JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 31.12.10
FORGIVE ME IF IT HAS ESCAPED YOUR ATTENTION so far; but earlier this week, on the other side of the world, the England cricket team won a match, retaining the Ashes in Australia for the first time in almost a quarter of a century. The scenes of rejoicing among British media types were intense. The item dominated the BBC’s morning news bulletins; and the Prime Minister was hauled out of a family Christmas gathering into some Witney lane, to make a few boys’-own-paper confessions about how he had taken his mobile phone to bed with him, so as not to miss a moment of this great national triumph.
Like all major sports, of course, cricket – lovely cricket – is a strange mixture of big business, meaningless play, and highly-charged proxy warfare. For many Australians, this particular failure clearly represents a national trauma of a very familiar type. For them as for some Scots, England are the old enemy, or at least the old colonial power, and defeat at their hands is peculiarly painful; “Long To Reign Over Us”, wailed one bitter Australian headline, after the match.
And as for the multiple meanings of this English victory for the current state of British politics – well, at this turn of the New Year, they indicate choppy waters ahead, in the long story of the United Kingdom. It’s not that Scots generally begrudge England this particular victory. Scotland lacks a major cricket team of its own, and Scots have often played in the England side; back in the 1970’s, the England team was even captained by a Scot, Mike Denness.
The brute fact, though, is that most Scots don’t give a damn about the sport one way or the other; and that sets them apart from a British media and political class which simply assumes that an Ashes victory is a cause of rejoicing to the entire nation. And although this is a small matter in the great scheme of things, it seems somehow symptomatic of a wider collapse of understanding about the nature of the state we live in, among our major UK political parties.
There was a time, after all, when all three main UK parties, in their different ways, represented major cohesive forces between Scotland and England. The old-fashioned Tories spoke for aristocratic, landowning and business interests which were well aware of the geography of Britain, and owned assets in all parts of it. The Liberals were the traditional party of progressive opinion in Scotland, and retained strong support outside the central belt even after the emergence of the Labour Party. And the Labour Party was founded on a tradition of working-class solidarity that scorned national boundaries, and sought to build a real community of interest among working people, across the UK, and beyond.
Now, though, all three parties have largely abandoned those cohesive principles. The Tories, since the 1970’s, have become an ideological alliance of free-market believers, much more popular in the mercantile south-east than in other parts of Britain. The Liberal Democrats have gone into alliance with the Conservatives, changing the political landscape for good.
And the Labour Party has walked away from its trade union roots, in a culturally-driven attempt to appear as middle-class, as bland, and as London-media-friendly as the other two mainstream parties; so much so that the prominence of half-a-dozen Scots in the Labour administration of 1997-2010 now seems like a doomed last hurrah for regional variety in British government, unlikely ever to be attempted again.
What seems to be happening, in other words, is that even as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland advance deeper into the long experiment of devolution, Westminster culture is becoming ever more indifferent to the existence of any part of Britain outside the M25 beltway. That this is dangerous to the Union is self-evident. Just as Tory indifference to Scottish opinion made devolution almost inevitable by the end of the 1990’s, so the devolution-blindness of the present administration, in areas from student finance to electoral reform, is bound to provoke a growing sense of alienation.
In the end, though, the growing cultural indifference of the British establishment to the rest of the nation is damaging in ways that go beyond party politics. In the past week, I have seen two episodes of that powerful television programme Who Do You Think You Are?, in which two bright, upper-middle-class sprigs of the modern media establishment – the gardener Monty Don, and the comedian David Mitchell – discovered to their increasing emotion that they were descended respectively from the great Keillor’s jam-making family of Dundee, and from the Mitchell family who farmed the huge sheep-run of Ribigill in Sutherland after the Highland clearances.
Of course, it’s easy for the London media now to raise a cheap laugh by doing what another programme did this week, sending three London-based comedians around Scotland to flirt with the camera, while reducing the place to a few facile stereeotypes. The value of Who Do You Think You Are?, though, is that it compels metropolitian types who may never have given a second thought to their cultural identity to understand that some other place in the UK – Scotland, or Wales, or the north – is not some comedy “other” to be sent up and mocked, but a deep and serious part of themselves and of their story.
And the more our cultural elites turn away from that knowledge into a thin and arrogant insularity, the weaker, the less resilient, and the less well governed British society will be. Which may, in the end, be good news for the SNP at the ballot box. Yet it also tends to impoverish us all in much more subtle ways, at the time of year when we link arms to ask whether auld acquaintance should be forgot, or cherished and remembered; and not only for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, but for the future of our deep social union on these islands, which will endure, no matter what constitutional path we finally decide to tread.