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On an Edinburgh stage last month, a proud Englishman stood before a rapt Scottish audience to sing a song full of longing for the end of the UK. “Britain isn’t cool, you know/It’s really not that great,” sang leftwing folk star Billy Bragg. “It’s just an economic union/That’s past its sell-by date.”
His goal – the end of political Britain – suddenly looks entirely conceivable. Victory for Scotland’s independence campaigners in Thursday’s referendum would end the 307-year-old union between England and Scotland. And even if the pro-union campaign prevails, forces have been unleashed that could yet spell the doom of Britishness itself.
It is an extraordinary prospect, the possible demise of a state and identity that once ruled over a quarter of the world. The implications for British people from Shetland to Cornwall could be profound. It is a possibility that many in the UK view with none of the cheerfulness of Mr Bragg.
“When I think that we could be on the verge of throwing away 300 years of history, it makes me sick to my stomach,” says Duncan Strathearn, an irrigation engineer who has watched the anti-independence No camp’s narrowing lead with alarm. For Mr Strathearn, feeling British is a natural result of being born in England to an English mother and living in Scotland from the age of two and with a Scottish father.
“I never thought we would throw away the best thing we have,” he says.
Many in Britain worry about the loss of an inclusive identity that shelters English, Scots, Welsh and Irish under one sovereign roof. Others fear independence will diminish global clout – and the loss of one of the world’s most powerful national brands. Some international partners are taken aback, too. Asked about the possibility Britain would break up, Sushma Swaraj, India’s foreign minister, replied: “God forbid!”
Yet this existential challenge to Britain and Britishness has been a long time coming. Few observers thought independence campaigners had a chance of winning Thursday’s referendum when it was announced two years ago. But allegiance to Britain has been fading for decades. Gordon Brown, the proudly Scottish former prime minister, laboured to boost Britishness while he was in office. But his efforts faltered in the face of a lack of consensus in the UK even on how to define what that meant.
Former common rallying points have disappeared. Peace and European integration have deprived the UK of a frightening “other” to unite the public in the way that 19th century France or 20th century Germany could. The end of empire has killed the imperial vision of wealth, power and employment.
Nor is religion any more a powerful unifier. The biggest rally so far in favour of the union last weekend was an example of the shift. A march through Edinburgh involving an estimated 15,000 people, it was a powerful display of British national pride – but one led by members of the Protestant Orange Order, a group founded in the 18th century to defend Britain against Catholicism and maintain supremacy over Ireland’s native population. That cause would once have been shared by the political elite but now they find it deeply embarrassing. For most Edinburgh residents, the march was a strange intrusion from a foreign past.
Some are ready to consign Britishness to history. At one Edinburgh Festival Fringe gathering, audience members were asked to complete the sentence: “Britain is . . .” and few were gentle. “ . . . so 19th century,” wrote one.
More recent emblems of Britishness have also faded. The nationalised and nationally branded corporations of the 20th century, such as British Steel and British Coal, have declined.
Now many advocates of Scottish independence agree with Mr Bragg that Britain is an idea whose time has gone. An independent Scotland could actually be the heir of the best of Britain, they argue, accusing neoliberal Conservative and Labour UK governments of betraying the once unifying legacy of the welfare state and National Health System.
Britain’s “last great fling” was the 1940s reforming Labour government that built the National Health Service, says James Robertson, a pro-independence novelist. “That’s the last vestige of Britishness that I want to hang on to,” he told the Fringe gathering. “Those last good bits are disappearing fast, especially south of the border.”
Perhaps the most surprising donor to the Yes campaign is Nathu Puri, an Indian industrialist based in the English city of Nottingham. Mr Puri’s Purico Group does not have any operations in Scotland. But he has given thousands of pounds to the Business for Scotland campaign group, prompted by anger at what he sees as UK government bullying of Scotland over issues such as currency – and a belief that independence would be good for the rest of the UK.
Britain is stuck in a post-imperial hiatus, and the example of a successful Scotland would inspire competition that would bring the lull to an end, he says. “It will be brilliant . . . if Scotland separates, the north of England is going to be energised.”
Defenders of the union are not persuaded. But the pro-union Better Together campaign struggled to marshal deep attachment to the UK into a positive narrative. One problem is the campaign’s focus on pointing out the problems and risks of independence, but it has also found it difficult to bring harmony to its competing impulses.
A desire to appeal to the contented with slogans such as “UK-OK” has made it harder to persuade those who want change that a No vote is not a vote for the status quo.
As the referendum race tightened, however, Mr Brown emerged as one of the few pro-union politicians able to offer a vision of Britain that was coherent and compelling for many working-class Scots. The UK in the 21st century is a vehicle that allows the pooling and sharing of resources to the benefit of all its citizens, he argues. “There is no group of countries in the world that has this sharing of resources and solidarity of nations that we’ve managed to create,” he says.
But some undecided voters find Mr Brown’s argument unconvincing amid UK austerity and the coalition’s government’s welfare cuts. David Cameron, his successor, is happier waxing lyrical about family ties, military clout and business advantage.
Another big problem is the apparent indifference of the rest of the UK to the prospect of the end of Great Britain. Only in the last weeks before the referendum, after a poll suggested the Yes campaign might win, did Scotland’s debate focus the attention of the UK’s political class. In February, Rory Stewart, a Conservative MP, mournfully wrote that while 1m Britons had protested against the Iraq war and more against the rural hunting ban, few were interested in demonstrating their desire to see Scotland stay in the union. “So why is there so little energy in saving the United Kingdom itself?” Mr Stewart asked.
Such indifference has left a gap that for some can be filled with less complicated feelings of Scottish identity. Its appeal has been enhanced by the sense of possibility created by a wider Yes movement, which spans groups and individuals united in the hope that independence will make their often widely contradictory aspirations achievable.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, insists that independence need not undermine a sense of British identity since other social, economic and cultural unions will remain to unite the British Isles.
But Michael Collins, a scholar of British history at University College London, is sceptical. “I don’t think ‘Britishness’ would survive because it is currently a very weak idea indeed – and also because Scotland will embark on a process of nation building, which often means creating a self-justifying narrative on the basis of fabricated difference,” he says.
Yet Mr Collins is only marginally more optimistic for the future of Britishness if voters opt to stay in the union, saying division and anger within Scotland and the rest of the UK have weakened the UK. “[A No vote] would mean the idea of the union remains alive – just,” he says.
For Mr Collins and many supporters of the UK, the only way to save Britishness will be to rethink fundamentally the way the state works, devolving power across all four nations and finding ways to rally around a constitutional settlement based on co-operation and support.
Adam Tomkins, a professor at Glasgow university who advised a Conservative party commission on further devolution of powers for Scotland, says: “If people think that it would be an appropriate response to a narrow No win to continue business as usual, then those people do not deserve to be in office.”
Without more fundamental change, the SNP might well be back in 15 years or so with another referendum that would succeed, Prof Tomkins says.
Such a prospect had already been raised by Mr Bragg at his Edinburgh gig, where he told young independence activists that a Yes vote could be a catalyst for devolution that would transform England. “Whatever the outcome, be assured that you have changed the dynamic in this little island of ours for ever with this debate, this referendum,” Mr Bragg said. “We no longer have that taken-for-granted sense of who we are.”
Looking for a new England
Robin Tilbrook is a jovial, thickset litigation lawyer with a sideline in trying to rouse the English into the kind of nationalist fervour that has gripped Scotland in recent months. So far he has met with little success, write George Parker and Elizabeth Rigby. The leader of the English Democrats offers voters a menu of tempting John Bull policies, including a referendum on independence for England, a bank holiday on St George’s day and the adoption of the patriotic hymn “Jerusalem” as the national anthem. Nobody has paid much attention.
While Alex Salmond’s Scottish nationalists dream of independence in Thursday’s referendum, Mr Tilbrook’s fringe party dreams of winning a council seat. It has no district or county councillors anywhere in England and just 3,500 members. But could that be about to change?
Mr Tilbrook believes Scotland’s move towards independence – or at the very least greater home rule – will unleash an English nationalism that he says politicians from all the main parties have tried to suppress.
“The English are very individualistic, we’re associated with liberalism,” he says. “I’m happy to be called a little Englander – we’re suspicious of foreign adventures.” Mr Tilbrook argues that English nationalism is muzzled because politicians have never given it a forum – like the devolved Scottish parliament – where it can be expressed.
England’s sheer size makes it difficult to accommodate in a United Kingdom intended to protect the rights of all its constituent nations; at the last census in 2011 it accounted for 53m of the UK’s total 63m. The UK parliament at Westminster is also the English parliament.
When Scotland acquired its parliament in 1999 mainstream English politicians feared a stirring of nationalism south of the border. Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary, said in 2000 the English had used their “propensity to violence to subjugate Ireland, Wales and Scotland”.
William Hague, then Conservative leader, said at the same time: “English nationalism is the most dangerous of all forms of nationalism that can arise within the United Kingdom, because England is five-sixths of the population of the UK.”
In response, Tony Blair’s Labour government advanced the idea of English regions as a counterbalance to the new Scottish parliament and the assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, breaking England up into artificial entities. The idea never took off.
If Scottish devolution in 1999 raised fears of English nationalism at Westminster, what would full independence do? Some Conservative MPs are already asking who speaks for England?
Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP for Romford, is among more than 100 Tories who believe that the English must be offered a new settlement. He says: “I think if the Scots do vote to go, the English will feel hurt, sadness and insulted. The SNP has a nasty streak running through them. There is a bit of hatred underlying this,” says Mr Rosindell.
He fears the debate will play into the hands of the UK Independence party, which despite its name is predominantly an English entity that has mopped up many of the anti-EU protest votes targeted by Mr Tilbrook.
If Scotland does stay, some English Tories are in no doubt that English voters will need their own political settlement; giving England its own parliament or at least giving English MPs exclusive rights to vote on English legislation.
Mr Rosindell says the UK could adopt a federal system, like Australia and Canada. Under this regime, each country in the UK would have its own government which would be overlaid with a UK parliament that would meet to discuss union matters such as foreign policy and defence.
John Redwood, who is leading the demands for more powers for the English, says England “can no longer accept a position where Scotland fixes its own income tax and also sends MPs to Westminster to help set an income tax rate for England, too”. In his vision, Westminster can become the seat of the English as well as the union parliament, with the English and union parliament sitting on different days.
“Scotland has filed for divorce,” wrote Mr Redwood this weekend. “It may not press the case and may decide to remain in the relationship, as many of us hope. Either way, things will not be the same again. It is time for people to speak for England and say what England wants from this relationship, as well as saying we are better together.”
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, wants to contain English demands by offering a new version of his party’s regionalism, except this time centred on existing “city regions” rather than spatchcocked made-up regions.
Mr Tilbrook backs Scottish independence and says the English will one day follow. But while Scotland may be nearing the end of its journey, England might just be setting off along that same long road.