For the avoidance of doubt, I like Scotland and Wales. As a matter of fact, I love Wales, having Welsh family and friends, and having spent many a happy holiday there. I’ve also enjoyed trips up to Scotland to stay with friends in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are really fine cities, and to go walking in the lochs. But, I wonder, would Scottish and Welsh people say the same thing about England? ‘I like / love England’ or ‘I’m looking forward to my holiday in England’? These are not statements that somehow ring true, even if they were true! Do Scottish people actually talk of taking holidays in England, even if they do? And if they don’t, does this betray an ambivalence towards a country containing holiday destinations that the Scottish people in question might in fact love?
I suppose the reluctance of Scottish people to talk about their holidays ‘in England’, and to profess to having enjoyed their stay in ‘the country’, is not always the product of a dislike of the English similar to English people’s mixed feelings about the French when they say that France is too good for the French – not that the Scots would be likely to admit that England was ‘too good’ for anyone! No, for Scots and Welsh people, saying they’ve been on holiday in England is a bit like English people saying they’ve been on holiday in England: it doesn’t exactly convey much information and it naturally begs the question, ‘oh, whereabouts in England?’ Accordingly, you tend to hear statements like, ‘we went to Yorkshire this year’ or, like the PM, ‘we stayed in Norfolk for a couple of weeks’. In other words, Scots and Welsh people would normally refer to the part of England – county or ‘region’ – they stayed in, without the name for that part of England necessarily having to contain the word ‘England’ itself; unless it were something generic such as ‘the North of England’.
And yet, the fact that, for the Scots and Welsh, saying they’ve been on holiday in England is like English people saying the same thing; and the fact that they can talk about travelling to Yorkshire or East Anglia with the familiarity and assumed shared knowledge of people for whom those places are a part of their own country, does indicate an ambiguous, and ambivalent, relationship towards ‘the country’ that is England. It is, in fact, as if England were the country: the heartland and existential core of that other country, Britain, of which Scotland and Wales are – now, at least – semi-detached parts or sub-countries. It is as if, for Scots and Welsh people, England is in some sense their country – ‘their’ England – in the same way that English people have tended to nurture proprietorial feelings about Scotland and Wales: that, even though they recognised that the locals felt a proud sense of separate nationhood, those countries ultimately belonged to England and were part of the English ‘domain’ that was otherwise known as Britain.
These are very delicate issues that Scots and Welsh people won’t readily admit to. That is why they won’t name as England ‘the country’ that they feel in some sense belongs to them – and to which they belong – but will refer only to the county or region of England they’ve been to; and, if they do name that mutual sense of national belonging, they’ll call it ‘the country’ or ‘Britain’: not ‘we love England, to which we feel Scotland and Wales somehow still belong – and of which we, as Scots and Welsh people, also feel a sense of shared ownership’, but ‘we love Yorkshire’ or ‘we love East Anglia’; and ‘we feel that we have a stake in England, along with the English themselves, because we are all part of “the country” that is Britain’.
From these sorts of responses flow two alternative contemporary models for the relationship between the different nations that form part(s) of ‘the country’ that is Britain. One of these, which I would contend is very close to the hearts of many Scottish and Welsh people, but which they naturally find it hard to admit to, is a feeling of belonging to a national whole of which the core identity, culture and society are those of England: Scotland and Wales (and, insofar as it is included as an integral part of ‘Britain’, Northern Ireland; leaving aside the Cornish question for now . . .) as effectively peripheral, semi-autonomous nation-regions of ‘the country’ that is England-Britain: on the one hand, England and, on the other, the two (three / four) nations of ‘Greater Britain’, as one might say. England as the heartland of Britain (traditionally having merged its identity with that of Britain), with Scotland and Wales (and N. Ireland and Cornwall) making up the extended English-British domain beyond England; hence ‘Greater Britain’.
The other model is the New Labour, politically expedient and politically correct suppression of the embarrassing and increasingly humiliating psychological, political and cultural truth that Scotland and Wales have been effectively dependent ‘regions’ of a Britain that was in essence another name for England. So, just as Scottish and Welsh people can’t admit to their feelings of loving and belonging to an integral nation whose heart is England – and so will talk only of regions, ‘the country’ and ‘Britain’ – so now, Scotland and Wales are to be viewed as sub-nations of a Britain that is otherwise sub-divided only into regions, counties and cities. It seems that, in order to assert not only their political but also their emotional independence from England, the very existence of an England to which Scotland and Wales have traditionally felt they belonged must be denied and a new, more dignified, equal set of relationships asserted: Scotland and Wales not as regions but as small nations of equal stature and status to – ironically – a number of ‘other’ similarly-sized ‘British regions’ occupying ‘the country’ formerly known and loved as England but now referred to only as ‘Britain’. Psychologically, you could say that this is one way of dealing with the pain of separation: Scotland and Wales find themselves surprisingly missing their organic connection to England-Britain; so this pain and grief is creatively re-worked into a Britain that is ‘missing England’ in the other sense. In this way, the would-be wishing of England into non-existence is in fact the other side of a grieving for their union with England that it is not acceptable for proud Scottish and Welsh nationalists to articulate. Hence, the most effective way psychologically to deny that you are missing England is for England to go missing: for it no longer to exist.
This is perhaps another way to configure the bizarre would-be re-crafting of a Britain without England that has taken place in the wake of devolution. It’s a symptom of psychological fissure and splitting, which manifests itself in different ways from either side of the equation, and either side of the border. For the Scots and the Welsh – particularly, the Scots – there’s the pain and regret that dare not speak its name: that England is no longer their England – part of what it has meant to be Scottish for 300 years, if only on occasions by negative self-definition; and, conversely, that they are no longer integrally part of England, in either the geopolitical or emotional sense. The project to create a ‘New Britain’ of which Scotland is a semi-autonomous sub-nation is, as I’ve said, in part an attempt to deny that pain; and it is also an effort to imagine how to re-connect Scotland organically to a greater Britain of which it was once a part through England – only this time without England, from which the decision has been taken to separate Scotland’s identity.
Yes, this stratagem is also one that enables Labour to make out that it has a mandate to govern England through the inflated majority that its Scottish and Welsh MPs give it; and it enables Gordon Brown to posture as an elected leader for England, even though he represents a Scottish constituency: by denying that England exists and by affirming that – in ‘England’ only – there is only the UK, so that all UK MPs should participate in its governance. But this is also the expression of the torn loyalties of Scottish ‘nationalist-unionists’ who want to belong to a greater Britain without that Britain being fundamentally England.
From the English side of the equation, articulating everything as British only even when the matters at hand relate to England only is a way to deny the splitting up of the Union that has already occurred: it’s playing on that old organic non-distinction between England and Britain in the minds of English people that used to correspond to the political reality – when there was unitary (English) governance over the whole of Great Britain. Again, the political advantage of perpetuating the illusion that nothing has changed is clear: if people are unaware that what’s being talked and decided about relates to England only, they won’t start questioning why Scottish and Welsh MPs are getting involved in the process. However, at a deeper level, it’s about an unwillingness to give up that organic unity with Scotland and Wales that made English people feel those countries were part of themselves; indeed, part of England. We don’t want to wake up to the reality that our beloved country has split up and our children have left us: we want to still be part of one big English-British family.
Where does that leave us now, though? We’re in an intermediate, transitional state: not quite separate from one another but no longer joined at the hip. No longer a unitary Great Britain of which England was the foundation; but still a Union – in name only – that forces England to be effectively the place of a Britain that is dependent for the continuing participation of the Scots on its not being England. ‘This country’ of ours could be named, according to the first of my above models for post-devolution Britain, the ‘Disunited Kingdom of England and Greater Britain’ – the latter term being one that could also encompass Northern Ireland if that province is construed as another part of the greater British dominion of which England is the now partially dis-associated centre. And we – England – are no longer Great Britain but not yet willing and courageous enough to be only England – England alone.
But the separation must come: it must be completed, rather, because once it got started, there was no turning back the clock – like a spouse that can no longer go back to the union that once existed as soon as she has started to think of herself as a separate person before actually making the divorce final. The Scots have decided to be Scots first and foremost, and to break their organic union with England. England, too, must learn to let go. Then perhaps we can begin to find true greatness in ourselves and not in dominion; and not in Britain.
And then, perhaps, the Scots, too, might be able to confess to loving their holidays in England: a foreign country of which one can say ‘I’m going to England’, rather than one’s own country of which one would say ‘I am going to region x or county y’. An England that is no longer the mirror of Scotland’s own national humiliation and the object of unspoken, guilty, unrequited love. An England that is its own nation and need no longer be merely ‘the country’ for Britain’s sake.