Gavin Esler spent much of last year working on a BBC Radio series entitled Brits. In November, he delivered an Open Lecture at the University of Kent on the subject. This article is taken from his lecture:
There are those who believe that Britain has had its day. There are now four significant parliaments or assemblies in the United Kingdom: Edinburgh, Belfast, sometimes Cardiff, and London. The monarchy and those other great British institutions – the Military, the Churches, the National Health Service, the BBC, the nationalised industries – have been eroded or forced to change, or they have gone completely. Now we have a prospect of a common European currency and greater power going to Brussels. But is it really UK RIP?
I spent last year trying to find out. I started in the Scottish Highlands and went via Glasgow, Ibrox Stadium, Edinburgh and the new Parliament down to Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells, then over to the Welsh valleys and Northern Ireland. One thing that really struck me was how lucky we are.
‘Brits’ caused quite a stir when, at the beginning of last year, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw told me that in his view, ‘the English are potentially very aggressive, very violent and of course we have used that propensity to subjugate Ireland, Wales and Scotland and then we used it in Europe and with our Empire. You have within the UK three small nations under the cosh of the English. These small nations have inevitably sought expression by a very explicit idea of nationhood. You have this very dominant other nation England, ten times bigger than the others, which is self confident and therefore has no reason to be explicit about it. I think as we move into this new century,’ Mr Straw went on, ‘people’s sense of Englishness will become more articulated, and that’s partly because of the mirror that devolution provides us and partly because we’re becoming more European’.
Why did these remarks cause such a furore? Jack Straw was born in Essex. He represents a Blackburn constituency, and in many ways seems the quintessential Englishman. Yet he was called anti-English by quite a few newspapers. It may have been more politically wise to tone down some of the phrasing, but wasn’t Mr Straw merely pointing out the obvious? – that the English didn’t conquer the world just by playing cricket and having cucumber sandwiches. And the Scots or Welsh or Irish have frequently joined in this great enterprise and profited greatly from it. Complaints about the disproportionate number of Scots in the Cabinet have a history going back 200 years!
While making this radio series I would ask English interviewees to tell me the date of St George’s Day. Most people had no idea; I was even assured by one group in Tunbridge Wells that it was 17 March (St Patrick’s Day.) The only two people I met for the series who did know the date for St George’s day were Jack Straw and a columnist for the Daily Mail called Simon Heffer who then wrote articles about why Jack Straw was an idiot!
In North London I came across a counselling group of intelligent, well-educated, middle-income, left-wing English men and women. They spent some of their time, in this counselling group, discussing problems they had with their English identities. They all found it easy to think of negative stereotypes of England: the lager lout, foreigner-haters, imperialists. I reminded them that whatever their flaws, the English had, for example, started the RSPCA; they were uniquely tolerant of immigrants; and they had an extraordinary cultural history.
Jack Straw told me, ‘we should stop apologising for being English and celebrate the country’s huge achievements – the industrialisation of the world, the development of institutions, the literature, music and poetry we have brought to the world. At the same time we should recognise the downside of being English – this aggressive, jingoistic streak – and try to eliminate it’.
Some of those English people I interviewed about their sense of identity, strangely to me anyway, spoke of the United Kingdom in the past tense with a sense of loss. Britain or the United Kingdom was dead, they suggested, thanks to the Scots and the Welsh. This attitude was summed up by Sir Roy Strong who had just completed a book on the cultural history of Britain, ‘In Scotland and Wales’, Sir Roy said ‘you have the National Museum of Scotland, the National Gallery of Scotland, the National Museum of Wales, the National Gallery of Wales, but there is no National Gallery of England. You see the word English attached to very little.’
It is worth reminding ourselves of some of the reasons why the historian Norman Davies and others have concluded that Britain is ‘in a terminal phase’. Britain was an invention after the Union of Crowns in 1603, and has been re-invented repeatedly in the Union of Parliament in 1707, after union with Ireland in 1801, when the Irish Free States seceeded in 1922 and then around the Welfare State in the 1940s.
Historian Linda Colley said that what kept us together were three things that don’t seem relevant to most people now: Protestantism, Empire and War. You could add, in this century, the national industries the Coal Board, British Steel, British Rail and the great Unions. Now the nationalised industries have gone, the Unions have lost much of their power and that other glue, Socialism, which knitted together working class people from Glasgow to the Welsh valleys has also cracked apart.
There is, as we all know, no shared British football team or football league. There is no common legal system, no national British church, no national anthem. Nonetheless, I am unconvinced of the inevitability of the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Professor of Government at Oxford University Vernon Bogden told me, ‘Britishness is not an artificial construct, but something deeply organic. It would need more than devolution to undermine the attachment to the British state. We are the most Euro-sceptic country in the EU. That’s a sign of the organic sense of Britishness that still survives.’
What else? There is a certain nostalgia. In a British Legion Club in Cardiff a wonderful World War II veteran, Tony Jones, explained to me why he ripped up his exemption papers to fight Hitler, ‘not because I was Welsh,’ Tony Jones said, ‘but because I was British. We were defending this island – Scots, Welsh, English. We were all the same when it came to the last war.’
Britain is not unique in questioning its continuing status as a nation state. In the case of the former Soviet Union or Indonesia or Yugoslavia, ‘nation state’ means not a lot. But many other nations are re-inventing themselves in ways that do have a parallel for us. A generation ago Spain and Ireland both had appalling images of backwardness with poor, agriculture-based economies. One was a semi-Fascist dictatorship and both were bastions of traditional Catholicism.
Now Ireland, as we all know, has re-invented itself as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and Spain has obviously thrown off the Franco image. In Barcelona where the Mayor’s office carries three flags; those of the City of Barcelona, the region of Catalonia and the Spanish national flag. The Mayor, educated in Edinburgh, suggested to me that it was a British notion that devolution meant the country would fall apart. He believed that the result would be exactly the opposite.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, one of the most prominent and outspoken Unionists in Labour, put it to me this way. ‘A lot of this debate is based on a misapprehension that without an institutional formula the UK could break up. But Britain exists because people want it to exist. Gordon Brown and William Hague believe that all kinds of values – fair play, tolerance, self-reliance, decency, inventiveness, enterprise, a sense of personal privacy, love of the eccentric, a sense of humour – somehow keep Britain together.
As I travelled across the country quite often I’d hear the same complaints. Too many Scots in important positions; it was unfair for Scottish and Welsh politicians to vote on issues affecting them in devolved parliaments but also to vote on issues affecting England. Disproportionate amounts of tax payers’ money was being spent on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Let me point to what I think is more important than all this: something which does keep up all together and that’s a shared sense of British culture in its wider sense. This has been reflected, it seems to me, by the Tate Gallery, which in March this year split into two: Tate Modern and Tate Britain. I suggested to Stephen Dukar who is the Director of Tate Britain that to some people Tate Britain might seem a daft idea because if Britain really is dead he has named his gallery after the corpse. He responded that it was a perfect moment to engage in a debate about what British art might mean, whether Britain was any longer a valid concept and how it was changing. He saw Tate Britain as contributing to the new debate in the 21st century about the relationships within these islands.
Modern British culture is so diverse and inventive it stretches from John Le Carré to Bryn Terfyll to Dwight York, from the Royal Opera House to your local Balti house, from Glasgow Rangers to Chelsea. Fans from Northern Ireland travel every week to football games in Glasgow, in Manchester, in Liverpool. TV sets in the Irish Republic will tune in to the BBC. Eastenders and Coronation Street, English soap operas, remain British institutions in Glasgow and Cardiff and Belfast. Even the historian Norman Davies, one of those who said that the British state was on its last legs, concedes that British culture, in its widest sense, will remain robust.
What is it that has kept the idea of Scotland as a nation alive for 400 years and does it offer a clue about Britishness? Why do most Scots, including myself (despite the fact I’ve lived outside Scotland for longer than I’ve lived in it), still feel Scottish in one way or another – despite the power of the greatest empire the world has ever known, the British Empire, despite the drift of so many Scots southwards to help run that Empire, and despite the superior cultural power of England. Each of these three smaller nations was never completely overwhelmed by England or by the British State because in some small corner of our hearts most of us retain the belief that we were still Scots too, or Welsh or Irish even when we were British. The question for the future it seems to me, is whether the idea of being British will continue to reside in some small corner of our hearts. If it does, Britain will somehow be reinvented. If it ceases to be important to us, then no matter what constitutional arrangements we make, Britain will die. https://www.kent.ac.uk/alumni/pdf/kent36.pdf