welfare or political interests of either the British or Scottish people. The English songwriter Billy Bragg has suggested the English "take down the Union Jack" and approach the Scots for advice:

"Ask our Scottish neighbours
If independence looks any good
They just might have some clues
About what it really means to be
An Anglo hyphen Saxon in"

It may be that the Scottish nation has a few things to say to its English neighbours. After the vote, however, one wonders if Scotland - indeed the whole Ukania-sphere - will feel any more illuminated on matters of sovereignty than it did before. Another opportunity tripped-over then.

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