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Edinburgh (photo: Wix media)

September’s referendum for independence for Scotland energised political debate north of the border and late in proceedings dragged pro-union UK political party leaders and other leading Westminster MPs beyond Hadrian’s Wall to shore up their flagging ‘No’ campaign. The temptation to vote ‘yes’ was spurred not because of a nationalistic hatred of the English but a distrust and dislike of a system that allowed a Conservative-led coalition to impose laws that affect Scotland despite the Tories being almost entirely wiped out from the country in the 1997 general election, leaving a single current MP. A sizeable minority voted for full self-determination but there were evident doubts about the economy and currency should Scotland have become independent. Though it would have been really good to see Trident nuclear missile carrying submarines kicked out, the loss of jobs would have been a major concern.

Despite being a single-issue campaign, it was great to see how successful the referendum was in getting the electorate engaged, especially with younger voters because of the effect the result would have on future generations; in a progressive move, the voting age for the plebiscite was reduced to 16. This connection with politics has been sadly missing for a long time and the reasons are multifactorial: The selection of MPs from a metropolitan elite; the rightward drift of the parties and the blurring of political identity; the expenses scandal; the planned 9% pay rise for MPs compared to a long-running public sector pay freeze or a derisory 1% rise, itself denied to many; the insidious effect of commercial lobbying and the post-parliament jobs.

The late compromise offer to Scottish voters designed by former PM Gordon Brown and agreed between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, was gifting greater powers to Holyrood. The reaction of English Conservative MPs was predictable, demanding that any greater degree of devolution for Scotland had to be coupled with more devolved powers for the other regions of the UK, including English-only votes for matters specific to England, a move which was not only intended to outflank UKIP with its inherent English Nationalist credentials but one which would also cause problems for the Labour Party.

There are some left-wing commentators who are brave enough to point out the requirement to accept the notion of ‘Englishness’. Englishness doesn’t have to be viewed as a nationalistic concept, the preserve of the politically far-right or the insular, right-wing UKIP and it’s not represented by John Redwood’s cricket ball; Englishness is amorphous and it should be celebrated. It’s not a reaction against immigration or immigrants, it’s partly made up from the exact opposite and the Left needs to help everyone see the issue from this alternative perspective; the mixture that is England is a result of migration, would-be invasion and settlement and more than that, an acceptance of those who have been persecuted, making Englishness an recognition and celebration of diversity.

In socio-economic terms, nationalistic elements blame immigrants for taking the jobs of locals, stirring racial hatred by sowing fear in unskilled or low-paid workers who are most likely to hold insecure jobs. This deliberate lie needs to be excised and exposed because it’s the unwillingness to pay a living wage that has forced down wages. The lack of an organised workforce, after a Thatcherite policy carried on after 1997 by Blair, effectively cuts off any form of resistance to that strategy and when globalisation took off in the 80s, multinationals moved their operations around the world to take advantage of cheap labour in an attempt to squeeze out more profit. Decimating the UK industrial base and then spending North Sea oil revenues on social security payments for masses of unemployed was economic incompetence but somehow Thatcher got away with it, helped by fighting a war over Las Malvinas, gerrymandering and plugging into the ‘greed is good’ creed that she claimed, probably knowing it was a lie, would create trickle-down wealth. This is the source of UK inequality that has led to the safety net of social security being rebranded as ‘benefit’ and the unemployed stigmatised as ‘skivers’, a narrative that conveniently ignores the true cause of the global crash in 2008 and one that is blind to the suffering caused by austerity because the super-rich, whose greed precipitated the financial meltdown, have just got richer over the past six years.

Industrial decline - Barrow Hoop Works, August 1979

Gideon Osborne’s speech to the Tory party conference this week shows exactly how little he cares about the low-paid. The Tories, fearing that the rise of UKIP will prevent them from gaining a parliamentary majority, have developed a language of hatred aimed at the unemployed, the low-paid, people with disabilities, minority groups and immigrants. I find that behaviour obscene; a conduct that shrinks away from fairness for political expediency. The creation of the welfare state and the NHS, funded by taxation, was a major step in reducing the gulf between the poor and the wealthy, an act of decency and ‘the right thing to do’; fairness and decency are also included in the formula for ‘Englishness’.

Architects of austerity: David Cameron and George Gideon Osborne (screenshot from BBC TV)

Progressive rock is something that has a strong association with Englishness. Geographically, prog was a largely English phenomenon but one that was outward-looking, absorbing influences from around the world; European classical music, Eastern music, jazz and to a lesser extent, Blues from America, all mixed in with traditional English folk music. This eclectic blend sometimes attempted to reconcile different world philosophies (think of Tales from Topographic Oceans) and frequently borrowed from world literature. Its roots can be at least partly ascribed to psychedelia which in the UK was itself founded on a mixture of sources, from Marvel comics to EE Cummings, Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame and Tolkien. The association of psychedelia with the peace movement and environmental awareness also spilled over into progressive rock, providing grand themes based on the inclusiveness of the global village. It’s quite fitting that ELP should record Jerusalem and that Mont Campbell, formerly of Egg, should be the grandson of composer Martin Shaw, not simply because of the imagery of northern hills or of a green and pleasant land but because of the influence, cited by many of the protagonists, of church music on the musicians. Though religious belief has declined in the UK over the last half-century, the Church of England still retains undue power in our national affairs, with 26 unelected bishops sitting in the House of Lords.

The inclusion of the sea shanty Wreck on Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste may have been influenced by their formative years in Portsmouth but this isn’t a paean to England’s historic nautical supremacy, something that would be boastful and nationalistic, it’s another slice of Englishness as it updates a traditional song-form. A number of commentators have analysed the relationship between Englishness and progressive rock, how and why it came about, but the reasons are complex. It’s a combination of embedded culture and emerging culture in association with scientific, technological and medical advances, an increasing awareness of our place in time and space, of the futility of wars and the consequences of environmental destruction. Prog emerged as the music of a generation that was willing to reflect and engage; a positive force. That’s my kind of Englishness.

Nicola Sturgeon announces her retirement from politics, 15th February 2023 (screenshot from BBC TV)

This article was originally posted on 2nd October 2014, but the original blog was lost when ProgBlog’s web host was changed in 2021. It’s being re-posted now because First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who began her tenure when Alex Salmond resigned after a ‘No’ result in the referendum, has just announced her retirement from politics.

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