February 7th, 2012


Surrey with the Fringe on Top

Sometimes I imagine a conversation with a Friendly Alien:

Alien: July seems to be a popular month for national days, doesn't it? The US commemorates the Declaration of Independence on the fourth, France commemorates the storming of the Bastille on the 14th, and UKasians, I presume, celebrate the founding of their nation on the 22nd, the day on which the Treaty of Union was signed in 1706. No doubt the fireworks are magnificent.

Me: Not in the least. In fact, I doubt whether one UK citizen in a thousand is aware of that date.

Alien: Really? I am surprised. After all, that is every bit as much the founding document of the UK as the Declaration is of the US. Well, never mind, probably the UKasian nationalists go all out for 1st May, the date on which the Acts of Union took effect the following year? I notice that 1st May is a holiday in your country.

Me: They don't do that either. May Day is important to Socialists and Pagans, but not at all to UK patriots. In fact, quite a few Conservative MPs - all of them Unionists - would like to stop that day being a holiday at all.

Alien: How strange! Still, I expect you all had street parties to celebrate the tercentenary of your nation in 2007, yes? Especially as Gordon Brown - already Prime Minister in waiting by that time - was so keen on promoting a sense of shared British values?

Me (slightly irritated): I suspect you know very well that the event passed wholly unremarked except by a few constitutional geeks. Oh, and UKasian isn't a word, by the way. We don't have a word for being... er, what we are.

Alien: That is really very odd. If I didn't know better, I would suspect that the UK isn't a real country at all, so much as an administrative convenience.

Of course, my alien friend has a point. The UK has its roots in a hostile takeover, in which an indebted nation gave up its sovereignty in exchange for a bail-out from a rich one - and more than 300 years later is still trying to get it back (take note, Greece!); but it was certainly convenient as a basis on which to build up the British Empire. Now that the Darien Scheme and the Empire are both the stuff of history, however, what is the UK for?

I don't actually feel strongly about the continued existence of the UK, one way or the other. I do, however, feel very strongly about its constituent parts, and am sure that the UK - along with other, earlier forms of intra-British imperialism - has had a strange and unhealthy effect on them. (And I'm not even going to think about Ireland in what follows.)

I've already written about this in respect of the English, whose attitude to the rest of the Union is deeply screwed up. On the one hand, there are people who really do think of the UK as Surrey with a Celtic fringe (and many of them appear to work at the BBC). On the other hand, the English habit of confusing England with the UK has led them not to notice (or care) that they have far less self-determination than any of the Union's other members. This isn't a theoretical issue either, but one that costs English families many millions in university tuition fees, prescription charges, care for the elderly, etc etc. Even this isn't enough to wake them from their dogmatic slumbers, however. As long as they labour under the delusion that the UK Parliament is a sort-of English Parliament, that's not going to change.

With the Welsh of course, the rot goes back way past 1707, to an earlier Act of Union in 1536. There are now two Waleses: the country proper, and the place I call Nwales [pronunciation tip - think Joshua Nkomo]. This is the place you hear about in the phrase "England Nwales": it is England's vestigial twin, growing painfully from its Mercian midriff. This is the place that wasn't enough of a nation to get onto the Union Flag; that was subjected to a campaign of cultural extermination lasting almost half a millennium. It's the place where you can't travel by train between north and south without leaving the country, where the infrastructure has been designed to facilitate the extraction of natural resources for the use of the English. And while the Welsh have survived as a nation - miracle enough in itself - many seem to have internalized the belief that they are too small a country to survive alone, even though there are some 60 countries with populations smaller than theirs with seats at the UN.

Then there are the Scots, who (like the rest) seem to have two personalities. One is swaggering, confident, a Celtic tiger in waiting - and this is the image Alex Salmond likes to project. But three hundred years of being ruled from London has had its effect, and psychologically no less than nutritionally the Scottish motto seems at times to be "Chips with Everything". The Parliament has done much to build up the Scots' self-confidence, but on the debit side of the account, Salmond's earlier talk of being like the Republic of Ireland (oops!) or even Iceland (double oops!) sounds increasingly bombastic. Celtic tigers are now extinct the wild. Will they proceed with the release programme?

Well, I'm sure I've now managed to offend everybody, but I do look forward to the next few years. Will the demise of the UK happen, and if so will it be a step on the road back to sanity for the nations of Britain? I can't wait to find out.