During the referendum campaign nothing astonished me and Labour campaigners more than left wing English intellectuals embracing Scottish nationalism. It was not that they did not have the right to speak, but that they had so little regard for traditional left wing concerns about the welfare of the Scottish working class.
Rather than thinking about the danger of ever-greater austerity in an independent Scotland, they were possessed by a loathing of England. Here, for instance, is George Monbiot telling Scotland to leave a few weeks ago. His country, Monbiot said, was ruled by a hereditary elite, beholden to a corrupt financial centre, and dominated by speculators and rent-seekers. Its government
‘Spies on its own citizens, uses the planet as its dustbin, governs on behalf of a transnational elite that owes loyalty to no nation, cedes public services to corporations, forces terminally ill people to work and can’t be trusted with a box of fireworks, let alone a fleet of nuclear submarines?’
I am quoting Monbiot because he is not some demented screamer from the fringe, but the best writer from the green left in Britain by a mile. Leftists are normally suspicious of nationalists for good reasons. Yet an often thoughtful and painstaking commentator sounded like a Bullingdon Club yobbo. “Smash Britain up,” he was saying in effect, “hack at its rotten carcass and don’t worry about cleaning up the mess”.
He might have gone further. Go to the radical theatre or listen to Radio 4, and you will hear reactions to England and the English, which are as predictable as the speaking clock. Daily Mail reading prigs fill the middle class. They are hypocritical, mean-minded, sexist, racist and homophobic. Sun reading bigots fill the working class. They are thuggish and fat as well as being sexist, racist and all the rest of it. You should not be surprised that the English have turned out so badly when imperialism and slavery corrupt most of their history. the lesson continues. A shameful past and disgraceful present ought to damn them to perpetual guilt.
They are not always wrong – far from it. But their failure to be consistent condemns them. Leftists have every reason to condemn a system that allowed bankers to rob the public and escape without a single prosecution before a criminal court. But if they go on to support Scottish nationalists who put forward the former chief executive of the disgraced Royal Bank of Scotland to be their economics spokesman , they become worse than hypocrites. They become like the feminists who condemn Western misogyny but use relativist excuses to condone or ignore the Islamist subjugation of women, or the right-wingers and Scottish nationalists who bend the knee to Putin. They become hypocritical obsessives, in short, who do not see that their double standards destroy their integrity. In their hands, women’s rights and a just financial system are not causes worth fighting for in their own right, but sticks to beat their societies with. If their societies enemies abuse women or crash banks, that is another matter entirely.
They sound as if they hate their country rather than the faults it shares with so many countries – the sinner not sin, to use religious language. Worse they crucially give every appearance of hating their fellow citizens too. An artist can hate his or her society from top to bottom. A reformer seeking change cannot.
I am not saying that English leftists have to reconcile themselves to popular prejudices, or fall in love with popular culture. But those on the left who want change will not get a hearing unless they give the impression that they like at least a portion of their fellow citizens; and don’t regard them all as irredeemably prejudiced xenophobes and creeps. Public life is not so different from private life. We will take stringent criticisms from our husbands, wives, partners and friends because we know that they love us and care about our best interests. If an apparent enemies make precisely the same criticisms for precisely the same reason, however, we dismiss them as insults from people who want only to harm us. The same applies in politics. To change your society, you must first convince it that you are not its enemy
The danger for Labour is that it could find itself portrayed as the enemy of the English. It is a novel position for the party. Most Labour politicians are wary of the left intelligentsia – and vice versa – and know the dangers of the electorate thinking them unpatriotic. But patriotism is changing. It is not enough for a political party to show that it loves Britain; it has to show that it loves each of its constituent parts. For Labour, the only national party with strong roots in England, Wales and Scotland, the balkanisation of Britain, represents a moment of danger.
The question now is no longer: does Labour love Britain? But does Labour love England? Maybe not enough to allow fair treatment for the English electorate. Labour is giving every indication that it will not accept English votes for English laws. It wants to devolve more powers to English cities and regions, as do the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. But it is not contemplating a federal Britain, and is refusing to cooperate with David Cameron’s attempts to answer the English question. I sympathise with its reasons. I don’t want to see Welsh and Scottish politicians excluded from English life, not least because they are the men and women most likely to forward left wing interests. I hate the prospect of the petty, almost racist, populsim of the Scottish nationalists spreading south. But my Britain is going or gone. The Labour Party cannot expect others to stand by an archaic system, rigged for the left’s benefit.
Everyone in Westminster appears to be scribbling constitutions on the backs of envelopes. But no one is suggesting that English regions should have the same tax raising and tax-spending powers as Scotland or Wales. Unfairness would survive English devolution. Labour supporters might say that England has lived with an unfair system ever since the foundation of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, and most English voters did not care. They’d be right. But England has noticed the discrepancy now, and it is not going to forget what it has seen. Nor will Labour’s rivals let them forget. For the first time in their party’s history, Labour candidates will have to answer hostile questions about fair votes for the English.
It looks as if Labour will drag out the issue with committees and conventions. It may hope that it will come to power next year and then maintain the rights of Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs to vote on English issues. It should consider the fate of the Scottish Tories before it does.
For all the nationalist boasts, Scottish attitudes are not noticeably more left wing than opinion in the rest of Britain. The Conservatives lose because enough Scots came to see them as the party of foreign domination. Traditional right wing Scots will not vote Conservative for the traditional right wing reason that it feels unpatriotic to support them. With her customary pigheadedness, Margaret Thatcher did not realise or care that, as she was winning election after election in the UK, she was losing the affection of Scotland, and Tories have paid the price ever since.
The same could happen to Labour in England. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Ukip could paint it as the unpatriotic party; the party that wants to use unfair advantages and “alien” MPs to impose its policies on an unwilling people. They could say Labour is the party of taxation without representation; the party that wants to govern the English without winning England’s support. Even if it wins election after election, the final reckoning would be as harsh for Ed Miliband’s Labour as it was for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.
I wish it weren’t so, but the alternative is to build a distinctively English Left and distinctly English Labour Party. The first step should not be hard to take. The left must show that, ghastly though the English are in so many rich and varied ways, it doesn’t actually hate them.