Some English feel put upon
Robbie Dinwoodie / Thursday 17 September 2015
AS the cross of St George becomes ever more prominent and the summer of the Ashes gives way to the autumn of the Rugby World Cup, it is strange to realise that a sense of political slight and impotence is to be found in some quarters South of the Border.
“It is no longer a fight to secure a fair deal for England, it is a battle to save England,” proclaimed the Campaign for an English Parliament the other day, which came as something of a shock for those of us who did not realise that the green and pleasant land faced an existential threat.
The CEP is not some head-banging, Doc Marten-booted racist mob chanting “Oi! Oi! Oi!” and attacking refugees. The campaign’s aims are reasonable — the creation of a well-balanced federal Britain with an English Parliament sitting in tandem with those in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, within a logical overall system, perhaps with a revised upper chamber representing all our constituent nations.
The trouble is that the main party at Westminster which to any degree shares this view shot off both its feet by going into coalition with the Conservatives five years ago, and the response of the CEP seems over the top.
For those of us clinging to our lower life expectancy on the celtic fringe, it is an odd worldview in which it is the English who feel abused and put upon. Really? The BBC and Sky over the summer have become the epitome of fans with typewriters with the breathless reporting of the cricketing encounters between England and Australia, however mildly interesting the sport may be to some of us, even in Freuchie.
And we have now segued nicely via Rule Britannia at Last Night at the Proms to a jingoistic crescendo with the rugby, the release of the “Building Jerusalem” movie about the last time England won the sport’s world cup, and “Swing Low” fever — an ailment few seem to be aware is based on a racist drinking song.
Got that? A racist drinking song. Written by a native American as an allusion to the underground railroad which brought black slaves to the North, it became a negro spiritual classic. Then the rugby club boys got their hands on it, produced a set of accompanying hand gestures — I leave you to guess the action for “coming” — and from there it became the Twickenham anthem.
Jerusalem, Rule Britannia and Swing Low, the soundtrack to 2015, each in its way an odd perversion — Blake’s Luddite anthem, the Scottish Borderer, Thomson’s naked jingoism and the hymn to freedom of Wallis Willis appropriated by people with thick necks, real and metaphorical.
But, like the soundtrack or not, it was inescapable in weeks past and to come, background muzak which gave a strange otherness to our life experience. Yes, Flower of Scotland is a cheesy folk song in waltz rhythm with a key note the bagpipes cannot even play, but we don’t expect it to be inflicted uniformly across our airwaves the way English anthems are blasted at us.
Even God Save the Queen has become the anthem which, literally, dare not sing its name — Ms Sturgeon is damned if she sings it, Mr Corbyn if he doesn’t. With a narrative like that, the critics can’t really lose.
But do the stolid, decent English constitutional campaigners have a point? Of course they do. Tam Dalyell sent down a soft delivery to Enoch Powell in 1977 and Powell batted it back as the West Lothian Question. No-one has really answered it since then, and certainly not David Cameron on the steps of Downing Street that morning a year ago.
Who, in Scotland, would happily sing all four of the above anthems with gusto? Certainly a goodly proportion of Edinburgh’s middle class. I know that because on the final Sunday before the referendum I visited one of their events. It was in a cricket ground, many wore rugby tops, it was impossible to tell from the accents who was posh Edinburgh and who was actually English. It was a tribe circling the wagons against the encroaching barbarians.
And yet they would have little in common with the CEP view. Given a choice they would vote to abolish the Scottish Parliament. Of that there is little doubt. Mrs Thatcher used the phrase “enemy within”. I would never do that.
For all their recent rhetoric I wish a fair wind to the CEP. Proper federalism has logic on its side. But claiming that poor wee England is the victim in all this doesn’t wash.