In January, the Sunday Times reported a looming constitutional crisis for the UK: New polls revealed that 51 percent of voters in Northern Ireland, 50 percent of voters in Scotland and 31 percent of voters in Wales want a border poll in the next five years. Though the Sunday Times report is framed around the disintegration of “British” identity – with voters in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland all identifying more closely with their national identity as opposed to Britain – what the reports omit is how much this rejection of the union is to do with just how shit England is.
Self-determination for the Scots and Welsh, and 32 counties for Ireland, is a call for liberation from the alienating forces of Westminster, inflamed further by just how much these countries are screwed by the wills of reactionary Englanders who command an imbalanced influence in political decision-making purely on the basis of having greater numbers.
But – beyond and including Westminster and the Tories – what makes England suck so much? Or do Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland actually share more in common with England than they’d like to admit? VICE sat down with James Greig, Gina Tonic and Rachel Connolly, respectively Scottish, Welsh, and Irish journalists based in London and Manchester, to find out their views on liberation from the perfidious Albion.
VICE: As non-English people who live in major English cities, what do you feel have been the worst parts of English culture and political ideology as compared to living back home?
James Greig, Scotland: When I talk about hating England, I’m not really talking about the population, or at least not entirely. All of the people who are oppressed by the English state, whether that’s trans people, migrants, whoever, also make up “England” (I can’t be Anglophobic: some of my best friends are English!)
However, I am happy to say full-throated that English public life, particularly the politics and the media, is possibly the worst in the world. It’s dominated by people who are unpleasant, spiteful, stupid, unimaginative and deeply mediocre. Scotland is no utopia, but our political and cultural life is less defined by the “private school >>> Oxbridge” pipeline and our political instincts are a bit more egalitarian and less deferential as a result.
Whenever I express an annoyance for “English people”, I’m really talking about upper-middle class types from the south who I have often found prim, snide and passive-aggressive. These are the kind of people who, when you make a mistake on your first day at a new job, won’t just explain what you did wrong but will smile and say, “Ummm, why have you done it like this?” Obviously, there are people like that in Scotland too but, in my experience, this kind of smug condescension is particularly endemic in London.
Gina Tonic, Wales: The worst parts of English political ideologies are, when looking through a Welsh lens anyway, how often “Britain” is used when speaking about specific English policies and decisions. This is especially used against Wales and most political talk refers to “England and Wales” without accounting for Wales’s – often different – take on political ideologies. Wales has never had a Tory majority, yet we’ve been suffering from Tory policies the worst every time they have been in power.
As for the culture, I feel a similar imposed superiority reigns true too. The undertones – and overtones, to be frank – of racism and colonialism in English pride are uncomfortable. Seeing “being English” as the best thing to be isn’t just for the uneducated or the Brexit Party or nationalists, either. There are so many liberals and leftists who contribute to the idea that tea and cottages and big fucking fields make English pride normalised and correct.
Rachel Connolly, Northern Ireland: To caveat all of this: this does not refer to every single English person but more to the general national “flavour”.
English nationalism, or some of it at least, has a component of kind of entitlement and superiority that I would say is an England-specific thing within the UK. Other countries in the world definitely have this, but I wouldn’t say Scotland, NI or Wales do. This was a key narrative during Brexit – it was framed as Britain returning to its rightful splendor, but I think that really referred to England in most people’s minds. I agree with Gina and think it stems from colonial history, which is remembered a bit too fondly by some!
I also agree with James in that southern English people love to be passive-aggressive! And to make weird comments in working environments. They simply love it. I have no explanation for why.
Does England have any redeeming qualities at all?
Greig: To continue from what I said before, if your baseline opinion is “English is irredeemably trash” then why even bother working towards a better society? I’m not arguing for “progressive patriotism”, but you have to think that there’s something worth saving. There are lots of good people in England and there are lots of people there who are suffering as a result of English state.
It’s fun to be like “I hate England!” but individually there are lots of places that I like. Newcastle and Liverpool are both achingly beautiful cities; Manchester is a really fun and dynamic place and I always have a great time there. People often talk about “England’s toxic drinking culture” as a serious problem – and I’m sure it is by a public health metric – but it’s also quite a good laugh! The fact that England is so dreary and miserable has led to a lot of good culture that’s specifically about dreary misery (British new wave cinema, Patrick Keiller, The Smiths etc) and I’ve always found that aesthetic appealing. But I think English culture is in a state of decline, for sure, because the idea that culture flourishes in adversity isn’t entirely true – it needs good art funding and affordable rents etc, none of which we have.
Tonic: Here’s my deal: England has little to redeem itself after the past ten years. After the past thousand even. That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed almost every minute of being here. As much as there is so much to say for the rotten people in England who aren’t ruining the country – it was already shite – there are those trying to atone for the mistakes of their state and their history and it’s commendable. It really is! There is a lot of space in England for people to be themselves, express themselves and ideas in a way that is harder to find in other countries and I feel, to find in Wales.
This is, of course, due to lack of funding and education given to Wales. I definitely felt I had to “escape” Wales when I was younger to pursue my dreams. While the ideal solution is to have opportunities and community in my hometown, it doesn’t stop the fact that I have found a home for myself, a career for myself and a community for myself in England that doesn’t exist in Wales. That is due not just to Manchester having more funding, but a certified effort to create inclusive spaces in England where those on the margins can thrive.
I also feel it’s incredibly important to celebrate the north of England as separate to the south. The north has suffered at the hands of the southern elite, too. The north has been underfunded, underrepresented and ignored to benefit the bottom of the country. I don’t feel fair lumping in these people, their culture and their struggle with my hatred of England’s culture and politics.
Connolly: Historically, NI has been very white – I think because of the Troubles, meaning there isn’t the same history of immigration. Although this is starting to change now, parts of England are certainly a lot more multicultural than Northern Ireland. That’s beneficial to people’s mindset, in terms of being more open-minded, and improves the culture and makes cities and towns more interesting places.
People from Liverpool and Manchester are usually very cool and good-looking, too. I also agree with James that the drinking culture here is good craic (and maybe uniform across the UK?).
Are you supporters of independence/unification? Do you think a successful independence referendum is on the cards for Scotland and Wales, or that we could see Irish unification by the end of this decade? Is the 2020s the UK’s last stand?
Greig: I voted “Yes” in 2014 but was lured away from the cause by Jeremy Corbyn. During his leadership, I was very hopeful about what the UK could look like, which is sadly no longer the case. Keir Starmer is doing a terrible job and I can’t see Labour getting to power any time soon. I also think that, if they ever did, it would be such a compromised, watered-down version that it’s hard to get too invested in the possibility. To be clear, the SNP are also not great – policy-wise, they’re maybe not a million miles away from what a Starmer-led Labour would look like – but it would be easier to oppose the SNP from the left within an independent Scotland.
I like the concept of solidarity across the borders and have struggled with the idea that Scottish independence would mean “abandoning” England to perpetual Tory rule – clearly, a working-class person in Glasgow has a lot of shared interests with a working-class person in Liverpool. But… we kind of have perpetual Tory rule anyway! I’m not sure that Scotland being in the Union is helping anyone at the moment. Plus, most English people I know have a kind of “go on, save yourselves!” mentality and would love nothing more than to see the break-up of the Union, even if only to spite the Tories.
As for whether it’ll happen? According to the polls, it’s looking quite likely at this stage but I also have the lingering suspicion that Scotland is a nation of shitebags and we will bottle it again when the time comes.
Tonic: Without independence, Wales isn’t going to survive as a nation for much longer, but with one in three people supporting independence in Wales now, it seems more of a possibility than just a concept like it was even two or three years ago. I guess it all hinges on whether we will be given a referendum to vote on or not, or rather when one can finally be put to the Welsh people.
Not only are things like the COVID response informing Welsh people of what they lose under England – e.g. the furlough scheme only being extended when England went into further lockdown, but when Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales did before them, we were told it wasn’t possible? – but the Welsh lib movement is working well to teach Welsh people about everything we’ve already lost under England’s rule.
Tryweryn (Cofiwch Dryweryn) for example, where a Welsh village was evacuated and flooded to become a water reservoir for Liverpool, only happened in the 1960s. Another example of English oppression is the loss of our language; kids were still wearing Welsh Nots all the way up to the 1940s.
By not just seeing our losses now, but our losses as a whole over the centuries to England, it feels like independence is an inevitability.
Connolly: I can see there being a referendum for reunification within a decade, but I have no idea what the result of that would be. It comes down to demographics, really – the number of those from a unionist or nationalist background who vote. If Brexit makes things noticeably difficult for the average person in NI – like if it’s very expensive to get your shopping or it’s hard for small businesses to operate – which seems likely, then it would be more likely to happen.
I’m pro-reunification generally – I’m from a nationalist background so that is partly why; I wouldn’t presume to speak for an NI unionist – but there are certain aspects that give me pause. Ireland has no NHS, for example, and that would make a big difference to working-class people. The Irish government has been very good to NI during the Brexit negotiations – even small things like offering to pay for Erasmus for NI students, which I do think is an indication that it may be a possibility within the decade.
How much of a role do you feel Brexit and the Conservatives’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened nationalism and the resolve to break up the union?
Greig: Brexit, for sure. It was always a stupid reason but quite a lot of middle-class Scottish people voted “no” partly because they were worried about having to leave the EU. Obviously, that’s no longer a factor! Lots of Scottish people are invested in being “European” and resent having to leave. On the other hand, Brexit has proven such a drawn-out, boring constitutional nightmare that people might just be tempted to stick with the status quo to avoid the hassle.
As for COVID-19, I’m not sure, but Nicola Sturgeon remains a popular figure – a poll last November found that 74 percent of people in Scotland think she’s handled the pandemic well. There definitely seems to be the widespread impression that she’s handled it better than Boris Johnson. I don’t know whether coronavirus will prove to be a decisive factor, but I definitely can’t see it dampening anyone’s enthusiasm for independence.
Tonic: This one is tricky for me because Wales as a whole voted for Brexit, but I voted against it. Still, I guess there’s an argument that if Wales voted to leave the EU, they would vote to leave the UK too! Like I said above, the way that so much of the COVID response has been England-centric has really riled Welsh people up into wanting independence.
Connolly: Brexit has definitely made this question of reunification more urgent, if nothing else. The Tories’ cavalier attitude to things like the Good Friday Agreement during Brexit negotiations demonstrated a kind of callousness and cluelessness to what NI even is as a concept, and the history of the peace process, which irked lots of people.
Brexit also makes staying part of the UK seem much more like something you should actively be “choosing”, whereas before it was just passive continuation. Maybe some people are asking themselves the question now [when] they would have put it down as an impossibility before, instead of thinking seriously about it.
In terms of COVID, I’m not sure. There’s the perception that it has been handled chaotically but I don’t know if this would, say, make a hardcore unionist hate the Conservative Party. It has probably just reinforced the views of people who already didn’t like the idea of Boris. I imagine the impact has more been preaching to the converted than actually changing minds.
Do you think there’s a problem of nationalism and unification being used to disguise political evils and social problems that persist in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland? Are there any ways in which these countries have been, or are, just as reactionary as England?
Greig: I’m glad that you asked this because, this week in particular, I would feel uncomfortable waxing lyrical about how great Scotland is in comparison to England. For all that Scotland likes to portray itself is a forward-thinking and progressive place, Scottish politics have a huge transphobia problem. While there are a lot of pro-trans rights politicians in the SNP, and campaign groups like Out for Independence are doing good work, the party still seems more institutionally transphobic than any other in the UK. The Tories are terrible, of course, but to quote a trans friend of mine, “they basically don’t give a shit”, whereas many SNP supporters and members are committed, enthusiastic transphobes. This isn’t limited to the one party, either – you can see the same tendency within Scottish Labour and the Conservatives.
At the end of January, Nicola Sturgeon issued a video stating her solidarity with trans people and saying that "transphobia is wrong and we must treat it with the zero tolerance we treat racism or homophobia.” I like Sturgeon well enough and can believe that she is not transphobic herself, but the party she leads is absolutely rancid with it, and this is ultimately her responsibility. Publishing a vlog is better than nothing but she needs to take more decisive action.
I also think it’s funny when Scottish nationalists sometimes talk about being “colonised” by England when Scotland went cap-in-hand to join the Union after being almost bankrupted by a failed colonial venture of its own. If the British empire is a historical villain (and it is), then Scotland is an accomplice rather than a victim – a fact which is often obscured by its self-conception as a plucky underdog. People often say that England has “failed to reckon with the crimes of its colonial past” but this is, if anything, even more true of Scotland, although there is admittedly far less imperial nostalgia.
As a final point, although there might be some differences in national character, there are plenty of Tories in Scotland and they are just as obnoxious as their southern counterparts.
Tonic: Definitely! The idea that Wales is better than England on fronts like racism, transphobia, homophobia, etc always feels like an echo of how England doesn’t see itself “as bad” as America on those fronts. The concept of “that doesn’t happen here” just isn’t true, at all. Two weeks ago Mohamud Hassan was murdered by the Cardiff police force for absolutely no reason – actually, the reason was institutional racism and xenophobia – and outside of great groups like The Privilege Cafe, BLM Cardiff and POC4Indy Wales, I’ve barely seen it discussed in the media. Even though there were ongoing daily BLM protests outside of the police station for almost a week!
Independence groups pretending Wales is some idyllic, warm, cozy and inclusive country only stands to damage those who need reform the most. Wales is just as institutionally corrupt as England. Just because we have been oppressed by England doesn’t make our oppressions and our place in colonialism null and void.
Connolly: Yeah, tribalism in NI has always been used as a kind of distraction for incompetence, corruption, cronyism and even crime among the political class. I would go as far as to say that’s the defining feature of politics in NI. Problems of poverty and community cohesion all end up hidden behind, or overshadowed by, constant sectarian arguments. Everyone knows this, it’s not a secret, but it’s hard to see a solution to it.