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Divided Kingdom

The English are a tolerant people, slow to anger and even slower to express it. 

It has been said that the English acquired the knack of suppressing rage in the interest of good manners.  If so, it is surely not a grievous fault in a world permanently at war with itself.  Some might argue that what passes for tolerance is merely a form of complacency.  There may be some truth in that, but the English have demonstrated an impressive adaptability over the last century in coping with the loss of their empire and with it their economic hegemony.  US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s remark shortly after the Second World War, that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role, remains as valid today as when he uttered it, but the country’s incomplete transition hasn’t led to civil unrest or any other forms of social disintegration.    

I’m aware that I’ve switched from the early reference to England to talking about Britain – and there’s the rub. 

For England’s most recent – and continuing – trial has been the potential break-up of that English-sponsored entity called the United Kingdom.

Scotland may within a few years hold a referendum on seceding from the UK, and the Scots may well vote for separation.  If they do, the Welsh may be stirred up to follow suit – though how tiny Wales would operate as an independent entity seems problematical.  That leaves Northern Ireland, which has a large – and growing – Catholic minority in favour of joining the Irish Republic (itself of course a former British province).           

The English, typically, seem resigned to the possibility of defection by the Scots, but with sadness that camouflages an underlying resentment.  If the talk in the Albert Arms, my local, is any guide, the predominant English attitude seems to be, “Let ‘em go.  If they don’t want us, then why should we want them?”   This is usually followed by, “In any event, what can we do to stop them?”      

“Not much,” is the answer, sadly.

Many foreigners, Americans particularly, unwittingly stoke the fires of revolt; unsure about the difference between England and Britain they often using the terms interchangeably.  When Andy Murray finally won a major tennis tournament last week, American commentators collectively couldn’t decide whether Murray was Scottish, English or British and assigned to him all three nationalities in turn.  The English rule-of- thumb, according to chip-on-the-shoulder Scots, is that if Murray wins he’s British, and if he loses he’s Scottish.  The Scots seem to think we English sit around dreaming this stuff up, for the sole purpose of annoying them.  They retaliate by supporting any sports person playing an Englishman or any team playing England.   Murray himself once said he subscribed to this prejudice.       

My own view, and hope, is that the breakup will not happen.  That is not the opinion of a nostalgic old imperialist but of someone whose political instincts are always for union over division, especially when the union already exists and has proved to be successful on many levels.  It is true that the British Empire was replete with examples of countries demarcated by arbitrary boundaries and for reasons of imperial self-interest, often with predictably bloody and lasting effects.  The political map of the Middle East, drawn up by a pair of diplomats from France and Britain after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, is a prime example of this. 

But the four countries of the United Kingdom are not an artificial edifice.  More unites us than divides us, including geography, philosophy, blood ties, shared institutions and centuries of social as well as political integration.    

I rest my case, though I doubt that the case will rest.

June 20, 2011

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