It's England's Turn Next

By Paxman, Jeremy | Newsweek International, May 17, 1999 | Go to article overview

It's England's Turn Next


Paxman, Jeremy, Newsweek International


There was a time when the English would never have asked themselves what it meant to be English. The evidence was all over the world, in the tweeds of the American East Coast establishment, in parliaments from Malawi to New Delhi, and in the language of business, science and learning. The English were the dominant culture in a United Kingdom which ran the biggest empire the world had ever seen, and the world returned the compliment by imitation. The quintessential Englishman was courteous, reserved, unemotional and steely. His wife was courteous, reserved, unemotional and homely. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in "Brief Encounter" are the models.

But that was then and this is now. On May 6 the peoples of Scotland and Wales voted for their own Parliaments--the first outside London since the Act of Union, in 1707, abolished the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. The Labour government that proposed these devolved Parliaments believes they will strengthen the United Kingdom in which the Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish Unionists are jointly called "British." And given that after last week's elections, Labour will be the largest part in both new Parliaments, that judgment may seem sound. And yet plenty of skeptics think it as likely that at least one of the fledgling institutions in Edinburgh and Cardiff will eventually demand full independence for Scotland or Wales. At that point, the English may be left bleakly looking at one another, like two people who throw a party and find no one turns up. What did we do wrong?

Of course, England's two Celtic neighbors differ hugely in their ambitions. Wales--united with England since the 16th century--has been pretty lukewarm about its proposed assembly, and it took a concerted effort from government, logrollers and most of the local media to squeak the tiniest of majorities in favor in a referendum in which half the electorate didn't bother to vote. Scotland is different. You can smell the self-confidence in the air. After years of blaming the English for everything, there's increasing talk of a national destiny in the European Union, decoupled from their fat, southern neighbor. The model is Ireland, which has used its truckloads of European subsidies to shrug off its image as a land of peat bogs and whimsy to reinvent itself as an information society.

Thus far, the English have watched the restiveness on their borders with a sort of bemused indifference. They have a profoundly ingrained sense of right and wrong, and generally believe that it's up to the Scots to decide what's best for the Scots. The English also suffer from the fact that there is no political organization to bang the drum for them in the way that all the parties in the Scots and Welsh elections are thrashing the Celtic drum. Things are complicated for the English by the fact that their government is dominated by Scots: the prime minister, foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer are all products of the Scottish education system. …

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