In April, the UK Commissioner on Race and Equalities, Dr Tony Sewell, reported that Britain is a “model” of diversity and positive race relations. The roof fell in. He received a barrage of hostile criticism from academics, journalists and politicians for ignoring institutional racism and white privilege. A prominent Cambridge Professor compared him to Joseph Goebbels. The Labour MP Clive Lewis posted a picture of a Ku Klux Klansman approving Sewell’s Race Report. Dr Sewell is black, grew up in Brixton and was one of the educationalists responsible for the “London Effect” – the programmes that transformed the performance of non-white children in London schools.
The Sewell affair leapt into my mind last week as I read the latest report from Gordon Brown’s Unionist think tank, Our Scottish Future. Mr Brown’s assessment is very similar to that of Dr Sewell. The former Labour PM also hailed England’s transformation towards inclusive equalitarianism. Indeed England, he said, is if anything more diverse and inclusive on race than Scotland.
Whit? Could nasty, racist, Rashford-trolling, England possibly be compared favourably with oor ain egalitarian, migrant-loving Scotland? Nationalists were having none of it. The English may say they are all into inclusion, but look at they do: voting for Brexit, electing Boris Johnson. By their actions should you know them. In other words the English are right wing by default. Look at the treatment of black footballers…
Dr Sewell didn’t deny that racism still existed in British society, but his report claimed that, far from being institutionally racist, all the evidence suggested that hostility to non-white races and fear of immigration had diminished dramatically in past decades across the UK. Brown’s report agrees that there is now a progressive majority across Britain, on measures of equality, tolerance and diversity, and no basis for the claim that England is a dark land of social reactionaries singing Rule Britannia and hating foreigners.
The curious thing is that while Mr Brown can say all this in the context of defending the Union, he wouldn’t dare say it in London Labour circles – at least not in the same terms. There are just too many in his own party who are heavily invested in the belief that racism is rampant. Many academics and BAME authors make a good living out of castigating the English for “micro-aggressions”, Empire nostalgia, white supremacism and unconscious bias. But the reality is that Gordon Brown is right. England and Scotland have both changed out of all recognition on what is now called the “DEI” agenda, Diversity, Equality and Inclusion. Countless reports from the British and Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys confirm Brown’s claim that Scotland and England are converging. There is almost a Union of Woke.
English voters have the same priorities as Scottish ones: the NHS, looking after the elderly, educating the young, dealing with climate change and reducing inequality. Most voters in England agree with Scots in opposing austerity and wanting higher taxes on the wealthy. The view on both sides of the border is that immigration is good for the economy. This is a remarkable change.
It is less than twenty years since a quarter of Scots said they thought it was acceptable to be prejudiced against ethnic minorities and gays. That was in a 2003 survey by Professor John Curtice for the National Centre for Social Research. It came in the backwash from the row in the Scottish parliament over the Liberal-Labour coalition’s plans to abolish Section 2A banning teaching about homosexuality in schools. More than a million Scots called for the retention of the homophobic clause in a referendum financed by the bus magnate Brian Souter for Keep the Clause.
This would be inconceivable today. Which doesn’t mean that intolerance is dead. The disgraced comedian, Janey Godley, revealed that there are still pockets of it at street level. Twitter has been fizzing with pot v kettles disputes between Rangers supporters and Daily Record sports writers over each others’ sectarian remarks. Many Scots still harbour deep resentments towards English people. A forthcoming BBC documentary by the young Scots writer, Chris McQueer, “Let’s Talk About The English”, provides a vivid insight into why, in Mr McQueer’s words, “we hate the English: they’re all posh; they hate us; they’re rude”. McQueer insists he now thinks this is unfair.
The big picture is one of a relentless march of liberal values across the UK. Yet, if the two nations are growing so close, why are their voting records so different? Why is Scotland left and England right? There is clearly a difference of political culture, most obvious in the weakness of the Conservative Party in Holyrood when Boris Johnson has an 80 seat majority in Westminster. There remains a widespread conviction in the independence movement that Scotland has a moral duty to extract itself from the Union in order to escape the racism and rampant right-wingery that besmirches the image of our larger neighbour. English people are not generally attacked in person by Scottish writers, but England is often portrayed as a kind of proto-fascist regime of far right Tories who’ve been elected by legions of “gammon” – middle aged, middle class white men.
There are historical reasons of course for a lingering resentment against the dominant partner in the 1707 Union. Scottish history has been marked by defining events: the wars of independence, the Darien disaster, the Highland Clearances, Thatcherism, deindustrialisation and Brexit. It would hardly be surprising if there weren’t a degree of resentment at Scotland’s treatment within the UK. The squandering of Scotland’s oil wealth is the latest in a long list of grievances Scots can reasonably pin on decisions taken in London.
However, history is all in the past, as someone once said. The decline of industrial politics, of socialism, and its replacement by identity politics has narrowed the difference in ideological disposition between Scots and English. Thatcherism is ancient history to people under the age of 40. Millennials don’t see the closure of the factories and coal mines or the theft of Scottish oil as such a big deal when the climate demands that fossil fuels should be kept in the ground. What motivates people on Twitter is LGBT, BLM and a vague commitment to social justice that stops well short of Marxism or any kind of class politics.
And away from the nether world social media, we find that the grievances of working class people in England, especially in Brexit voting areas, are not so different to those of the Scots. The Brown Report concluded that both Brexit and Scottish nationalism have been fuelled buy a reaction against globalisation and over-centralisation. White communities, left behind in the provinces, have been in a state of rebellion over the lost of secure well paid industrial jobs. An uncomfortable conclusion arises from both Sewell and Brown: that Brexiteers and Scottish nationalists are not as far apart as they’d like to think.