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Normal nation, neurotic neighbour

The Union has been in decline for decades. The root problem is not turbulent Scots, it is a very English failure to develop a healthy nationalism south of the border

Broken Britain

Iwas a guest, one day, at a royal banquet at Windsor Castle. The table, set with immaculate Victorian china and Georgian silver, stretched far into a distance where a white speck must certainly have been Her Majesty, and the dark blob Árpád Göncz, then President of Hungary. Servants waited behind the chairs, in which Brits and Hungarians alternated. Windsor’s ancient stock of Tokaj was served. Hungarian neighbours, reluctant to be impressed, conceded it was wonderful. Conversation began. And then it happened.

The pipe band of a Highland regiment, in full tartan splendour, tramped in and began a slow march around the table with a gigantic clamour of bagpipes. Talk became instantly impossible as they made two lengthy circuits of the hall. The Brits looked decorously at their plates, as if nothing was going on. But the Hungarians looked wildly around. Your Queen—what does she mean by this?

I also wondered what she meant. But then I reflected how the Emperor Augustus no doubt brought loyal costumed Gauls to perform at his banquets. Habsburg emperors probably ordered ferocious Croats to dance with their weapons at dinners for foreign guests. So didn’t British kings and queens want to show visitors that they, too, had tamed barbarous tribes from the distant mountains and trained them up to imperial service?

Windsor is not Westminster. But lurking somewhere beneath the wrangle between the Scottish and British governments over Brexit and another independence referendum is a faint imperial stain. Why have the Scots forgotten their place? That was never a colonised, subjugated place. Scotland was not Kikuyuland or even Ireland. Its role was as a loyal, if exotic, partner and bodyguard in the imperial enterprise—a grand privilege. And for centuries after the 1707 Union, most Scots did think it a privilege. Now they increasingly don’t. Why not?

Many English people can now see why not, even if they share the rising grumbles against Scots who “take our money and keep whinging.” After all, England just voted to break a Union and risk the economy, in order to get away from distant lawmakers nobody voted for. “Same thing with the Scots, if you think about it,” runs the thought for many ordinary English voters. But that’s emphatically not the way the rulers of the Anglo-British state, the political and social elites and their retinue, think about it. This is because they have a tin ear for nationalism. Even though it was English nationalism which put this Tory, Brexit government where it is.

As the quarrel between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon grows ruder, with May asserting that the search for independence is just “playing political games,” it’s time to think sensibly about nationalism. Time to junk the old Labour mantra, still repeated by many, that “nationalism equals racism equals fascism equals war.” (Communists, who at least had a political education, usually knew better.) The truth is that nationalism has been the world’s strongest mobilising force for two centuries. Stronger than hunger or religion, stronger than the class struggle. A sort of spectrum reaches from the enlightened, modernising, liberalising “let’s join the world” variety, across to the backward-looking, myth-making, exclusive and vengeful variety which drenched the 20th century in blood. You can call these extremes “civic” and “ethnic”—though in fact there’s no nationalism which doesn’t contain something of both: it’s the proportions that matter. Scottish nationalism, like early Indian nationalism, is firmly, primly, at the civic end. English nationalism, though rooted in one of the most tolerant peoples on earth, has ugly ethnic elements. And there are reasons for that.

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In Prospect’s May issue: Neal Ascherson, Simon Jenkins, John Curtice and Frances Cairncross examine the growing divide between England and Scotland. Ascherson argues that England has become Scotland’s “neurotic neighbour,” while Jenkins says we should learn from history and prepare for Scotland to leave the Union. Cairncross and Curtice debate whether Scotland could afford to break with England and whether a fresh referendum on independence is actually winnable. Also in this issue: Jason Burke questions whether the world will be a safer place after the downfall of Islamic State, Paul Hilder examines how politics got tangled in the web and Michael White reviews a new book charting the history of the Daily Mail