English and Scottish cultural nationalism

The Herald, Editorial Notebook, 1 August 1992

NATIONALISM, in Britain at least, tends to be discussed in terms of the Scottish and Welsh varieties. Yet English nationalism is the more powerful and a curious aspect of it is that it dissembles, pretending that it does not exist at all.

The Thatcher Government was suffused by English nationalism of an unspoken kind. Quite unintentionally, because I think she regretted her failure in Scotland, she united Scots of all classes as they have rarely been united before.

One of the reactions in the Conservative Party against the Thatcher years was seen at the election in John Major’s passionate avowal of faith in the Union which went a good deal further than a simple palliation of Scottish disaffection.

By the end of the year we are promised a package of measures, stopping well short of devolution, designed to acknowledge Scotland’s respected place in the Union. This represents a distinct change of tone, replacing the hectoring rebukes of the Thatcher years which said that the Scots were jolly well off and should stop moaning so much.

English nationalism has shown itself in various ways. The decision to give the sovereign the title Elizabeth II outraged my parents because it reflected the political establishment’s interpretation of the Treaty of Union. This anglocentric view was that Scotland had not been joined to England as a partner but had been absorbed by it. Winston Churchill dismissed Scottish objections with arrogance.

During the election campaign the Foreign Office and Downing Street asserted that if Scotland were to leave the Union then, as far as the EC was concerned, it would not be one of the successor states and would have to reapply. This again accepts the English view that Scottish sovereignty has been absorbed. Scottish lawyers, believing that Scottish sovereignty was entrenched by the Treaty, might argue that Scotland would be one of two successor states and would, after the dissolution of the Union, remain in the EC.

Various legal opinions might be cited but in the end this question is not determinable by Judges. It is a matter of political will. Nor is nationalism itself really susceptible to clear rational analysis, though many intellectuals have tried to understand it. One of the most lucid reviews of Scottish nationalism, and the various explanations that have been made for it, is to be found in David McCrone’s excellent book, Understanding Scotland.

Scotland has invented various myths on which to hang its identity. McCrone rejects the sweeping critique of some historians that tartan was the creation of the Victorian state and enterprising weavers, with a little help from Sir Walter Scott.

Tartan did exist in various unsystematic forms; it was proscribed. But when the ban was lifted tartan was used by the British state as an icon. It also became embedded in Scottish popular culture. One of my memories of the old Scottish music hall, which was killed by television, is of its sugary and sentimental love of tartanry. This thread in popular culture survives today in the radio ”heuchter-teuchter” shows.

Tartanry coexisted improbably with the kailyard, which provided comfort in an age of industrialisation and migration by celebrating mythic values of a virtuous rural past. (McCrone tends to support the revisionist view of the kailyard. This argues that it was an external phenomenon, aimed at a bourgeois market in Britain and at a transatlantic market with a sentimental hunger. A more vigorous and realistic popular culture is to be found, according to this argument, in the Scottish weekly press of the period and its very considerable output of popular fiction.)

A comparable later phenomenon is what McCrone and others have called Clydesideism. This has been an attempt — for example in the theatre of Wildcat or in the novels of Kelman — to make the traditions of the industrial working-class synonymous with those of a generalised Scottish identity.

This is as flawed a view of our national identity as that offered by the kailyard, and often just as sentimental. The myths of good neighbourliness in the old slums are parallel to the kailyard’s myths of an industrious and virtuous rural society and Wildcat’s songs are often just as shallowly sentimental as any old music ballad about granny’s hielan’ hame.

In fact the underlying reality of social and industrial change and its victims is often much more tragic, a truth not flinched by John Byrne in Tutti Frutti or by Ian Pattison and Gregor Fisher in Rab C. Nesbitt (the universal truth of Rab has made him something of a cult figure in the most unlikely places and the show is one of BBC Scotland’s most original creations).

There is in print an extensive intellectual literature on this and other questions. The English equivalents are less often noticed, and yet you can hear them in the contemporary political discourse (Norman Tebbit’s Euro-scepticism with its Powellite references to 1000 years of history is pure English nationalism) or discern it in the pages of such magazines as The Spectator and The Oldie.

The Spectator’s elegant mixture of racism and snobbery can be offensive, as I noted recently. The Oldie is more benign and agreeable. This fortnightly magazine, launched by Richard Ingrams, has now attained its twelfth number and has done much to fill the gap left by the demise of Punch. (Our own William Russell pops up in it as a monitor in its Good Film Guide.)

My only faint objection to it is the English air with which it is suffused, not the keen and discontenting air of the north but a langorous, perfumed air laden with sadness and unease.

The Oldie is full of regret about vanishing England. Every week it has an article by Candida Lycett Green under the generic title ”Unwrecked England”. The qualification for inclusion is that the chosen landscape should be free of pylons and other intrusions and that it should not have been penetrated by the vulgar crisp-eating mob taking the kids for days out on the heritage trail or to the local theme park. In a recent issue the same writer, if my memory serves me, discoursed on the art of tea-making, deploring the tea-bag and its brackish brew.

Here, then, is the English kailyard, where the sun shines on a smiling landscape; where there is the sound of bat on ball; where tea is served promptly at four; and where the grimmer realities of post-industrial Britain are safely over the hill in pastures too vulgarised and degenerated to be worth visiting.

It is a state of mind with which all of us Oldies can have empathy. But the next time you hear an Englishman rebuke you for your Scottish nationalism, remind him that his is pretty potent too.