If you read nothing else this week, try this fascinating insight from Richard Wynne Jones, director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University (where I’ll be speaking in few weeks), into what may turn out to be one of the key drivers in pushing the United Kingdom apart:
English nationalism is a curious concoction, combining a rather unlikely sense of grievance about how England was treated within the devolved UK with a sense of entitlement and even superiority about the UK’s place in the world.
But however improbable this combination may seem to those of us who live in England’s shadow, its potency cannot be gainsaid. English nationalism has played a key role in the two UK-wide votes held since.
In the 2015 UK general election the Conservatives made extraordinarily effective use of English fears about possible SNP influence over a minority Labour government.
The party’s opponents all testify to its effectiveness. Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg speaks of the “visceral fear” of the SNP that saw his party being swept away in its former strongholds in the southwest of England.
But it was about more than simply concern with the SNP. Nigel Farage speaks of how the Conservatives capitalised on “some quite vehement anti-Scottish sentiment” among the English.
It was, he said, a sense that “the Scottish tail has wagged the English dog in the most remarkable way”, with particular dismay at the way that Scots are “getting our money”.
In other words, it was not just about Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. Such a move encouraged some Scots to vote SNP. The Tories knowingly pursued a polarising strategy.
A strange form of unionism, you might say, but it makes more sense if you accept that theirs is emphatically not a union envisaged as a partnership of even near equals.
Theirs is rather a United Kingdom regarded, in essence, as a “Greater England”. Local differences with this Greater English state can be tolerated, but it is toleration within limits.
It was a reckless and desperate attempt by Cameron to get a clear win at the election. He succeeded politically in breaking his coalition partners the Lib Dems and helping to bust the Labour party as a going concern in Scottish Westminster seats.
And he adds this intriguing layer:
The Remain campaign operated as if Britain was a comfortably multinational and multiethnic society. By contrast, the Leave campaign embraced a characteristically Anglo-British understanding of the UK.
The latter was rewarded with the overwhelming support of those who feel a strong sense of English identity. Those who felt British but not English voted overwhelmingly to remain. Why is this a problem?
Wynne Jones concludes:
For unionists in the devolved territories, however, it’s an utterly dismaying vista. Not only is the unionism of the UK government not their unionism, it’s fundamentally incompatible with their vision of union.
And while most will likely respond to the existential threat represented by a second independence referendum by championing the United Kingdom even in its Greater England guise, some will not.