Why England is much more divided than Scotland – Kenny MacAskill

Long-term social and economic changes have left England much more divided than Scotland and Boris Johnson’s iconoclastic administration will only make it worse, writes Kenny MacAskill.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Matt Dunham/PA Wire

A lot of tosh was spouted about the supposed divisiveness of the independence referendum. One egg flung and a few family squabbles hardly equated with a land in turmoil. Elsewhere in the world, it was viewed with some admiration and even seen as the way to conduct major constitutional affairs. Unionists doth protest too much as the country now at war with itself is located south of the border.

Brexit and long-term social and economic changes have seen a divide appear in England and it’s deep.

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It’ll take time and a lot more effort than the UK Government is currently making to address it. Indeed, they’re exacerbating it further by widening the gulf between rich and poor and attacking institutions that were once the bedrock of “Merry Olde England”.

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Sitting in the House of Commons Chamber provides a perspective on that growing chasm. Listening to speeches from the new intake of MPs makes that abundantly clear. A young Tory woman from a former Labour redoubt in the north of England made an impressive maiden speech.

Proclaiming her working-class roots and upbringing on a council estate, her accent was local to the area, not the “bools in the mooth” of many a Scottish Tory.

It wasn’t hard to see how even old miners would have warmed to “their lass”, even if it’s still an anathema to me and many others.

Principled and personable

Likewise, I sat through a tub-thumping and almost revivalist speech from a young and newly elected Labour MP from the West Midlands. It too resonated not just with me but I’m sure with many of her constituents.

It was fiery and she was sparky, it would have gone down well with people angry at imposed austerity and fed up with feeling put upon.

She was from an immigrant family and her upbringing would have been the same as many in her seat or at least appreciated by others in a very multi-ethnic area.

Both are principled and highly personable, yet the divide is a chasm. The views they have of society and the economy are radically different but that’s acceptable and even healthy in a democracy. The challenge is in the areas that they live and how the world is seen from those standpoints.

For England’s not a green and pleasant land for many living there and it’s certainly a far from united one.

The Tory would hardly recognise her Labour opposite’s community and both might well feel alien in the other’s environment. Of course, Scotland has divides but nothing as momentous as this.

It’s not simply about race or immigration as London has transformed over recent decades and the integration is truly remarkable. Many other areas of England are likewise. Instead, it’s about a vision of the land they seek. The forgotten in the north, despairing at their plight, seek a return to a time frankly that has never been.

An elected iconoclast

Meanwhile, the forgotten in the south seek a future in a land in which they see themselves – and they have good reason to do so – being increasingly marginalised. All that could be overcome with efforts from either Tory or Labour administrations to alleviate poverty, address inequality and promote integration. But that ain’t happening.

Instead, the elected iconoclast Boris Johnson is smashing his way through the venerable institutions of old England that were meant to uphold the values of the land. First, the judiciary and now the senior ranks of the civil service are if not under attack, then most certainly being undermined.

Previously those institutions were viewed as sacrosanct and even Labour governments – that might have had reason to be suspicious, if not fear them – failed to tread on their toes. But not this administration intent on its “transformative agenda”. If it’s not with them or for them, then it’s a threat and fair game.

Beyond the pale and unfit for office

Hence why a court doing its job in holding the Government to account sparks outrage and results in threats to undermine or remove them. It’s “Trumpesque” as we’ve seen across the Atlantic where third-raters are being appointed to the Supreme Court because they’re pliant and complicit in the President’s demands. Whitehall Mandarins once held sway as governments came and went. It at least provided for some continuity, even if it inhibited radicalism. But no more.

Now it’s their way or the highway. I don’t find Sir Philip Rutnam a particularly sympathetic character but Priti Patel’s well beyond the pale and simply unfit for high office, indeed even any office. But out he goes and in she stays.

It’s only going to get worse as Johnson uses and abuses his majority. England’s a deeply divided land and the iconoclast and philistine in office is only going to make it worse. I despair for them.

Kenny MacAskill is SNP MP for East Lothian

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