Ed Miliband made some massive mistakes on identity in his speech yesterday. Or was that geography? This, for example (the bold is mine):
Of course, there are economic and political arguments advanced for Scottish separatism.
But even though they often don’t admit it, the logic of the nationalists’ case goes beyond politics and the economy.
It insists that the identification with one of our nations is diminished by the identity with our country a whole.
After all, they want to force people to choose.
To be Scottish or British.
Personally, I don’t see it. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or just the United Kingdom if you will (yes, OK – some would even abbreviate this to Britain), is a political union of varying degrees of happiness which has muddled along as such unions might. The British Isles on the other hand, and perhaps rather more controversially, is a geographical reality which also includes the Irish Republic. If Mr Miliband is saying that a Scotland which chooses no longer to be a part of the political union that is the UK then misses out on the opportunity to claim its identity as both Scottish and British because it no longer pledges allegiance to London, we are clearly in the presence of a curious confusion between geography and politics which hardly helps clarify anything.
Perhaps, even more sadly though, it also reveals an unhappy understanding of the right London-based politicos reserve for themselves when defining the limits of identity itself.
Yet identity is not just a question of politics and history – those areas of knowledge which people who make and shake nations so delight in.
There is surely a third dimension which I would argue is just as important: that of place. And place belongs to everyone, whether educated or not; whether powerful or humble. Place was there before history and politics started; place will remain when we all have gone.
This is why Ed Miliband is wrong to conflate the UK with being British. If he doesn’t understand the difference, he shouldn’t be talking about it. If he does understand the difference, then he is obfuscating deliberately.
If the Scots so choose, they can be both British and Scottish and outside the United Kingdom. It’s the lawyerly politicians who prefer not to see that politics and history and laws can be far more easily changed than the land which lies outside their codifications.
Miliband didn’t get it all wrong, though. He is far more useful – though still revealingly inexact – in the following description of London’s role in all this antagonism:
There are some people who say that this English identity should be reflected in new institutions.
But I don’t detect a longing for more politicians.
For me, it’s not about an English Parliament or an English Assembly.
The English people don’t yearn for simplistic constitutional symmetry.
Our minds don’t work in spreadsheets, just like our streets don’t follow grids.
But there is a real argument here which does unite England, Scotland and Wales:
And that is about the centralisation of power in London.
This resentment is felt in many parts of England.
A sense that our politics is too distant.
Curious how he says our minds don’t work in spreadsheets when this generation of politicians works with nothing else; curious how he argues that politics is centralised in London to its detriment and in the same breath criticises constitutional symmetry for being simplistic.
He says we don’t want more politicians; he doesn’t say we might not want more of the politicians we’ve got. He argues that our politics is too detached without admitting that the reality is actually that it’s far too attached to certain powerful and wealthy interests.
He says England doesn’t need new institutions; he refuses to recognise that the United Kingdom as a whole has corrupted the ones it already has.
Yes, Mr Miliband. London is the problem. You’re right about that. But you’re wrong to assume that being together through continued inertia is necessarily the answer. The answer for the kind of politician you represent lies in making the Union so attractive that no one would ever contemplate leaving. The problem is that London-based politicians have – quite fatally of late – failed to achieve this essential feat.
No wonder some of us want to leave. Not our land, which will always remain where it is. Rather, our politics, which is manifestly unfit for purpose. Even to the point that it doesn’t understand the difference between it and our geography.
For if the Scots end up leaving the Union, it’s not the land they’ll be shrugging off but the politics.
And if Ed Miliband wants to be taken seriously in this debate, and wants to seriously pursue a long-lasting solution, he really does need to properly remember this.