Sunday, 12 April 2015

Nationalism and geography

If you don't fancy a long read, get this: we live on one group of obviously associated offshore European islands. In our long history we have generally shared one language which is not the Continent's (although they all learn it now). This accident of geography colours most of my political thinking. Ergo I am a Unionist, end of story.

The longer version.

Not many months past we went through, yes all of us, a divisive referendum, at the end of which, there was a clear result and we were all told, that was it for a generation. In the immediate aftermath the SNP saw a growth in membership which for any modern day British political party was astronomical. That has continued, for all of which the SNP only account for a proportion of Scottish voters.

However nine months later and we have a general election. Here according to Andrew Marr this morning, the SNP look set to gain 4/5th or thereabouts of the Scottish seats at Westminster. The Labour party assert there will never be SNP members in their administration. Some form of coalition appears likely. The SNP further assert that if they can exercise power they will remove Trident from Scotland. They will then campaign for a similar result at the Scottish MSP elections in May 2016. If they can repeat the performance twice, they are now saying on that mandate they will swiftly move to a second referendum.

So why should this upset me and my life in Northumberland. To be fair there is a certain gut feeling. I was always brought up (in Norfolk) as my wife was (in Glasgow) to acknowledge I was British first and then something after that. Being British in my family always trumped being English. If I hear someone from Scotland saying their only allegiance is to Scotland it makes me wince. Do you not first and foremost belong to this one group of islands? Geography was always my strong subject. Having to choose about abandoning being British and just being English goes against every grain in my body. About the one thing I am not is Welsh (or even Cornish). Otherwise I could travel from Hampshire, through Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, Shropshire, Airedale, Durham, Northumberland, the Eden Valley, Balsporran Cottages on the A9, Kingussie Churchyard, Slochd Summit, Elgin, Galloway, Ayrshire, Carrickfergus, Ballynure and Dublin, and in all these places say "I belong, it is my family right to belong".

Nor if you know me well, you might laugh and say you spent too long moving around Britain and anyway you only spent four years living in Ayrshire. Two things (of several) happened to me today. I spent a church lunch chatting to a Welsh gospel singer who lives in Northumberland, and sings with an Ulster accent. We were of one mind, we were not for this Nationalist stuff. Not because we are raving Anglophiles but because we are children of these islands. In our book what unifies is much more than what divides and for both our families, the common Ulster threads means we utterly understand about division.

The second thing about today is that my wife came back from lunch with some friends amongst whom there is a very gracious and talented couple. Some time ago the lady there said she wished to prepare a family history to give to our daughter Clare. Today was delivery day, four large hessian bags of immaculate research, CDs, typescript telling me almost everything I might want to know about our past since King William of Orange. What do you know, follow the paternal line and it takes you ultimately to a named, recognisable today, farm by Loch Ryan and back beyond that into Ayrshire.

The point being for innumerable people in Britain (think Corby), to divide our country into multiple states will be to wrench our personal identity apart. The Scots don't live in Scotland and the English in England. We are a multiplicity of ethnicity in a shared physical environment. That does not mean Scotland is not its own country. Our Union has been a very clever Union of four countries. One is self evidently the richest and is the gatekeeper to Europe and other trading partners. It has been in everyone's interest to balance the disparity. For the richer group to share its resources with the other. And that is what has happened. England does support the others. Who had to ride to the rescue when Ireland virtually went bankrupt less than 10 years ago?

This morning Andrew Marr interviewed a leading Scottish lady campaigner for the nationalists. She said she was not an economist, figures did not come into her calculation. This was an emotional decision for better or for worse, to shake off the imperial shackles. I just shake my head, I recognise none of this. England in 1707 did not take over Scotland in an Imperial action. The two countries agreed to a Union as it was in their financial and political best interests, but in many respects (e.g. in law and religion, each remained a distinct state). The actions that had brought this about (Darien) were largely the responsibility of Scots. But even if Darien was not a factor, the increasing economic pace of interaction would have brought Union. Through the rest of the 18th century, the Scottish enlightenment flourished. It was based on reason, it produced economic thinkers who are still read. The idea that Scotland in the 21st century should become independent on emotional rather than rational grounds makes me shudder. In the debate of the week the fiscal hole of independence has been raised by an impartial think tank. "Smear" the Nationalists shout when Miliband mentioned it. It struck me as cold reason and no smear.

I think rationality has left the debate. Something must explain why the Nationalists appeal? I cannot deny they do.  The best answer I have is three fold: Thatcher, Social Media and God. It is clear that the years of Thatcher became the years of the divide. If indeed Britain divides (virtually down the geographical middle, you do realise this, two maps one of population, one of acreage would produce astoundingly different shapes), I will not simply blame the SNP. Mrs Thatcher will shoulder a huge percentage of the blame. She broke the consensus politics, she destroyed her own party during her Prime Ministership north of the Border. She said it was fine for London and the South East to flourish without a care for the central belt of Scotland (and the North of England). I grew up in Tory Norfolk, I went rather reluctantly to private school (it did not seem to me fair or healthy even as a teenager). I found myself working in West Yorkshire through the Miner's strike in 1984. I saw the lines of police minibuses. Two years later and I was clearing out shut collieries.

In short order I moved to Scotland: Ayrshire and Clydeside 1986-1990. I saw the hopelessness of men on street corners with no work, men I actually knew. I remembered reading L T C Rolt describing Stoke on Trent after the Kerr Stuart closure in 1930. I remembered too Auden's description of Dumbarton "The flotsam at which Dumbarton Gapes and Hungers" (May 1932). I met my wife in the shipyard he knew and in 1987, it still felt bad.

Many will read this and say, there is your answer. This abandonment of the North has gone on since the 1930s and it simply cannot be endured any more. But unless a Nationalist party has real economic plans which stack up, emotionalism will not bring happiness. The lady Marr interviewed this morning seemed to be saying independence will always be more worthwhile than what we have? Why? It seems to me a major player is revenge. Westminster has "f**cked us up", well now it is payback. Behave like this and a whole island will venture into chaos.

But what fuels revenge? Can it be the abandonment of faith? All the nations of the islands pursued different faith routes since the reformation which has not been without pain itself. But on balance the faith, the mutual understanding of purpose was Christian. That is no longer the case and I wonder whether that is feeding this?

Does that mean I think Great Britain is a God given concept? I don't but I think it was a God fearing creation. Its leaders of various centuries felt they would answer to God for their stewardship. Outstanding of those is our present monarch. Take Israel. Do I think God gives land to people and says you now have the right to persecute and expel the inhabitans? No way. Jesus gave the answer. The purpose of the people of God is to show the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, it is to be exemplars. Jesus warned of what would happen to Israel if it could not see this in 30AD and his warnings were shortly fulfilled. The Romans annihilated Israel (fact). For a second time round since 1948 Israel has had the opportunity to show how to be a model nation. One for whom its treatment of all its citizens and neighbours could showcase the performance of faith. How has it got along?

I should contrast that with a tale of optimism. A tale of the shared values of the special relationship. It comes from Boston, USA and perhaps it might even be able to make me accept the bitter pill of divorce. Have you heard of the Hoyts? Good to learn about them  and . Are they Christians? Does that matter? I don't know and it does not. But get this, what was intended to be their final race was interupted by the bombing of the Boston marathon. Whatever else you think, one of the immense achievements of Western Liberal, Christian based thinking is that it is utterly wrong to bomb the innocent. It was wrong for the IRA to do this, it is wrong for Muslims to do it, and it was wrong for the USA to do it in South East Asia. However the future goes, we must keep the peace in Great Britain. We did not in the past, I live in reiver country.

A salutary tale. Does this perhaps make me more sanguine about the breakup of Great Britain. Not exactly. I do think Great Britain may breakup. NATO and the USA would be fair amazed. This would delight some others. Some could see it as a judgement of God on a nation's faithlessness. In that it would be unfair to heap all the blame on the SNP. The behaviour of corporates in London business districts does alarm many. Something terrible went wrong in banking in the early years of the 20th century, it had probably been decades in the making since The Big Bang Boys. But what went wrong in London went wrong in Edinburgh too. RBoS is a dirty word. London in England, in Britain has proven able to pick itself up. Had RBoS purely been an Edinburgh institution it would have carried off a nation with it. Vote for an anti union party on May 7th and logic and history suggests you only have to wait.

How might I end this? I think as my father did. A Christian burial in a church in a coffin draped in the Union flag. Two hymns:  one from our wedding: "Be Thou my vision...................... " Old Irish. Celtic spirit. One from his funeral: "I vow to thee my Country........",_My_Country . Now you might think this turns me into some flag waver. Anyone who really knows me, knows I am nothing like that. My country is not the country of the English establishment, it is my Britain. Don't take it from me.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Penrith and the Borders was on Radio 4

Yesterday we went to Maryport, West Cumbria. The drives passes through Rory Stewart's Penrith & Borders constituency. This morning's R4 spot before 0821 (to trace it) it was the constituency being profiled. All that can honestly be said is that not one interviewee felt their views made a blind bit of difference. The CLA rep struggling to get mobile signal, the redundant shop worker who lost their job when the bus went. Rural buses, broadband, just the same issues as in the Hexham neighbour. Guy Opperman has certainly worked on both those issues but another round of local bus cuts is immediately imminent. I largely blame having a council based in Ashington for that, but any campaign for a West Northumberland unitary does not have traction in the current election. The overwhelming feeling I guess for many people across this whole vast spread of land is year after year of muddling through with less central support. Meanwhile events north of the Border are unsettling to say the least and for a historian the feeling of Deja Vu (think 410, think16th century) is hard to shrug off.