Gerry Hassan: Foundation myths can’t hold Britain together

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Traits which once defined countries on these islands as a nation could soon be consigned to history, writes Gerry Hassan

IT has been a week of momentous events. The unfolding Egyptian tragedy, the restarting of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, and in our corner of the world, the first Scotland v England match in more than a decade.

It feels inappropriate and insensitive to mention a football match in the company of such historic events. Yet, I think with that caveat the game mattered because it offered a glimpse of future possible arrangements. Two neighbours and friends with a rich, shared history, but who have slowly drifted apart. And in this slow semi-detachment, they have begun to appreciate each other in a new light. At least, that’s what I thought about the football.

Much of the Scottish debate and sentiment seems at times to not connect to wider dynamics and factors, from the state of British politics to wider global issues. Clearly the same can be said about some of the central delusions which have a vice-like grip on British politics.

One of the defining factors in Scottish sensibilities is the state of the pan-British institutions which used to contribute towards the expression, in both popular will and institutional form, of a collective sense of modern Britishness.

These are the BBC, the NHS and monarchy, and just as Scots identity used to be supported by “the holy trinity” of the law, education and Kirk, these could be seen to make up ‘the holy trinity’ of modern Britishness. Until fairly recently, we would have added the Armed Forces to such a list, but they have been reduced to such a pitiful size, that they are much less relevant.

Two of the three are not in the greatest shape and currently have an uncertain future: the NHS (in England) and the BBC. The NHS south of the Border is in multiple crises, facing funding pressures, along with demographic trends and popular rising expectations. All of this could be said of the NHS in Scotland, but added to this mix in England is an ideological onslaught on its very idea.

This entails the fragmentation, outsourcing and corporatisation of huge parts of the NHS. This is being undertaken by a government with no mandate to make such changes, but which justifies it by using the deceitful rhetoric of “putting power in the hands of GPs”. In reality, it is empowering the likes of Virgin Healthcare and American and Australian private health care firms.

The BBC, post-Savile, has faced controversy and scandal about the ethics of management and accountability and how it understands its own mission. If that isn’t enough in the wake of Leveson, it faces another fundamental challenge with Maria Miller, Tory culture minister, having a major review in the run-up to the BBC’s Royal Charter renewal in 2017 to look at issues of media pluralism and “voice”. Many media insiders see this as a ploy after Leveson for the government to bring the BBC down a peg or two, consider shrinking its remit and role, and win Murdoch empire plaudits.

There are common threads in the experience of both organisations, the NHS and BBC. One is the decline in trust by the public in these once patrician, profoundly liberal “we know best” bodies. Too often British politics has involved Labour and the Left defending paternalism and such bodies against what they see as attack from the Right.

The other commonality is the existence of a Tory marketisation dogma which since Thatcher has reshaped much of Britain and certainly England. It has an inexorable logic to it, of undermining the public realm and acting as a whirlwind through national institutions: witness the impending privatisation of the Royal Mail.

It seems an ideology that Labour is in retreat in the face of, and incapable of offering, despite having 30 years to attempt to fashion (and more than a decade in office), an alternative version of the public good … one less paternalist, more diverse, democratic and decentralist.

It is all a far cry from Macmillan’s “conservative nation” but we are a very different kind of society compared to then. All of this leaves us with the unifying institution of the monarchy. As a body, personified in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, it has enjoyed a new found lease of life and popularity.

But for how long? The era of Charles beckons. Given his luggage, personal peccadillos, record of consistent interfering in matters of government, and setting up of a virtual mini-parallel state of organisations, it seems highly possible that the only way for the monarchy after Queen Elizabeth is down. At least for a period.

We have been here before. The long reign of Queen Victoria (63 years) witnessed a period of popular monarchialism which was followed by one of more unease as the Edwardian age tried to accommodate the ideas of monarchy and democracy. The same is highly possible in our post-Elizabethan times, and while observers will note that until now these moods have moved cyclically, what is different now is that royal advocates such as David Starkey seem to be predicating the continuation of Britain on the popularity of the monarchy.

This brings us to the state of modern Britain. What binds us together? Once we had common causes, songs, battles and even enemies, but no longer. The last British good war that is uncontested is the Second World War, the nearest we seem to have to a modern British foundation myth.

Does this matter? Maybe not in the short term, but in the longer run it surely does. We can possibly stumble along for a while, maybe even a couple of decades, but eventually people will want more from their national imagination, their polity, and state. In short, they are going to want to be more as a people.

Could this realistically happen at a British level with a reimagination of the United Kingdom as progressive, liberal and European? I would, like countless other Scots, like to think so … but it isn’t going to happen is it?

More likely, whatever the result of Scotland’s big vote next year, we will have to – all of us across these isles – imagine a world after Britain.