Wednesday, 10 September 2014
My Country Has Nine Days To Live
This is a politcal post. I considered setting up a politcal blog to put it on but to be honest, no-one would read it and I don't think about politics enough, or enjoy thinking about politics enough to make a habit of it.
Plus my policy here has generally been the opposite of internet best practice, I just dump what I like on the blog and let you filter it.
So here it is, its under a break so you can just avoid it if you want.
So it looks like my country is dying in nine days, so I should say something about it.
'Dying' is something of a strong word. If the vote goes one way then the political union between England and Scotland will be over. England will still be there and Scotland will still be there. Britain will effectively be dead.
There will still be Wales and Northern Island as addendums to the English state but by that point it will be the English State. Using the word Britain or British in anything but the most refined geographical sense will essentially be meaningless. I will no longer be able to tell people from other countries that I am British, I will be English.
I like my country. I have occasionally wanted to kill everyone in it and burn it to the ground, but I consider that feeling a necessary part of patriotism. If you have never actually hated your country then you probably don't understand your country. Therefore your love for it has little meaning. The counterpoint here is the patriotism of someone like Margaret Thatcher, someone who absolutely, utterly believed in Britain and who probably played a meaningful part in destroying Britain.
Because she didn't really understand what Britain was. She thought it was England writ large and that’s why she found it easy to believe in. Whenever she came face to face with the parts of it that were not England writ large, you could sense her discomfort.
Believing in the identity of a nation state is an utterly mad thing to do and people have used this as a strong argument against it. None of the people making that argument have provided anything less mad to believe in so it hasn't stuck.
(Class, Race and Religion seemed to be the big ones. But things worked out mildly-less-destructively when you managed to jam a bunch of those inside one nation without them trying to kill each other rather than the other way round.)
People need a big idea to stand between them and the ferocity of the world and, given a reasonable range of choices, Nations are the one they went for. The idea has gone horribly horribly wrong a fair number of times, but we've been doing it a while and we've probably worked most of the kinks out by now.
There is an idea that if we get rid of nations, people will stop fucking each other over. They won't. The human capacity to fuck each other over is a protean force that renews itself in each re-organisation of the world. The worst thing you can do about it is pretend you've found a magic way to make it disappear. It's why revolutions tend not to work out.
So, believing in a country is a challenging thing. It's *all* the people inside it and *all* of its complex past and all of that bound together in a particular slice of time and space. Britain’s past is much more complex than most.
There are probably few, or no, nations in which a history of greatness and horror are so closely bound. Britain’s past is pitch and gold, brimstone and silver.
On one side we have a major force in the construction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the famines in India and Ireland. Those are the really big killers. Then we have all the smaller colonial wars, from the especially-horrid-and-racist to the mildly-less-horrid-and-racist. You have the industrial revolution. Still not clear how that one will work out. Add to that all the not-directly-super-evil-but-still-catastrophic-colonial-fucking-about.
If you look at the nastiest British crimes you see a combination of racial contempt, naked greed, hypocrisy and corporate callousness. It's greed and race, working together, that allowed the most harm. Those are the dark points of the British soul.
On the other side we have the fact that for almost all of its history, compared other countries right next to it, Britain was a relatively safe and peaceful place to live for most of the people in it. If you want to examine Britain’s effects on its colonies you would have to point out that almost all of them rebelled to get Britain the hell away from them and also that a very high percentage of them ended up as functional democracies. Britain didn't make India and America work out, but both those polities have a shitload of British political DNA, either introduced or stolen-and-adapted. A meaningful number of the functioning democracies on earth have British-derived parts in them.
And you have Napoleon, the two world wars and the cold war. For the entire existence of Britain, every time the European continent has been threatened by the tyranny of one man, we have stood against them. Not, usually for the right reasons, often for slightly wrong reasons, but we did it. And we won. Or at least survived, every time.
(Could we take a moment to think about how deeply unlikely it is that Britain still exists when you think about the level of shit we have gotten into?)
Hitler is the obvious one. Stalin a little less obvious. Any sane person can think WW1 was a gigantic fuck-up rather than a crime but very few would say we should have watched while Germany took France. Napoleon will have his defenders.
I think we were right. I would have avoided any of those conflicts starting if I could, but, once begun, I think we were right to fight in them and I am glad we won. I think the world is a better place because we fought and because we won.
To the political history, we must add the history of Science.
The British are generally not that good at art and a bit 'meh' at philosophy. We have had some decent ones but really most major European nations outweigh us on that.
We are really fucking good at science though. This tiny speck of a nation has had an outsized effect on the unravelling of the nature of the material world. That has been our deepest exploration. Counting backwards: Gravity, Evolution, the Computer, a shitload of the basic elements. No matter what happens through the rest of human history, if there is any continuity of thought, anyone looking back through time at the origins of the understanding of the material world is going to see a lot of British names waving back at them.
A world without Britain is a world less free, less knowledgeable, less connected and probably a bit less racist.
The English state could not have done that alone. Britain could. Not just because the addition of Scotland adds a few million people but because the idea of being British is a much wider idea than that of being English. Britain is a global identity, England is a ethnic tribe. To go from being British to English is to become smaller.
There are not many people in this country that think that. I am in a minority. Most are happy to be English. I don’t really want to be part of an ethnic tribe. The British identity suits me better. It suits a lot of people who find themselves on the edge of the English better. It includes more people with less strain. Boris Johnson made this point pretty well in the Telegraph, which was ignored by anyone who might have gotten anything useful out of it as its Boris Johnson and it’s the Telegraph.
Believing in something so strange and huge is difficult and requires a deep well of passion and imagination.
It's passion and imagination that we lack.
The campaign to keep Britain alive has been fronted by the least-charismatic most-disliked most-mediocre elite we've had for quite a while. It's been based almost entirely in quasi-threats, legalistic wrangling and grim warnings of unknown dooms. The warnings and wrangling’s may be true. It doesn't matter. Nations are not shaped by laws. Laws are secondary. They are shaped by emotion and identity. You can have all the laws you like and without that emotional core you have nothing. If you have identity and belief then you have a nation that will survive anything and re-constitute itself regardless of its circumstances.
Whatever the Scottish vote we have already lost. The idea of Scotland is old, powerful, simple and gives people the thing they want more than anything else. An identity to stand between themselves and the world. The British identity has shown itself to be the less-powerful dream and therefore whether it wins or loses this election, without a massive injection of passion and imagination, it is screwed. I am screwed.
If you are going to tell a people that they should vote to be less free than they could be then you have to offer them something pretty important . Monetary bribes won’t do it.
There are all the Vast Negative arguments. That Europe will fracture more, making it less safe. That the Russians and ISIS will snigger at us. That English politics will go into a tailspin and god knows what will result. But these are negatives. They don’t really count
You could argue that England is lessened without Scotland. Just as Scotland would become more free but less safe, England would become more alone and that the rejection and the aloneness will bring out the darkest qualities of the English character. I suppose that’s the ‘Stay With Me, I Need You’ argument.
You could say that the world is moving into a dangerous zone, where the effects of massive wealth and its deeply uneven distribution, the interconnection of global cultures and the massive backlash against that and the possibility of environmental decay squeezing humanity could create a kind of global pressure-cooker where things like Storms and Ebola and ISIS all run together into one continuous march of chaos. That the things Britain is good at could be meaningfully valuable in stabilising and saving such a world. That Britain is small and rich and tough and flexible enough to be a nation that could do good in the midst of chaos. That in chaos new challenges would be faced and new purpose found. This is the ‘Come With Me Into The Storm’ argument.
You could add to that that England and Scotland did the most harm, and the most good, when they were linked together, and if you are the kind of person who worries about the darker effects of Britain on world culture, and if you want, somehow, to put that right, then you can’t actually do that as Scotland on your own. You can’t atone singly for what you did as one. This isn’t an argument I would make but if it was it would be the ‘Let Us Jpin Hands And Pray’ argument.
You could simply argue that the Union has worked really really well. It’s a hard sell to make to a Scottish electorate because the most powerful sense impression of Britain is the deep feeling of isolation and difference they get when they look at the last 30 years of their relationship with Westminster. The Union does look like a really good idea, but only when you compare it to other countries and their fucked-up histories. When you compare it to how Scottish people have felt over their directly-lived experience then it feels wrong to them. I suppose we could call this the ‘Raise Your Eyes From The Ground’ argument. Or the anti-darth argument. “Search your feelings, you know them not to be entirely true.”
And finally we come to the possibility of the Renewal Of Britain argument. Scotland votes no. This leads to a real desire for constitutional change in the UK. The nation does something like light Federalisation, making it less like a Westminster dictatorship. Quasi-states for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, North England, London and the South. The re-connection to politics helps re-energise people’s sense that they have some control over their own lives. The ability to shape your local environment makes everyone resent each other a little less. Britain becomes a little less efficient and a little more free for everyone. All the inner city ethnic minorities, and the Northern Irish, and the Welsh, and Cornish (and me,) who don’t mind being British but don’t ‘feel’ English, still have something to call themselves. This is the ‘New Jerusalem’ argument.
That is the one I would go for if I was on a stage in Scotland.