Englishness and the Scottish Independence Referendum

cameron clegg miliband

I grew up in England, and I am completely, 100%, incurably English. In fact I’m from basically the worst part of England, the cultural wasteland around London where the middle classes eke out their miserable little existence of kitchen refits, new sofas, and tortuously boring dinner parties. The sort of place where everyone has to deliberately numb their sensory organs just to survive: such that, even if anything was, miraculously, to one day happen, it would be a bit like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no-one around to hear it.

Napoleon described England as a nation of shopkeepers, a very famous quote yes but one that also simply happens to capture something very well: namely the small-minded, pettily accumulative attitude that continues to infect the nation. But actually, I’m not completely sure that Napoleon went far enough. Perhaps the England would be better characterised as a nation of parasites. Like locusts, the English have swarmed across the world, stripped it of anything of value, and all in the name of satisfying only their basest needs, the things they need to survive in the most minimal sense (and in the capitalist era, this can only mean money). The high days of their swarm are of course gone: it seems hard to imagine a time when the British Empire gave the English complete licence to ransack every corner of the globe. But the baseness of the English persists.

In fact, perhaps another parasite better characterises the English nowadays than the locust. Thinking about it, I would say that the parasite the English most resemble is the cuckoo: a big evil bird that makes itself look like whatever it needs to in order to stow itself maliciously away in another bird’s home before eventually revealing itself as what it really is and eating all its young. The cuckoo doesn’t swarm in order to accumulate the things it needs to survive: it adapts itself to a set of pre-defined criteria that it needs to fulfil in order to pass as something that will be given food by another bird, and then once it has got what it needs it uses these resources back against the giver, violently. The English are in fact taught at school to make themselves into cuckoos: quite ignoring any actual talents, personalities or interests any of them might have, they are taught from an early age to make themselves into the people who can pass exams to get the grades, to use their social networking profiles to look like the sort of person who is employable, in short to construct an appearance of employer-acceptability around themselves which they can use to smuggle themselves into any organisation of their choosing, and from there on accumulate the resources to get all the new washing machines and different sorts of ovens they need (this is at least the ideal: nowadays there are too few jobs for it to really work, although that just seems to have made the demand to adapt even more urgent, rather than showing it up as the poor strategy it really is). The complete heteronomy of this way of existing, which infects all aspects of middle-class English professional life from accountancy to the media, can be illustrated in no better way than by just looking at Nick Clegg, a classic cuckoo: a man who seems to have spent his whole life desperately trying to appear, as much as he possibly can, like someone who might get hired to play the Prime Minister in a bad ITV drama, thus making himself into someone so profoundly idiotic there is probably no longer any evidence left in his skull that he ever had a brain at all.

I wanted, of course, desperately not to be anything like these people (although sometimes I fear that I am all too much like them, even if my main motivating force is usually anything but money). If I was saved from my Englishness at all, it was by Scotland. I had never been all that much interested in the girls who I knew at school, but somewhen after I started university I fell in love with a Scottish girl, who lived in Glasgow. It was this event that, more than anything else, made a world that had previously seemed in equal parts boring, confusing and hostile suddenly seem, if not exactly friendly and coherent, then at least exciting and beautiful. Not only my girlfriend, but also the city of Glasgow itself (and later the other parts of Scotland that we explored together), awakened in me a sense that there might be some point to life beyond merely surviving and accumulating more things. It wasn’t just the way that everything looked, or felt, there. It was the way people there seemed (at least to me) to be invested in something beyond themselves and their families, for instance their city. It sounds trivial when I write it down, but when people there spoke about, for instance, what was going on between Celtic and Rangers, I got the impression, more than anything that anyone in Hampshire had ever uttered, of something important going on. Despite the fact that really, what they were talking about was primarily confined to just one city, and that city wasn’t even London or anything.

It was as a result of these formative experiences that I have, since – more really than any other English person I’ve ever spoken to about this – felt in a certain sense meaningfully British: I feel that, if I have any country at all (at least one I do not want to completely disavow), it exists somehow in between the crappy place I grew up, and its northern half where I had so many of the experiences that most formed me as a human being. It’s really because of this that, until a few days ago, I had repressed the potential trauma of the Scottish independence referendum by deliberately avoiding any knowledge of it, beyond a vague conviction that no body of voters ever votes “Yes” in a referendum; I didn’t even know when it was supposed to be held. I didn’t want to know anything about it because I was scared that, whatever the rights or wrongs of Scottish independence, I was going to lose the country that I actually, sincerely, was identified with (no matter how fucking stupid nationalism is).

But now, of course, the referendum has become a media issue too large to ignore: because now it looks like Scotland could well secede from the union, whereas previously this didn’t seem to be a real possibility (which is presumably why they let them hold it in the first place). The No campaign, which had previously been half-fought on a totally uninspiring platform of slight macroeconomic advantage, is now flapping about in a total panic: promising further devolved powers if Scotland stays in Westminster, galvanising Gordon Brown’s corpse and sending him to make one of those speeches he used to like when he seemed to be fondling the words like a butcher with a big cut of meat, catching a private jet to Edinburgh all together and waddling around trying to look like they know what they’re doing. It is in particular the image of David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all stood together gurning in Holyrood that crystallises exactly why Scotland is going to leave England; and also why, however I might myself feel about this, they would be entirely correct to do so.

My own experiences with Scotland (as I’ve detailed) tend to cause me to romanticise it, and I don’t want to talk up Scotland as somewhere totally great because that would simply be untrue (no real political community is actually a magical place of a young man’s awakening to possibility), but certainly I think that if we examine the history of the union we can say this: Scotland has typically brought to it vision and dynamism, whereas England has tended to bring to it a sort of greedy vulgarity and relative quantitative size. It was this thrilling combination of brains and stomach that conquered the world in the century and a bit following the unification of the crowns. If the partnership was mutually enriching for these years and the 100 following, the two nations have now withered together. But now look at Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. Look at these three almost-identical men, respectively fatter and geekier inflections of each other, who call themselves our leaders. Think about everything they represent: a cloying, impossible-to-resist crappiness, a complete lack of basic human intelligence, the sense that they only exist there because they’re walking the tightrope of some grand trajectory they’ve sketched for themselves since pre-school, and they’re the last members of their generation of aspiring politicos still never to look down. In the figure of David Cameron, one sees a future, maybe some fifty years from now, when even being able to use a toilet without supervision will seem, in our leaders, as impossible a pretension as if any of them, nowadays, was able to talk coherently about Dostoevsky. They came to Scotland in an attempt to persuade its people to stay. But looking at them, isn’t it clear where the sickness lies? It is in England, and all its banality and cuckoo-parasitic baseness, as it shows up in the Chuckle Triplets who head our three major political parties. If you had the option of cutting this sickness out of yourself, wouldn’t you take it too?

An independent Scotland might not automatically be perfect, but as the referendum campaign seems to have highlighted, it is at least a political community that has its shit together vastly better than England does: a place that, whatever flaws it may or may not have, at least seems able to do more than slowly dismantle itself. And of course, the optimism unleashed by decoupling from England may see it improve itself still more by comparison.

I say all this knowing full well that I, as an English person, have no such easy option available to myself. I am, as I say, incurably English: I am so stuck in England, that even though I’ve been living in another country for five months now, I can barely speak the language beyond a few mumbled phrases in shops (no matter how much better I can read it); that despite everything that I can recognise as being inadequate about England, I feel anxiously badly-adjusted to everything around me when I am outside of it – in fact I am desperate (in just a few weeks now!) to move back. But I also know that, really, I want to be able to move back to Britain, because I can at least pretend then that England isn’t really England. But then perhaps that’s also the problem: without Scotland, maybe England would be freer to look its own achingly apparent crapness in the eye. Perhaps England, left alone by itself (or with Wales and Northern Ireland, which I admit I’ve left out of this discussion entirely, although of course there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be independent of England too), would be able to become something more than it always, historically, has been. Although of course, we’d probably only just get more of the same: Doctor Who, Ian McEwan, Banksy, cupcakes, real ale festivals, Wayne Rooney, and Nigel Farage.

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