Two MSPs, Bill Wilson and Elaine Smith, bring their different perspectives to a book on the constitutional futureof the UK and the question of independende
Breaking Up Britain: Four Nations After a Union, Mark Perryman (Editor).Lawrence & Wishart 2009. ISBN 978-1905007967, 256pp, £17.99
I had some doubts when I was asked to review Breaking up Britain. It appeared to have a pretty interesting list of contributors, and I rather suspect that agreeing to review it would mean having to read the book at a rather faster pace then I desired. Damn, I was right!
This really is an excellent collection. Unusually for a book of this type it has quite a number of English contributors generally writing from the perspective of English nationalism – ‘generally’ in that some have moved to other parts of the Britain and are writing of the independence movements of one of the two normal-sized nations. One fascinating aspect of the English essays is the effort to put together an English nationalism and identity, whilst at the same time looking (in trepidation) over their shoulder at English fascism and imperialism. For a Scottish nationalist this is perhaps the strangest aspect of the attempts to seek an English identity. Only in the UK is the connection consistently made between xenophobia, economic inequality and nationalism. This is not so for the rest of the world. One might consider Gervasio Artigas “recordemos que ellos tienen el principal derecho” (We must remember that they have the main rights), in defence of indigenous rights; the views of Simón Rodríguez (companion of Bolivar) on equality in education; the present Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela; Ghandi in India, and the reformist nationalist movements in Catalonia and the Basque nation, prior to their being crushed by Franco. Throughout most of the planet the forces of nationalism are inextricably tied to economic reform and social justice. But not in the UK – here there has been a long campaign to link nationalism with racism and socially regressive policies. Understandable of course; it was, after all, nationalists that smashed an empire built on racist arrogance and greed. The attempts by English nationalists to come to terms with this, and build a self-confident, multi-cultural England, make for fascinating reading.
The English essays try to put together an English nationalism and identity in trepidation. For a Scottish nationalist this is perhaps the strangest aspect; only in the UK is the connection consistently made between xenophobia, economic inequality and nationalism.
Culture and multiculturalism are themes running strongly throughout the collection of essays. These range from the confidence generated by being secure in one’s culture, and the contrasting damage done when people lack this confidence to build a multi-cultural society, a society in which differences are accepted as merely the rich tapestry of a people, rather than irreparable fault lines which must be fought to the last. It occurred to me, in reading the essays, that Scotland was actually, at least in one aspect, an excellent example of a multi-cultural society. Scotland possesses two indigenous native languages: Scots and Gaidhlig. For centuries these two cultures were in conflict. However, it is now possible for myself, a speaker of Scots, to venture across the highland line in the reasonable expectation, not only of returning alive, but also of exciting no obvious interest. It has taken some time, but the two cultures now live comfortably side by side. That is not to say we are perfectly multi-cultural. When I was growing up both Scots- and Gaidhlig-speaking pupils were punished for having the temerity to use their native language. Scots-speaking pupils can still be punished in some schools, and there are Scottish politicians who express the view that whilst the language is fit for the playground it is not fit for the classroom. On a wider UK level, Scots, Welsh, Gaidhlig and Erse speakers accept each other’s rights, and, implicitly, multiculturalism. Sadly the Welsh essays suggest, as with Scots, there is still a problem in convincing some sections of the UK community that all languages have equal rights. Now I am not suggesting to contributors such as Salama Yaqoob that the community she writes of should sit around for a few hundred years waiting for everything to settle down. That clearly is not acceptable. But I would suggest that the history of these languages indicates that multiculturalism is possible.
Some may regard this review as rather indulgent – I appear to have used the opportunity to advance some of my own ideas. Well, probably not an entirely unfair charge, but there is method in my madness. How does one review such a wide-ranging collection of essays? Essays which are well thought out, and which raise such an interesting set of questions. I decided to put down a few of the thoughts which reading the book generated. Indulgent? Trust me, this review could have been much longer!
Bill Wilson MSP“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. Gramsci
When I went along to May Day in Glasgow, several teenagers in tow to further their political awareness, my intention was to join in the March, help comrades at Labour’s Campaign for Socialism stall get signatures for the People’s Charter and listen to some good music. I was a bit surprised with myself, therefore, when I agreed to review a book for the SLR.
It’s not that I don’t like to read: I love to do so both for pleasure and to further my education and awareness but I have a big queue of titles awaiting my attention. So when Breaking up Britain: Four Nations after a Union arrived at my office I was not full of enthusiasm to delve in and start reading and assumed I would have to discipline myself to ‘plough’ through it. Not so. This is a very readable book, well-written, informative and thought-provoking, and once started I found it hard to put down.
The character of the book is a collection of essay’s formatted around four themes namely Post-Devolution National Identities; Models of Civic Nationalism; Formations of Exclusion and States of Independence. Editor Mark Perryman contributes the keynote essay, ‘A Jigsaw State’ and the book’s title is a play on Tom Nairn’s seminal 1977 book The Break-up of Britain. It has been released to coincide with ten years of devolution in Scotland and Wales, recognising too the restoration of powers to Stormont during that period. It’s a very well-timed book (indeed I am writing this review in the week the Calman Commission issues its report into Scottish devolution) and it will undoubtedly make a major contribution to the debate in the coming months and years.
The central proposition is that the devolution process has started an irreversible move toward the Break Up outlined by Tom Nairn with another ten years seeing the process concluded. However, not all of the contributors are keen proponents of this essential break-up thesis of the book, preferring to consider the case that change may be somewhat more gradual in character, perhaps resulting in a Federal settlement.
One of the key issues is that of English nationalism; seemingly harder to characterise than its Scottish and Welsh counterparts. Several essays make the point that the ‘break-up’ under discussion is being led by devolution in Scotland and Wales, and if that ultimately results in independence, England will be left considering its own position as an independent nation. The worry then, as expressed by Mark Perryman, is that in this period of discontinuity, or interregnum as Gramsci puts it, the nasty side of English nationalism will be to the fore with a mix of a populist right and the vile racist nationalism of the BNP. The recent election of two BNP MEPs give us a taste of this although there are a number of complex issues involved in that particular horror story. Perryman believes that an alternative, progressive English identity could emerge as long as action is taken to shape the process.
On a personal basis, I found the essays on Ireland of particular interest. Northern Ireland is, of course, the part of Britain least likely at present to enthusiastically back any move to a break up of the union. Perhaps the most interesting was by Gerry Adams. He is, as you might expect, making the case for a new republic of Ireland, acknowledging that this can only be properly achieved by persuading unionists of the desirability of a shared, united Ireland where “they would be citizens, not mere subjects” and “They would have rights, not concessions”. However, he also provides a damning critique of the current Irish government and its predecessors. Adams points out that the ordinary people losing their jobs are those who helped build the Celtic Tiger economy and are now being failed by a government giving billions to the banks. He urges that the banking executives and others must be fully investigated and, if they have broken the law, they must be brought before the courts, illustrating his point with the lyrics of Woody Guthrie “Some rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen”.
Not all of the contributors are keen proponents of the essential break-up thesis of the book, preferring to consider the case that change may be somewhat more gradual in character, perhaps resulting in a Federal settlement
Much of Adam’s essay could apply to the New Labour project and its rigorous attachment to neo-liberal policies. His obvious frustration with policies and economic strategies that serve private greed rather than public good resonated with my own resentment and disappointment in a decade of a Labour Government that could have done so much to deliver justice and equality but chose to pursue detrimental policies such as privatisation of public services, erosion of civil liberties and war.
One theme in the book that I would challenge is that of the SNP being left-of-centre. Certainly, there are some progressive policies such as free prescriptions, an end to tuition fees and piloting free school meals, all of which I have long supported. Labour did, however, also introduce progressive policies such as the Scottish Parliament itself, free universal central heating for the elderly and free bus travel for pensioners. The SNP are a party of the centre much the same as New Labour and what this would mean from a socialist perspective for an Independent Scotland is not clear.
Overall, this book provides a new focus for debate on the subject of devolution, independence and the merits of the Union and I would recommended it to anyone interested in the constitutional debate across Britain (although it might have benefited from a contribution by a Labour MSP). The main speculation at present in Scotland revolves around whether a Tory win at the general election would hasten the end of the Union and herald in Independence. There really are more questions than answers, not least around what exactly is national identity and I think that the essence of the book lies in the essay by Kenny and Lodge ‘More than one English question’ when they say “The future is hard to read”.