Westminster political debate has become a desperate reactionary race to the bottom, writes Joyce McMillan
Reading through some old theatre reviews, I come across the one, from 1997, that records my first-ever visit to the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, on London’s South Bank. The play is Henry V, Shakespeare’s most straightforwardly patriotic drama, and given the Globe Theatre’s character as a popular playhouse, designed to match the 16th century original, the audience standing in the arena is soon booing and hissing the villains, and cheering young King Harry, like a pantomime crowd in full cry.
For the French – so far as Shakespeare’s Henry V is concerned – are essentially a bunch of owards, over-fond of fancy food and clothes, and distinctly effeminate. The stereotype seems strangely familiar, as I stand among the crowd, and that is because it mirrors, with great precision, the view of the English, or at any rate of the soft southern English, traditionally projected by some nationalistic Scottish writers, from John Barbour in the 14th century onwards.
To form any sense of national identity at all, it seems, we have to draw boundaries, and invent distinctions between ourselves and those beyond those borders. And for Scots, as for all small nations, the main distinction will always be between ourselves and our big neighbour, England.
For the English, though, the traditional enemies are the French, then the Germans, and it’s because of this mismatch of instinctive enmities, in times of stress, that the European Union – which celebrated its annual Europe Day, yesterday, in slightly muted style – seems likely to become an ever more significant bone of contention, as Scotland moves towards its independence referendum.
As the victors of the Second World War, of course, the nations of the UK have always had less reason to cling to the idea of Europe, as a guarantor of peace and freedom, than those countries that were once defeated and occupied. For most people in Britain, the EU has been – at best – a free trade zone with a few useful political dimensions.
Now, though, the EU’s political and economic failures over the last generation – the failure to develop a genuine Europe-wide democratic culture, compounded by the historic error of opting for austerity in the face of the current recession – are coming back to haunt it, and the people of England are deciding in ever-greater numbers that they want out, often voting for Ukip to prove it.
In fact, most of Ukip’s arguments about the EU are based on false assumptions. EU citizens coming to live and work in Britain contribute more to the UK’s economy than they take out, and do not, overall, either make us poorer as a nation, or “place a strain” on public services.
Facts like these, though, are no longer welcome in a Westminster political debate that has become a desperate reactionary race to the bottom, in terms of intellectual, moral and economic credibility.
The Tories vie with Ukip to punish migrants and benefit claimants for a recession they did not cause; the Liberal Democrats go haplessly along with this farrago of right-wing nonsense, and even the upper echelons of the Labour Party are stuffed with people who would rather pander to xenophobic prejudice in England’s unhappy working class, than risk returning to a serious progressive politics.
The sight of the Queen in her full ceremonial outfit, reading out the coalition’s low-rent right-wing tosh to a House of Lords riddled with corporate influence, only adds to the impression of a political class that has completely lost the plot.
And if it is silly to imagine that an independent Scotland would suddenly and magically be free of all the social problems that plague the UK, then it is even sillier – if possible – to imagine that the mere act of leaving the EU would do anything to free the English people from the shrill and frightening age of reaction into which they seem to be sleepwalking.
In Scotland, though, things are a little different: and not, as some would argue, because we are too busy blaming the English to bother blaming the EU. For most pragmatic Scots, the situation is more subtle and has to do with the fact that we have become used, over the decades and centuries of the Union, to dealing comfortably with the multiple layers of political identity that make up our world.
Most Scots feel that they are both Scottish and British in a social and cultural sense and they can therefore add a third strand of identity – as European citizens – without any visceral sense of threat.
And this is perhaps the main reason why we find ourselves, in these times of economic stress, on an island where a growing majority of English people say they want to leave the EU, while a clear majority of Scots say that they would prefer to stay in.
Nor, in the short term, is there much that can be done about this growing difference of opinion. Indeed, as the writer and songmaker Pat Kane pointed out this week, we should be grateful, whether we support it or not, for the multi-layered and outward-looking form of civic nationalism that has evolved in Scotland since the 1970s, and avoid the crude and dangerous mistake of equating the SNP with Ukip.
Of course, there is never any room for complacency around the politics of identity. There are plenty of Scots who find Ukip’s simple message attractive, and plenty who are prepared to project on to the image of a free Scotland the same range of reactionary fantasies that Ukip projects on to the notion of Britannia, unchained at last from the European Union.
In Scottish politics, though, there is still a sense that progressive alternatives might be possible. That the fairer, greener and more prosperous Scotland envisaged by the SNP might just be within our grasp, provided civil society can muster enough unity and creativity to make the politicians deliver on their fine words.
South of the Border, progressive politics seems in full retreat, almost entirely absent from the field. And that leaves the Better Together campaign with nothing to promote but a grimly conservative fear of change, a message that the Scottish people seem – according to current polls – to be receiving loud and clear, but which may, by September next year, have become just too depressing to tolerate any longer.