I subscribe to the New Statesman, the weekly magazine of the metropolitan left. I once had a cheap student subscription which I ended early because it was so massively boring, but now it's a lively and thoughtful read (when it manages to steer clear of religion).
So I was a bit shocked to read its editor's essay this week, 'Is This The End of Great Britain?'. The simple and pedantic answer, of course, is 'no': 'Great Britain' is the major island of the archipelago, named to differentiate it from Brittany which of course has a population which speaks a language closely related to Welsh.
Cowley's piece shocked me, however, because it's far more imperialist and reactionary than the current government. The Tories and Lib Dems acceded – grudgingly – to a referendum because they recognised that legitimacy needs to be conferred by democratic means. The SNP have won several elections, which indicates that the question of Scottish statehood needed to be put to the people. Yes or No, the state that exists on Friday will have had its legitimacy asserted through the ballot box.
This isn't good enough for Mr Cowley. He speaks for a 'we' that seems to mean an English ruling class that possesses the rest of the country. Here's his conclusion:
For now, as we enter the last days of the referendum campaign – perhaps the last days of Great Britain – those of us who do not have a vote, who loathe neoliberalism but who feel culturally British and believe in the multinational ideal of the United Kingdom, for all its flaws and incongruities, can only watch and hope that pragmatism will hold sway so that Scotland is not lost as Ireland was before it.The English have of course asserted multicultural values as long as those other values are muted under a blanket of supposed Englishness. But what really annoyed me was this casual use of 'lost', as though first Ireland and then Scotland (as usual Wales is invisible) are simply holiday homes for the English, rightful possessions that they accidentally let slip. Things are lost by their owners or keepers, and I really don't think countries come under this category. Cowley assumes that British domination of Ireland was somehow natural, and that Irish independence wasn't a matter of the Irish asserting themselves, but of the English 'losing' that country, and that Scotland might be carelessly 'lost' in the same way.
He goes on:
If Britain cannot work out how to stay together when so much unites us – language, culture, shared sacrifice, blood – the portents for the 21st century are dark indeed.Language? Welsh was for long periods banned in its own country. Scots Gaelic was marginalised, Irish suppressed: none of these languages have recovered. Culture? Again, the cultural expressions of the Celtic nations are marginalised, silenced or diluted. Shared sacrifice? You have to be pretty damned selective to exclude the multiple occasions on which the English murdered each other in a series of civil wars, let alone the Irish campaigns, Glyndŵr, the Clearances, the Troubles and many, many more conflicts. No nation in the British Isles is innocent of spilling the blood of others across the world but they've spilled each others' on enough occasions to render Cowley's fantasy of a family under the paternal hand of an English father ludicrous.
Democratic states exist for the convenience of their citizens, and their legitimacy needs to be tested now and then. Cowley's 'we' is a permanent ruling class which reveals a worryingly anti-democratic undercurrent to his apparently progressive internationalism.
The limits of Cowley's political imagination are delimited by his portentous closing phrase:
…the British state will have been broken and we will be plunged into a constitutional crisis with devastating consequences for David Cameron and Ed Miliband.Really? Whatever the result of the referendum, there will be consequences – good and bad – for the 60 million people who live on these islands. What a shame that Jason Cowley's idea of 'devastation' extends only to the careers of the current leaders of two political parties.