Magazine article The Spectator

The English Patience

Magazine article The Spectator

The English Patience

Article excerpt

April is the month of Shakespeare's birthday, St George's Day, and about this time of year politicians are filled with a need to say something foolish about England. Stanley Baldwin grappled for the quintessence of Englishness, and came up with some twaddle about the corncrake and the tinkle of the anvil in the country smithy, and the sight of a `plough team coming over a hill, the sight that has been in England since England was a land, and may be seen in England long after the Empire has perished and every works in England has ceased to function, for centuries the one eternal sight of England'. John Major fared little better with his vision, borrowed from Orwell, of 'old maids cycling to communion through the morning mist'.

You have to keep your eyes peeled these days to spot an old maid cycling to communion through the mist, let alone a plough team coming over the hill. Small wonder that William Hague has so far resisted the temptation to sum up his feelings for England, with some lyrical account of a picnic of Spangles and Tizer on Ilkley Moor. Not only does the politician risk mockery if he babbles of green fields and roast beef; nowadays he risks being accused of conjuring the genie from the depths.

Tony Blair this week accuses the Conservative party of playing with English nationalism, of wantonly stoking bogus animosities. Swaddling himself in the Union flag, he proclaims: `The United Kingdom is stronger together than apart.' In Mr Blair's opinion, the glue which holds the nations of the Kingdom together is our `shared values', which are the opposite of the hated `forces of conservatism'. You could argue that Labour's tactics on the Union are now showing signs of genius. The Labour party comes to power and starts monkeying around with a 300-year-old constitutional settlement. The Welsh are dragooned into an assembly they never particularly wanted, and the Scots Nats are given the perfect opportunity to replace Labour as the party of government in Scotland.

For the first time in our lifetimes, it seems not just possible, but likely, that the Union of 1707 will be in some sense dissolved. At which point Blair starts raving about the importance of the Union, and warning us all to beware of the forces of fissiparous nationalism. Having been the party of devolution, we are invited to accept that Labour is now the party of the Union. Having caused the problem, Mr Blair now pretends he has a monopoly of the solution. Except that his solution is meaningless, and the problem is likely to become more severe. …

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