2 letters on Scotland

Leaving the Team

Dear Sam Jacob,

You have been living for a while in Scotland. If Scotland now leaves the United Kingdom, what will happen to English culture? (I think this “negative” redefinition is somehow more interesting than the obvious, “positive” one that will take place in Scotland with regard to Scottish culture — the mismatched furniture in the apartment of an abandoned husband is more interesting than the furniture in the new apartment of the wife who left him). What I am asking is, how will Scotland’s leaving the “team” affect the definition of English culture? Will it stay the same? And will a few things (for instance, Adam Smith and the classic political economy) start to be considered Scottish and thus somehow be excluded from English culture?

Pier Paolo Tamburelli

Dear Pier Paolo,

It could still, as I write, happen. If Scotland votes Yes to independence next week then, whoops! Off goes a third of the UK’s of the landmass and tenth of it’s people.

For Scotland, Yes would mean an exhilarating journey into the unknown. It would mean a huge project in nation-creating: new stamps, passports… maybe army uniforms and god knows what other paraphernalia of statehood.

But for the rest of the Union what could this amputation mean? What would it feel like erasing the St. Andrews Cross from the Union Jack? Loosing a chuck of identity wouldn’t be quite so much fun as building a new nation.

It’s really all up in the air what Yes would actually mean though. What would happen to the BBC? Soap operas? And the pound? — all these things which are buried as deep in the Scottish psyche as they are in English, Welsh or Northern Irish: The BBC, soap operas, the pound. What in other words are the things that make the feeling of nation in the 21st Century?

Scottish independence would surely make the UK a less interesting place. A less diverse, narrower culture. Gone would be the leftist conscience from north of the border, gone too the culture of innovation of Logie Baird, the economics theory of Adam Smith whose legacy, ironically, was in part the Thatcherism that has brought about this moment. Gone too a certain kind of antagonistic difference within the Union: the broken Wembley goalposts and patches of its turf grown in back gardens all over Scotland.

Maybe we have to look no further than the imagery of Nigel Farage and UKIP for what Yes might mean for the rest of us. A potlatch of anti-European cant, sprinkled with nostalgic ideas of Britishness: Pints of bitter, pubs, sports jackets, mock tudor homes. UKIPs cultural project is like the world of a 1970s sitcom. It’s the same tedious nostalgia we saw in John Majors’ long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs” etc. etc. It’s the same rehashing of national cliche that characterises Spice Girl dresses and Brit Pop guitars.

Is this because the cultural narrative of Englishness just too worn out?

Alternatively, perhaps its only in our regions that we could find the same kind of excitement, the same sense of possibility that the Yes campaign has. Maybe its here that identity and history don’t weigh like a millstone.

Why not let these regional and local fantasies loose too? Couldn’t the logic of Yes be expanded for all the Union? What if the entire Kingdom went for devo-max? We could share those things that really matter: currency and soap operas while turning regional identity up to 11.

Could the UK be a Kingdom of un-union, a island defined by its youth culture, its football, its snack foods, all jostling under one giant roof. Could the additive logic of the Union Jack be exaggerated too? An assemblage of hundreds of cultural signifiers, with all kinds of Britishness tucked up under this patchwork of multiple identities.

After all, isn’t London already a different place? What about the Peoples Republic of Sheffield? Madchester? Constable County? All those different ways of imagining being British, English, or a citizen of this green and pleasant land. Could it be a place where the strange and special cultural fantasies might be given voice? A Kingdom of un-union, a island defined by its youth culture, its football, its snack foods, its heritage. All under one roof of the pound and the monarchy.

Maybe this is the real possibility of the Scottish Independence vote. That the union — a thing that felt inevitable and immovable — was actually little more than a convention. That maybe the constitution-less nature of the United Kingdom meant it was never a real country in the first place. And that maybe in an age where corporations have far more power than states, where policy and law exists with the framework of the European Union, we don’t even need nations to perform in their historical mode.

Sam Jacob