Monday, December 10, 2007

In Brussels

I've been in Brussels for the past few days, for a bit of Xmas shopping and to visit SNP colleagues at the European Parliament. Given that Belgium has, as of today, been run by a caretaker government for precisely six months, I must report that it seems to be coping remarkably well. The shops are busy, the Grand Place is packed with tourists, the restaurants are full - and all this at the beginning of a week when the European Parliament is about to up sticks to Strasbourg.


The only hint you might get that something might be up is the (modest) number of Belgian flags hanging from windows in the capital. This is primarily a demonstration from the Francophone administrative elite - and not really a gesture to be found repeated in the Flemish speaking areas outside of Brussels.

I've spent most of the last couple of days in the company of Lachie Muir - a friend since we were in the SNP Students together in the mid-nineties. Lachie's been working in Brussels for variously the SNP and the European Free Alliance, for nigh-on six years now, and a shrewder observer of the Scottish and European political scenes you would struggle to find. His take on it all is that we're unlikely to see Belgium dissolve into its constituent parts any time soon, but that the problems of how to deal with Brussels notwithstanding, it is still happening slowly.

What does a state coming apart feel like? I have to confess, I'm not all that sure. Disagreements between the central and devolved governments are par for the course around the world, as are disagreements over policy and resources - what matters more is how they are dealt with. There'd also likely be, or have been, some major change in the circumstances which gave rise to the existence of the state. There would be low grade bickering over politics and proxy matters like sport, which would occasionally bubble over to take on a significance which they scarcely deserve. I suspect you'd also start to see a greater assertion of the sub-state identity, counterbalanced with demonstrations of support for the status quo.


Belgium ticks most of these boxes, as indeed increasingly does the UK. In fact, today saw the Daily Telegraph carry a lengthy interview with Conservative leader David Cameron, to mark the launch of its campaign to 'Call Yourself British'. Very sensibly, he points out to the Telegraph's largely English readership that the union provides Scotland with no financial pot of gold, and urges caution amongst those south of the border who would rail against perceived Scottish advantages. However, he shied away from any concrete proposal to resolve the West Lothian Question, and when asked to set out what the Union meant to him, chose not to look forward, but instead fell back on the imagery of WWII.

Rather insultingly, the Telegraph editorial disparages English nationalism. Yet its definition of Britishness was also backward looking and full of bombast. In a sign that it just didn't get it at all, it hinted that what had put the Union under threat was the temerity of the Scots in opting for self-government, our support for whoever was playing England in sport (not guilty-never have been), and in our 'apparently favourable' financial treatment.

According to the paper, us Brits possess a shared temper and outlook, which 'many across the world find admirable, even enviable'. And our Britishness is rooted also in 'our shared institutions and values - the sovereignty of Parliament (what happened to sovereignty of the people?), the primacy of the law and the independence of the judiciary (as opposed to all those lawless foreign Johnnies you find over the Channel, I suppose), the proud traditions of our regiments (even those recently disbanded, you presume), and the freedom and vigour of our media (ha!).

In fairness, I think I'd find difficulty in coming up with a list of things which made someone distinctively Scottish. However, even John Major would have struggled to express it in a more spirit crushing and hackneyed way than the Telegraph has managed. Fundamentally, I'm attracted by the civic notion that anyone can be Scottish no matter where they come from, providing that they want to be. I'm uncomfortable instinctively with the notion that to be Scottish or English is to be in an ethnic state of mind, and that we can only be inclusive toward others when we see ourselves as British.

That to me seems to be holding out a second-class identity to those who choose to make their lives here - that an immigrant who comes to London from overseas can become British, but can never be English. Englishness is there, it is latent, it is tangible. If Britishness is on the way out the door, it strikes me that the process is not going to be reversed by trying to suppress people's sense of Englishness.

At present, Englishness is being ceded by default to a ragbag on the political right. It needs to be reclaimed, and to become synonymous with some of the virtues being claimed currently for Britishness. I'm happy getting on with building a new and more confident Scotland, but a more reflective Englishness, shorn of the baggage of Britain, would have an invigorating part to play in helping people on both sides of the border decide both who they are and what they want to become.

8 comments:

Bill said...

...the Telegraph's largely English readership ...

I can't think of ANY newspaper widely distributed across the UK that does not have a 'largely English readership'. I fail to see the purpose of that statement other than to try and disparage a point of view that you happen not to share. We 'British' are thankfully now waking up to the danger that the Labour Party naively thought it was mitigating by creating the devloved assembly known as the 'Scottish Parliament'; there is a very long way to go before public opinion on either side of the Scottish/English border is ready to come round to the way of thinking that the SNP would have it do.

Richard Thomson said...

"I can't think of ANY newspaper widely distributed across the UK that does not have a 'largely English readership'."

Yes, Bill, of course you're right (Daily Record and Sunday Post excepted), but I do take issue with the 'disparage' remark.

By speaking to the Telegraph rather than, say, the Scotsman or the Independent, Cameron was aiming his message specificly at a particular group of Tory inclined voters in England, some of whom happen to be exceptionally influential. That didn't happen by accident, and it certainly wasn't being done like that for the benefit of anyone else. He was targetting his point at a particular section body of opinion south of the border, and that is what I was drawing attention to.

It might have aided my point, such as it was, if I'd compared the miniscule share of the quality newspaper market which the Telegraph enjoys in Scotland with its dominant market position south of the border. Nevertheless, not everyone who comes by these pages will necessarily be au fait with the finer nuances of British newspaper circulation trends. Statement of the obvious it may have been for seasoned observers like yourself, but it's still only fair to try and point out, especially given the Telegraph's citing of a vigorous British media, that the 'British' nature of the beast can be disputed every bit as much as can the 'vigorous'.

"We 'British' are thankfully now waking up to the danger that the Labour Party naively thought it was mitigating by creating the devloved assembly known as the "Scottish Parliament"

I'm not sure what danger this might be, Bill, other than that people might exert their right to choose how best they should be governed, and that this may not conincide with the status quo. If your alternative would have been to 'sit tight' on the arrangements which existed before, the long-term result would likely have been changes more dramatic than the gradual evolution which I think we're begining to see.

"there is a very long way to go before public opinion on either side of the Scottish/English border is ready to come round to the way of thinking that the SNP would have it do"

You certainly won't find any argument from me on that front.

Bill said...

... the miniscule share of the quality newspaper market which the Telegraph enjoys in Scotland with its dominant market position south of the border ...

I don't have any details of the market penetration of the 'Telegraph' in Scotland, as against England; I accept that it is probably considerably smaller, though. Obviously a lot of ABC1s in Edinburgh and Glasgow and possibly places like Dundee or Aberdeen, read either/both the 'Scotsman' or the 'Herald', although on the occasions I have taken these papers I have found them, whilst quite good for basic news, rather parochial in their outlook respectively toward Edinburgh and Gkagow. Of ocurse the major quality London papers are also somewhat parochial in their concentration on happenings in and around London, but the scope of their news coverage is generally far better - once one factors out the biases which most newspapers have; I am by no means the blinkered 'right winger' , lol, why I even read the Gruaniad and the Independent from time to time!

However, from my own emprirical experience, looking at the piles of newspapers in the various supermarkets in Inverness (Tesco, Morrisons, mainly) it seems to me that far more Telegraphs are in evidence than Scotsman (Scotsmen?) or Heralds; indeed I notice more Guardians and even Independents than these two Central Belt 'quality' newspapers.

In summary I think the aspoect of Scottish 'separation' which worries me the most is the increasing dominance within Scottish politics and 'opinion formers' from the central belt; I have always felt as someone who, broadly speaking, considers himself a 'Highlander' as a subset of his 'Britishness', that our participation in the UK tends to protect us from the unchecked domination of the central belt which we are beginning to see happening since the ScotParl came into being.

Most of my neighbours seem to take the 'Telegraph', most of my neighbours are Scottish or long-term residents of Scotland. It could be that we are very unusual, but I don't think so because even in our local small supermarket ('Somerfield') the number of Telegraphs (or Times/Independents/Guardians) seems to compare quite favourably with the numbers of Scotsman or Herald on offer - and I presume if there was mnore demand here they would stock more.

I think the tendency is for people who believe in Scottish 'independence' to think everyone else thinks as they/you do - they probably don't ;)

Richard Thomson said...

I took a quick look at the Telegraph circulation figures after that last post and I was surprised to find that they shift c. 23,000 copies in Scotland. It's still way behind the (plummeting) Scotsman (56K) and the Herald (71K), but I must admit it is still higher than I expected.

I always used to go with the Herald or the Scotsman as my first choice, and usually combined it with one of the London titles. I must admit I always found the Torygraph a better read than the Times or the Guardian. We get some of the Scottish papers here at Westminster, but if I'm picking anything up for myself of a morning these days, it's usually the Financial Times - completely unbiased reporting, and often with stories at least a day ahead of the other qualities (their coverage of Scottish politics, when it intrudes, would shame almost any other paper).

Incidentally, if you see more papers on sale, doesn't that simply mean that they're sitting unsold at that point in time? How many get sent back to John Menzies at the end of the day? :-)

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

But not a new '45 hopefully.

BellgroveBelle said...

Have a kriek for me...

Richard Thomson said...

I had several :-)

Bill said...

Incidentally, if you see more papers on sale, doesn't that simply mean that they're sitting unsold at that point in time? How many get sent back to John Menzies at the end of the day? :-)


LOL - in actual fact there is often a shortage of the Telegraph because I understand, having queried the matter with various places where I normally buy the Telegraph (*) - they consistently tell me that it has one of the strictest policies about NOT accepting back unsold copies and retailers have their quotas automatically reduced if they try and send back too many copies too often. Some other newspapers (qualities and tabloids) have, from what I am told, a rather more relaxed attitude.

I would imagine a very high proportion of the Scotsman and Herald sales are in their respective home cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow; of course one sees them up here, but I know of almost no-one who reads them very regularly and they do not seem to sell large numbers up here if their display positions in retailers here is a guide. I occasionally buy them just to see if, by any chance, they have beocme better since I last bought them - so far they haven't.

Like you I tend to regard the FT as the least 'biased' and most factual and it is, as you say, often well ahead of other newspapers, specially with business news but also with general international news. Funnily enough I discovered when I got home today that I had bought two copies of both the Telegraph and the FT as I had forgotten I had bought them in Nairn before going to Inverness to do some shopping - must be my age!

(*) I prefer not to subscribe to any newspaper as I like to have the option of buying another when the mood takes me, although I most often get the T'graph out of habit, followed closely by the FT at least three weekdays a week (I take both, not one or the other) - I never buy it on a Saturday, indeed I always leave Saturday free to read my subscription copy of The Economist.