How will Scots respond to the images of merry old England starting to pervade the media, wonders Joyce McMillan
Christmas Day: and emerging from the depths of a long holiday sleep, I switch on Radio 4, to find out what’s happening in the world, perhaps the latest hurricane, or terrorist attack, or some piece of festive good news, pointing the way towards a sustainable future for us and the planet.
No such luck, though; for the top item tells me that Prince Harry’s fiancée, Meghan Markle, has attended church with the Royal Family at Sandringham, even though she and the prince are not yet married. This last detail is newsworthy, apparently; so much so that her appearance beats into second place the usual BBC preview of the Queen’s annual Christmas message.
Now it’s common, of course, for those of us who are not passionate royalists – or not royalists at all – to complain about the endless forelock-tugging to the royal family that still forms a prominent part of British public life. If anything, though, royal coverage in the British media now seems to be on the increase, rather than declining as we might expect, in an age when old class distinctions are widely supposed to be dead; and in these Brexit times, this re-charged royalism seems to come as part of a package of retro-nationalist nostalgia, a whole narrative of Britain’s return to a more red-and-white and blue, pre-European Union identity.
This week alone, we have seen the row over the Prime Minister’s fundamentally false assertion that leaving the EU enables Britain to return to its blue passports of old, when in fact we could always have had EU passports in any colour we wanted. Then there was another round in the ongoing dispute over Britain’s imperial past and whether our chests should swell with pride whenever we think of the achievement of our ancestors in conquering and exploiting vast tracts of the globe. Films about Britain’s finest hour continue to appear, mythologising every aspect of the Second World War from the Dunkirk retreat to the character of Winston Churchill, a man whose career itself vividly reflects all the profound moral ambiguities of UK imperial history.
On the small screen, ordinary British people struggling to get by on shrinking household incomes are invited, through series from Downton Abbey to The Crown, to identify intensely with the wealthy and privileged, and to forget the bad old days of solidarity with those facing the same problems as themselves. And in the gift section of the Edinburgh branch of a well-known UK department store, when I arrive in a last-minute shopping panic, there is a startling amount of red-white-and-blue to be seen on everything from cushions to confectionery, along with jigsaws of idealised English villages, and of the sights of London with Union Jack bunting.
All of which raises the question of how Scotland is likely, over time, to react to this new age of hyped-up British patriotism, and the nostalgic imagery that comes with it. The power of pervasive mainstream media should never be underestimated, of course. Even people who never buy a newspaper, or consciously sit down to watch a television news bulletin, are living in a culture partly shaped by shrill headlines and imagery proclaiming national joy at the sight of four young royals smiling, or snarling in fury at those – like the current Labour leader – who fail to show sufficient enthusiasm for Britain’s imperial past.
Yet sometimes, for all that, the assumptions about national sentiment that underpin this wave of cultural nostalgia seem even more crude and sweeping than the idea that Brexit represents the unified, settled will of all the people. In Scotland, Northern Ireland and some parts of England, for example, there are whole sections of the population to whom talk of extravagant devotion to the royal family, and of red, white and blue British patriotism, is not only meaningless but downright offensive. There are minority ethnic groups throughout Britain who know too much about the negative aspects of British imperialism ever to live comfortably in a society that chooses to turn a blind eye to them. There are people in Scotland and elsewhere who have not forgotten the proud tradition of British socialism, and who retain a healthy class scepticism about the monarchy and all its trappings.
There are the 16 million across the UK who voted to remain in the EU, and the 45 per cent of Scots who voted for independence in 2014. And there are those who simply understand what the authors of 1066 And All That understood 90 years ago – that Britain was never going to remain Top Nation for ever, and had better start learning to live with its new and more humble status.
And my guess is that all of these sceptical groups, taken together, probably amount to a substantial majority of Scottish voters – probably something like the 62 per cent majority who voted to remain in the EU. It’s not that there are no Scots who buy into the red-and-white blue imagery. Scots, though, have their own identity drama to play out, in their relationship with England; and that leaves us, on average, much less emotionally engaged in the real or imagined battle for “British” identity unleashed by Brexit, and barely engaged at all in the centuries-old psycho-drama of England’s relationship with continental Europe, which predates even William Shakespeare.
So now, all that Scotland and its government can do is to wait and see how important that cultural and emotional difference may turn out to be. Are the Scots buying the Union Jack tea-towels and jigsaws, or are they leaving them on the shelves? And if half of the people of England are buying them, what are the other half doing to open up the possibility of a different and less backward-looking 21st century UK? All of this – and more – remains unknowable, as we stand on the brink of the new year; but if Britain is heading back to the future, in 2018, there is certainly no guarantee that it will finally be able to take all four nations with it, on such a bitterly contested journey, into a deeply ambiguous past.