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.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London