Tom Nairn: It’s pointless to hold back the tide of history
Supranational forces are turning Great Britain into ever more of an anachronism
The new turn of events over Alex Salmond’s proposed referendum poses even more questions than those certain to be debated over the coming two years – more, and deeper, than the legality or propriety of the vote and its timing. It’s tempting to think something like a new age may be on the launchpad. That is, one where the established “-ism” of nationality politics is visibly shifting, and not in the British-Irish archipelago alone. This is surely because wider circumstances are changing at the same time: the conditions of “globality” will not efface nation-states and “sovereignty”, but they do seem likely to alter the meaning of such familiar terms.
Scotland’s move towards the 2014 vote is part of this greater alteration. It used to be said that the Scots were “belated” in recovering self-government: tail-enders, who had missed the main tide of national liberation in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, it may be that such delay has led to a disconcerting conclusion. Globalisation has changed the context so much, that lateness has turned into a new start: from the overdue to the premature, one might say.
Under the emerging circumstances, independence may be just as important, or maybe even more important, than during the epoch of imperialism and recurrent warfare. However, a new style and vision is required for the shift: something better than the old “-ism” of colonisation and the Cold War. Couldn’t the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish – the former “periphery” – contribute to this novelty, rather than revive the old? The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain (Cape, 2009), as Ian Jack called it in his book, has had its over-long day. Under David Cameron’s coalition government, it’s beginning to sound more like an ancien régime.
For the latter, civilisation is deemed unthinkable without the old “unwritten constitution”. Honour and trust must not vanish for good in a post-British fog of rights and formal entitlements. Unwritten remains best, because more easily changed, and more readily in touch with changing times. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of this in Cameron’s Westminster. The world may be moving on, from Cold War and state socialism to post-war hopes and new starts; but not the fake-Gothic palaces on Thames-side, depositories of Antiques Road Show and Countryfile wisdom.
Two serious efforts to reform the old-style UK have now failed: John Prescott’s proposal for regional assemblies in England, rejected by the north-east; and more recently, the Lib-Dem idea of switching to a fairer Australian-style of election with the Alternative Vote (AV). The case looks ever more incurable. But this is rarely taken seriously enough by the substantial body of voters still wishing to “Save the Union”.
Shouldn’t they think again? The weird controversy about “devo max” is shifting the terrain once more, by implying that self-rule just short of standard-issue statehood is conceivable: a de facto independence avoiding awkward external relations and preserving Britain’s Security Council status: the Banquo’s ghost of international affairs, as it were, mummified for all eternity in Special Relationship solution.
“Saving the Union” in a socio-cultural sense is of course comprehensible. Nationalists in Scotland and Wales have not been persecuted and imprisoned, like so many others over the past two centuries. “Anti-Englishness” is indisputable, but also widely misunderstood: what it comes down to is less ethnicity, than an unwillingness to tolerate the different status deriving from having been historically first, and then using this priority to build an outward-going imperium.
It was spelt out rather well by Ernest Gellner (himself from an immigrant family) in the conclusion to Nations and Nationalism (Blackwell, 1983), and put even more strongly by Liah Greenfeld in Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Harvard 1992), as “God’s First-Born”, where the English were “symbolically elevated to the position of an elite…[and] created a new type of collectivity and social structure unlike any other, and a novel, at that time unique, identity…It was the first, expressive, act of national self-assertion.”
That kind of priority was the launch-motor of nationalism, and unavoidably carried the periphery of the Anglo-Irish archipelago along with it. From 1706 until yesterday, the deal has been presented in Viscount Stair’s 1707 terms as “raising the status of Scotland…an equal; partnership in all things, a sharing of fortunes in good times and bad” (Michael Fry’s The Union, Birlinn, 2006). “A few days later,” adds the author, “this most expert and effective advocate of the Union dropped dead”. A few centuries later, so has his work.
It lasted so long because the conditions of what one might call “first-round industrialisation” were so favourable to Stair’s assumptions. From 1745 until the end of the Cold War, one population after another was borne forward by the resultant tidal waves: the “-ism” of nation-statehood proved irresistible, because there appeared no alternative to what Gellner went on to describe as “the society of perpetual growth”. Globalisation is a kind of conclusion to the latter, not that all peoples are successfully modernised, but a certain finality has imposed itself on the process.
Plenty of hills and diversions ahead, but humanity at large is over the main hump. And, like other countries, Scotland will have to find its own place in the ongoing process. That’s what the 2014 vote will really be about. The final conditions of globality render peculiarities and inherited social “DNA” more rather than less significant.
The foe used to be imperialism; today it’s what might be labelled “all-the-sameism”, surrender to a uniformity of outlook and customs formerly blessed (and cursed) with terms like “internationalism” or “cosmopolitanism”. Globality has made these as superfluous as parochialism and “narrow nationalism”. It will only be tolerable via the incorporation of the many colours, not their blurring or extinction: by contrast, Anglo-Brit unionism now stands for a kind of tut-tutting over the way of the world – “Hey, not so fast out there, not so far! Make do with a bit less, for the sake of Union/ Commonwealth/the Rest of Us!”
What “the rest of us” means is actually the more comfortable decline of the Great-British ruling and political class, the club-armchair, Jeeves the butler, and the culture of class. One can’t just take the “Great” out of Britishness, leaving all the rest intact. That fusion was history’s deal, and England’s glory.
Only a breakthrough to “Little England” could undo the old alchemy, and this is surely what independence for Wales and Scotland will lead to. It does mean “going backwards”, but in order to make a more important leap forward: reculer pour mieux sauter, they say over the Channel. This is what the 2014 vote will be about, not just fuller self-government for edge-lands but contributing to a greater emancipation, the liberation of initiatives and multi-coloured ideas previously repressed by structures set up in the 19th and 20th centuries’ versions of mega-statehood – right for their own time, but now out-dated by globalisation.
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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