A Great British taboo!

Should anything distract from the referendum campaign?

Scotland’s independence debate illuminates an unspoken truth about Britain’s national tensions

by David Gray
Freelance Journalist

The great cacophony created by Scotland’s independence debate has been so deafening you could easily have missed it. In the rush to claim all manner of glories or horrors for Scottish independence, the sabre rattling has all but annihilated a telling silence at the heart of the battle – the curious absence of its political bedfellow, south of the border. Independence for England?

No Debate on the  Future of England
No Debate on the
Future of England
It is an idea that contradicts nearly every notion we have about Britain’s biggest nation – as if even considering the concept would confound the emotional, psychological and political instincts which lie at the heart of public debate in these islands.

Merely asking the question throws up a confusion of reactions. A void exists around the subject, and it is only now, as the United Kingdom is forced to consider its future ahead of the Scottish independence referendum, that the idea is exposed a surprisingly potent taboo. It is a taboo born of politics. But it extends far beyond the limited worldview of the political classes, into nearly every facet of public life.

Whether or not independence is right for Scotland has dogged the nation’s chatter, from fireplace to tearoom, from pub to Parliament. Tongues are alive with the meat of the argument, and its nuances, and nearly everyone has an opinion. Barely a day passes when the subject is not grist to the Scottish media – the newspapers and magazines, television and radio fizz with the debate. It has become part of the fabric of daily life, and the spinners and plotters on both sides of the divide are working extremely hard to keep it that way.

Cross the border into England, however, and an entirely different picture emerges. Despite the frenzy created by the Scottish debate, some of which has filtered to other parts of the UK, the concept of independence for England has simply not fired the public imagination. The cultural and political cross-fertilisation which often happens between Scotland and England has resulted here in silence, in a curious void. It is an enigmatic silence, with no immediate explanation.

The Independence High Ground  Seized in Scotland
The Independence High Ground
Seized in Scotland
This may in part be due to the nationalistic tendencies of the English far-right, notably the BNP and English Defence League, and whose policies are so offensive to vast majority of English people that ideas of independence, whether by accident or design, have gradually been assimilated into the murky world of proto-fascist campaigns, rallies and high-profile anti-immigration, anti-Islamic and anti-European rhetoric.

By contrast, in Scotland, the independence high ground has been seized by the SNP, a mainstream centre-left party that has been very successful in persuading both socialist-leaning Labour and middle class Liberal Democrat voters to join its ranks, and who could in no way be associated with the extreme views of far-right nationalists in England.

But the activities of small numbers of English fascists and their flag-waving nationalism only shade part of the answer. While their behaviour taints the concept of nationalist politics south of the border, there is no convincing sign that independence for England, as an idea, is likely to break into the mainstream any time soon. And if that were to happen, a democratic party would soon evolve to capture that support, as it did in Scotland. Which begs the question – why not? Why is Middle England so immune to the concept of independence?

Understanding the reasons, which are woven into the fabric of the two nations’ shared history, begins with a bad marriage – or at least, a fractious one. No one – whether for or against Scottish independence, would argue that the bonding of England and Scotland was ever destined to be a Union made in heaven.

The Royal Bank of Scotland came into being as a result of The ill-fated Darien Scheme
The Royal Bank of Scotland
came into being as a result of
The ill-fated Darien Scheme
The record shows that there was rioting in Scotland when the Parliaments north and south of the border merged in 1707. The record also shows that this deeply unpopular Union, signed in secret, was driven partly by Scottish failure, after the economic collapse of the Darien Scheme in Panama. This attempt at colonialism had left Scotland with crippling debt and the nation’s “nobles” realised their woes could be substantially solved by trading Scotland’s sovereignty for a Union with their more powerful, and wealthier, neighbour south of the border.

Ironically, although the Union was born partly of Scottish failure and birthed the idea of Scotland as inferior to its more colonially-successful neighbour, the Scots went on to excel during the golden era of the British Empire, and subsequent Enlightenment, making a stellar contribution out of all proportion to their relatively tiny population.

This story captures an essential element of the national Scottish psyche. Success born of failure – a grandiose, historically-acknowledged triumph from the ashes of humiliating disaster and, here, it was a triumph inextricably bound to notions of “Britishness” and the Union.

Gladstone
Gladstone
But this success, ultimately – and with the rich irony that has often characterised the British experiment, motivated demands for a return to Scottish self-determination. The arguments being made today have their first echo in the late 19th century, during Prime Minister William Gladstone’s era, and sounded again in 1913, and 1979; but then, as today, Scotland’s national sense of pre-eminence, for some, could not be split from a belief that the Union had been the catalyst for this success.

Inevitably, the failure of these campaigns only heightened the sense of duality in Scotland’s national character, and at the start of the 21st century, it is more pronounced than ever. The landslide Scottish election victory of the Scottish National Party in 2011 has only served to heighten this tension, as latest opinion polls show that only around one-third of voters, at most, are convinced by arguments for independence.

No-one would argue, on this basis, that independence is a done deal, and once again, the country is split. Nationalists know they must work hard to convince the one in four undecided voters, while the proportion in favour of the Union – around half of those polled in most surveys, suggests that even if the SNP is successful in winning over more middle ground voters, the final battle in 2014 may be balanced on a knife edge.

It is a scenario that reinforces the history of the Scottish psyche, and the absence of any debate on English independence in 2013 well illustrates a profound difference between the two countries. England is by far the most powerful nation in a Commonwealth of more than 50 countries, and from this perspective, is beholden to nobody. Its psychological development as a nation has tracked a course defined by control and influence on a global scale.

The British Commonwealth
The British Commonwealth
And here lies the crux of the independence argument. Although part of a British Commonwealth, there is no precedence for England seeking independence from a world in which it has no larger power to answer to. Instinctively gravitating towards securing that position and maintaining British influence – illustrated recently by the verbal spat with the Argentinian government over the Falkland Islands – the English national psyche has not been forced to develop in thrall to any outside influence.

Sometimes silence can be as meaningful and revealing as any number of carefully chosen words. In the case of English independence, as a taboo subject in public debate, it says much about that nation’s history, social psychology and unspoken ambition.

That it took another heated argument about Scottish independence to illuminate this truth suggests a conundrum. It shows again how Scotland and England interact, for good or ill, and exposes a virtually impenetrable complexity in the relationship between the two countries – a Union forged in adversity, from unequal forces, and shaped by profound differences in national character.

Whether those differences favour the Union, or an independent Scotland, will always be a matter of opinion. But it seems that a Great British taboo, which lies at the heart of the relationship between Scotland and England, may be one idea that will ultimately help to crystallise, and define, the answer.

Ends (1,323 words).

  • panda paws

    interesting article. However when you say

    “Darien Scheme in Panama. This attempt at colonialism had left Scotland with crippling debt”

    this is incorrect. Scotland, the country did not have any debt. The nobles however, the only ones with political power at the time had lost their shirt in Darien. Even then, initally, they opposed an union and it was only when Queen Anne threatened them that the nobles voted yes.

  • Alf

    Please note the BNP is a British national party, it’s not an English party.

  • Richard Gibbons

    A couple of points: It’s no longer the ‘British’ Commonwealth, it is now The Commonwealth of Nations; ‘England is by far the most powerful of the Commonwealth countries’, by what measure these days? GDP, debt, growth, deficit, compared to Canada or Australia that’s arguable? Falklands campaign was over 30 years ago, hardly ‘recent’ and couldn’t be replicated today (by either side). Also not everyone that supports independence is a nationalist, some see independence as an idea that will allow the country to prosper and make people’s lives better.

  • John McCallum

    I think that there is another reason for the lack of discussion within England that has not been mentioned above. Folks there do not see their politics influenced by the views of others since England constitutes 90% of the voters. Indeed, many there still regard and refer to the UK as England.