The Jubilee shows that Scotland and England seem to have a very different social contract with the state, with England’s deference contrasting with a more fundamental social democracy in Scotland. The Jubilee is over but the social question remains. How will the unionist-left resolve this?
We needed a new TV and the sudden need to give ours to someone else proved a stimulus to get on with it. But oh god did we pick the wrong weekend for a new TV. Even tuning in the channels was too much for me – it wasn’t so much a series of television channels as one static Union Jack test card. Only the joy of last night’s Scottish Left Review fundraiser (Disloyal Subjects at the Stand Comedy Club) took the edge of my discomfort. Today, it is over. Well sort of. In the aftermath, what did we learn?
The first thing to say is that I tried to avoid all TV coverage and so am reporting some of this second-hand and some of it on the basis of a quick look at YouTube. I’ve been watching the Madness-on-the-Palace clip for the sole purpose of trying to work out if there was any subversion in the decision to project images of what appears to be a council housing block onto the facade of the home of the Monarchy is a mild attempt at subversion or a crass attempt to kid on that in some way the Queen is really just one of us. I think I’ve concluded that the intention was the latter but the outcome was the former. But then again, I’ve been watching this from Scotland.
Here the TV seems to come from a different universe. It is interesting that I had a hunt through today’s papers (all of them) and as far as I can see only two newspapers didn’t appear to lead entirely on a pop concert – the Herald and the Record. This is interesting because it’s not like either is really known as a bastion of rebellion. But they are Scottish. From all reports, BBC Scotland cancelled all its news reporting in favour of fake video media releases (unless, again, this was a subtle attempt at subversion). Where the BBC News usually attempts to go to something that is happening and report it, yesterday it was going to things that were almost happening and reported something else instead. Street parties all over the country? They only found a couple to go to and even the organisers were saying things like “I’m not really a royalist but it seemed a good idea to have a local party”. A compelling case to suggest that Scotland is in love with the royals was not made.
However, by all accounts the media coverage from south of the border was very different – there was no shortage of cravingly deferential camera fodder ready to stand up and tell us just how much they loved this woman they neither knew nor really understood. In fact, so pointlessly gushing was some of this that it seemed to me to be slipping deep into delusion. There are two current presidents for this sort of thing, one being the oppressed classes in a dictatorship fed endless propaganda, the other is what I would call the emotionally damaged. Even pop star groupies who really, really love their pop stars are at least obsessed with something; what exactly is it that generates this ‘Queen Buzz’? Is it really excitement at just how stoically she cuts red tape with a soor face?
I write this not to be unkind but to point to the conclusions I draw from this. England is a propaganda state in the truest sense. For all the rich white men sitting in front of Levenson shedding tears for the principle of freedom of speech, there is a solid, unbroken propaganda machine at work which simply prevents anyone really seeing any dissent from the line – that all soldiers are heroes and so everything they do is heroic and therefore right, and that we all unquestioningly love the Queen. Vladimir Putin gets a harder time from the Russian state media than the Queen gets from ours. The only difference is that we have the gall to patronise the Russians for falling for it.
But, but, but – a million people on a million blogs have gone over this stuff to the same people who already believe it. What more to be said? We know there is no chance of a major shift in opinion in the current climate. We know this is a massive drive to try and save the succession (will Scottish Parliamentarians be quite as driven to keep ‘The King’ when the time comes?). We know this is distraction and ideology and that tomorrow we’ll be back to worrying about our rising electricity bills and all the other signals of real world and real problems. None of this is currently an issue.
Except one point – Scotland and England are subject to exactly the same propaganda, but our response is so different. The mind-crushing deference we see south of the border doesn’t seem to have made many in-roads up here. Even before this all began, only 40 per cent of Scots claimed any degree of pride in the royals compared to 80 per cent of the English. I suspect the last few days will have widened that margin. There is something markedly different going on in social attitudes and attitudes to social class. This throws up an important question – are we supposed just to ignore it?
The Foundation is and continues to be an open forum on the constitution – we are not endorsing or supporting a position. But we are asking hard questions of all sides. The big question from the weekend falls for the No side (or whatever they are to be called), and in particular the left Nos. We know that Alistair Darling, Charles Kennedy and Annabel Goldie are all quite happy to pretend that the Queen is a beloved Queen of Scots and ignore all evidence to the contrary to continue to emphasise Scotland’s desire to be just as deferential as England. They will be happy to emphasise continuity across the British Isles.
But that will not do for the Scottish unionist left. In the flurry of questions for the Yes campaign, there should also be some for the Nos. And central among them resulting from the weekend is about how we respond to the clear social differences between Scotland and England. It is becoming undeniable that there is a divide not only in some political views and voting habits but in our relationship to the British State. Scotland, largely, does not identify with the British State. England does. This is a big, significant and growing split. So what is the unionist left response? Should we ignore the increasing social differences on the UK? Should we pretend that it’s just a matter of a bit of economic policy and a bit of public service strategy and otherwise we’re all an undifferentiated queue of happily queueing monarchists at heart?
The Yes campaign has left many open questions (or unexplored questions) and they are lambasted for it on a daily basis. And so they should be. But one area they have a strong answer to is how to deal with the problem of a nation state drifting apart in social and political attitudes. The No side has offered no answer. Most are happy to ignore it because most unionists (almost by definition) want us all to be defined as part of the British State. For many in the Nos the very aim is to tie us to British identity, monarch and all. But for others the aim is to hold together the possibility of a UK-wide movement of working people. But if the evidence suggests that Scots may be ready to give up on the deference agenda of the Queen, the Banks and the Generals while the English remain firmly wedded to it, what are the Scots to be offered? A request for patience while the rest of the UK catches up to Scotland? And what if they don’t?
Devo Plus, Devo Max and the status quo are all potential responses to the ‘fiscal, monetary and military’ questions of state. But they offer no resolution for any fundamental questions about the social contract between people and their nation. This is a question the unionist-left can’t afford to ignore.