Ed Miliband spots the gaping hole in the case for the Union. Can he fill it?


With the fluttering of  Union Jacks alive in the memory, Ed Miliband has chosen the gap between the diamond jubilee and the Olympics to widen the argument over Scottish independence. It’s an appropriate moment.

“We’ve concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But some people in England felt Labour’s attention had turned away. That something was holding us back from celebrating England, too. That we were too nervous to talk of English pride and English character. Connecting it to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease.

“Somehow, while there is romanticism in parts of the left about Welsh identity [and] Scottish identity, English identity has tended to be a closed book of late. For too long, people have believed that to express English identity is to undermine the union. At the same time, we have rightly helped express Scottish identity within the union. This does not make sense. You can be proudly Scottish and British. And you can be proudly English and British, as I am.”

Miliband has left it very late in the day but at least he’s ahead of Cameron. His is the first move of any significance by the main party leaders  in the painfully slow moving pro Union campaign to getoff the ground, led apparently by former Chancellor Alistair  Darling.

 English opinion ranges from the benign – ” if they want to go, let them “- to the sulky – “well bugger off, then.” Strangely perhaps, a shrinking UK is not yet seen as a defeat. This is either mature or decadent according to your point of view. Can this be changed when faced with  a real threat of Scottish separation?

Ed Miliband is right to widen the debate. Scottish independence is a tricky target. Even if you care about the Union deeply – as the main party leaders all profess – how can you oppose it if  the Scots really want it?  It would be absurd to argue that the English state would collapse. There is not the slightest hint of 1912- 14 here, even from Labour fearing loss of Scottish seats .

However much it irritated the Celts, English identity was once seen co-terminous with British identity. Now that is changing mainly on the right, fuelled by austerity, fairly xenophobic, certainly anti -European and anti immigration with barely suppressed racist undertones. The best one can say about it is that it’s still pretty marginal.

English identity politics is so far a right wing project which Miliband is now trying to claim for the centre. But the Right focuses mainly not on keeping Scotland in the fold but on getting out of  Europe. The referendum the Right care about is  one on Europe. This looks like more than a possibility  post – 2015. Labour is also toying with the idea.      (And by the by, an in-out UK referendum would introduce a new complication  to north -south and British- Irish relations).  The wrangling about Europe in ferment will add a  complication to the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign. Can the pro-Union forces amalgamate the two in a common cause? The timetable suggests they must.

But to do so they have to develop a whole new discourse. Unlike the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish parties, the main Westminster parties have no language of identity politics or even much of a sense of English place. Identity was once secure; we had rejected all that old fashioned nationalistic  stuff.

The parties’ discourse even the Tories’ is post Marxist, about economics and sociology. The language of “values,” of diversity, tolerance, and the public service  cannot easily  accommodate the idea of a progressive British nationalism. Too embarrassing. Being patriotic about the NHS or the BBC doesn’t quite cut it.

Perhaps under threat of a metaphorical Dunkirk it may emerge. But from whom? Who is the latter day Churchill? Tony Blair might have been (don’t laugh).  The Good Friday Agreement is no model but at least it imaginatively addressed the issue of pluralism in national formats.

Making a UK  progressive cause – outward looking, confidently diverse, better to be bigger than smaller in Europe and this  tough globalising world – is an  attractive political vision waiting to be realised if only somebody would articulate it. To make it happen, the marginal cost game of British politics has to change. And time is running out.


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  • salgado

    It’s a good idea but I doubt Milliband has the popularity or ability to make this work.

  • Brian,

    Whatever software you use to write up these pieces (Word?) usually makes a complete hash of the fonts. They’re generally readable on the web page but very difficult to read in RSS, for example. <span style=”font-size: small”> does not have the same effect across rendering engines.

    But back to the topic.

    The problem with British nationalism (with a small n) is that it has traded complacently on past glory for too long. You demonstrate this yourself by falling back on Dunkirk and Churchill as metaphors. There’s only so much juice you can get out of WW2, although the HitlerHistory Channel is still gamely squeezing away. How relevant are the conflicts of the age of Empire to the modern world?

    Where on the other hand is Britain’s Wirtschaftswunder? Or its Berlin Wall? Thatcher’s 1980s boom is tainted by the stain of deindustrialisation. Does the idea (ideal?) of Britain have any substance any more, or has it become an exercise in nostalgia?

  • Brian Walker

    Sorry about the fonts – a puzzle far beyond nation building. I see you have quite a few metaphors of your own. The idea of Britain? Last time I looked ,the real thing was still there, waiting for ” the idea” to catch up.

  • lover not a fighter

    You can juggle it, jiggle or wiggle it but this journey will eventually end with an English parliament.

    The English are not on the same standing as other parts of the UK e.g. prescription charges, student fees.

    Why ? should an English person not get the same treatment as the others.

  • Brian,

    Indeed it is. But polities, especially democratic ones, cannot just exist. If they are to survive in the long term they need the allegiance of the people, their love even. That’s why the nation-state holds such an appeal. The unionist case is dry by comparison.

    Why should we love the UK? If unionists can’t convincingly answer this question then the UK is in danger of becoming as disconnected from the people as the EU. Useful, sure. Respected, perhaps. But loved?

  • Barnshee

    Why ? should an English person not get the same treatment as the others.

    Why indeed especially as they are paying for these “benefits for others” Expel the welsh N Irish and Scots from the Union and close the “borders”

    Save a fortune

  • Drumlins Rock

    Andrew, harking back 70 years might be a bit twee, but the Greeks hark back nearly 3,000 yrs, and have even less to show in between! To turn the chinese proverb on its head, living in boring times can be preferable to more interesting ones, so its not necessarily a negative point.

    As for community identity, the 75 residents of Rathlin probably have a much stronger sense of identity as a community within Northern Ireland / Ireland, compared to the 75 residents of Birch Green Newtownabbey.

  • grandimarkey

    I watched the speech in work and was struck by the sheer blandness of it all.

    Classic Unionist lines like “we are stronger together as a United Kingdom” backed up with faff and rhetoric ( which is no were near as exciting as Salmond’s).

    The point Ed made about identity was equally frustrating, “The nationalist case, wherever we find it, is based on the fallacy that one identity necessarily erodes another.” I live in Scotland and the main reason quoted to me from supporters of independence for their decision to vote YES is for the large part about their belief that their standard of life will improve. They see the United Kingdom as taking more from Scotland than it returns.

    Deciding to skip the tough bits with fleeting lines of “Of course, there are economic and political arguments advanced for Scottish separatism,” and deciding instead to focus on identity misses the point IMO. The argument for the maintaining of the Union needs to focus on the positives it brings to peoples lives (*ahem*) because on the ground in Scotland that is exactly what is being discussed. There are obviously Saltire flying, kilt wearing Nationalists who will vote for independence based on identity, but they’re not going to have their minds changed by Ed Miliband telling them that they can be “both Scottish and British.” The Undecided voter is the one to lay out your argument to and they are fully aware that they can be both Scottish and British, it’s the socio-economic differences that will attract them.

    The very fact that the economic argument seems to have been sidelined may, in fact, be quite telling as to were the Unionist’s thoughts lie…

  • DR,

    The Greeks? How about gaining their independence from the Ottomans or overthrowing the junta? When was the last time the British overthrew their own dictator? Cromwell died in his bed.

    Nation states have an unfair advantage over union states because they can fall back on shared totems such as culture, language and religion. Union states have to work hard to gain the romantic affection that nation states take for granted.

  • Grandimarkey,

    No, Ed Miliband telling Scots that they can happily be British won’t help, because the damage is already done, starting at least with the poll tax and probably long before that. A generation of Scots has grown up feeling Scottish first and British second, if at all. The emotional case for the status quo has already been lost – the only case left is the dry, economic one.

    There is also a difficulty in making the economic case for union, and that is because the nationalists can keep promising that the grass is greener, and the unionists have no choice but to fight a tiresome negative campaign shooting those ideas down. Here we see Scottish unionists falling into the same quagmire that Ulster Unionists fell into after partition – there is no grand strategy, just an endless series of debilitating skirmishes and humiliating compromises.

    If unionists (and Unionists!) want to get out of their rut they need to first accept that change is inevitable. Then they need to find and sell a better sort of change than the nationalists are offering (federalism perhaps?). Defenders of the status quo always lose eventually.

  • weidm7

    Congrats on Alex Salmond for putting the Union on the defensive, polls still show a clear majority in favour of the union, so why exactly is the impetus still on the unionists? It is clearly up to the nationalists to convince enough people to tip the balance in their favour, all this talk of unionists needing to do this and that is blatantly wrong, it’s the nationalists who need to be doing the convincing.

  • Brian Walker

    On Channel 4 News Ed Miliband’s lack of a vocab for identity politics was shown up when he was pressed on the old chestnut, ” Are you more British than English”?

    He fumbled on about representing Doncaster and lviing in London – not wrong but not enough from a party leader.

    The right short answer is something like: I’m not hung up on the distinction but I’m English because I feel I belong here. Simple, Britain or the UK is the wider state and community and I belong here too. Because I’m English I’m also be definition British.

    Ed has yet to show why stressing being English will help the Union cause. The right short answer here he nearly got to, to be fair, is, I don’t like little Englander atttitudes because they are narrow minded. They absurdly portray the biggest and richest of the home nations as some sort of victim of the grasping Scots/Welsh.N irish.

    England is the big ‘un and proud of it and gives natural leadership to the rest ( cue yelping Scots). Oh and to be Sc ottish is also by definition to be British – unless you chose to deny it – which you can. It’s a free country/ Britain/England/Scotland/ Wales/ N Ireland ( now we’re getting complicated) .

    What was that address I used to use on Xmas cards aged seven, ending up in The World, the Solar Syytem, The Universe?

    Don’t get too hung up on definitions and turn yourself into a troll is my best advice.

  • Dewi

    “England is the big ‘un and proud of it and gives natural leadership to the rest”

    Natural leadership? – Genetically ingrained or something?

  • DC

    ‘Why should we love the UK?’

    Because it pays the bills and has kept me in a quality of life that other states can only aspire to, and with a quick look at Ireland recently I’m more and more in love with the UK!

    On that note, God bless the real workers south of Oxford, thanks for the subsidy 😉

  • DC,

    Surely that’s dependency rather than love? 😉

  • DC

    Could well be, but it’s better to see it as food of sorts for growing up strong enough to stand on our own two feet sometime soon, the sooner the better.

  • I wonder if Mr. Milliband would be in favour of adopting an English National anthem for football and rugby matches, instead of ‘God save the Queen’?

  • Rational Plan

    It is ever thus, Irish or Scottish Nationalism good, English nationalism racist! Ed Miliband is not convincing about good nationalism as he so many in the Labour party they hold the symbols of English/British national identity in disdain. Whether it is the Monarchy, waving of flags or the Last night of the Proms. Plus anything that smacks of the countryside, well that just means it’s elitist and tory.

  • Dewi

    If the Union is to survive then some logic needs to be shown. Some assymetry is possible but having national Parliaments for us Celts but a UK State Parliament and a National English Parliament in one institution in London really is a logical and constitutional nonsense.

  • DougtheDug

    Unlike the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish parties, the main Westminster parties have no language of identity politics or even much of a sense of English place. Identity was once secure; we had rejected all that old fashioned nationalistic stuff.

    Half right, half wrong. The Westminster parties are just as nationalistic as the SNP. The difference is that they are British nationalists not Scottish nationalists.

    You’re right that they they have no language of identity politics or a sense of English place but that’s because they’ve never had to justify their British nationalism to an internal audience before or had to insert what is to them an artificial boundary between their English and British identities.

  • veryoldgit

    I’ve never heard one fact which shows that England benefits from being in the UK. Most English people would be more than happy to kiss the UK goodbye!

  • Barnshee

    “I’ve never heard one fact which shows that England benefits from being in the UK. Most English people would be more than happy to kiss the UK goodbye!”

    Here here