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The Glittering Coffin (April 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Like most things to do with contemporary Britain, London is hollow.


To: David Goodhart,

Editor, Prospect magazine

You may have seen my "Bad History" essay in the current Political Quarterly. Your own publication, Prospect, was offered it, I recall, but refused. I'm quite pleased with it, believing that a combination of bookstore populism and metropolitan throwing-weight-about has pretty well wrecked a progressive British history. It has not so far wrecked me.

My book, Floating Commonwealth: Technology, Politics, and Culture on the Atlantic Coast, 1860-1930, is currently being edited at OUP, and will be out in the autumn - the last of a sequence which began with The Lights of Liberalism: University Liberals and the Challenge of Democracy, 1865-1886 (Allen Lane, 1976) and The Centre of Things: Political Fiction in Britain from Disraeli to the Present (Unwin Hyman, 1991), collectively amounting to as considered an intellectual biography of the place as you're likely to get.

This hasn't made anything like as much of an impact as my Scottish work - both Scotland and Nationalism (Allen and Unwin, 1977; Routledge, 2004), and No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland since 1914 (Edward Arnold, 1981; Edinburgh UP 2000), are in their fourth editions. This may say something about the ideological condition of Anglophonia. As a practical Scots bourgeois, of the Bailie Nicoll Jarvie sort, I don't repine but get on with the business of sorting the place out according to the priorities of my class, which at the moment involves dismantling the UK.

Being presently Scottish National candidate for Kirkcaldy, effectively against Gordon Brown, I aim to make my convictions stick. I've tried, God knows I've tried, to foster federal or even confederal ideas in the UK, but I haven't got anywhere beyond a very demanding and thoroughly rewarding chair at Tübingen from which I retire, alas, in 2008.

I may get elected to Holyrood, in which case the swing to my side will have been such that it will be only sensible for us to aim for independence as quickly as possible: while we can still use the oil as collateral to buy in technology and expertise from Europe to modernise infrastructure and training. (You can find all you want about this in my "Broonland" e-book on my website).

I may not get elected, in which case I shall resume life in Germany and Wales, paint water-colours, maybe agitate in my Kreistag as a Social Democrat for environmental policies, preserve steam trains, and campaign for continental railways to take the British system over.

I could see myself as German, Welsh or English as well as Scots, but not British, save in a vaguely Scandinavian or Iberian sense. But this is a pretty hard-edged definition to do with employment, expenditure, education, family and so on. The British identity game has been too vague, and in the case of Linda Colley (perhaps its most credible exponent) too misleading. It's better to work out practicable areas of co-operation, and necessarily separate enterprises, in a European as well as a British Islands context. But the situation that has produced this has amounted to a trahison des clercs on the part of the metropolitan intelligentsia and of the cultural capitalism that nurtures it, which I am not disposed to forget, particularly after a visit to one of our high street bookshops - an experience as depressing as its German or Welsh equivalent is uplifting. I have never forgiven Waterstones and Borders for crushing brave nonconformists like the Angel Bookshop in Islington, in favour of hawking stuff which, in the interests of what's left of Anglophone culture, ought to be pulped.

Orwell's prediction in 1984 that writing machines would grind out semi-pornography for his proles seems petty well borne out, as a glance at supermarket or airport dump-bins would show. Real crime, chick-lit, militaria, motormouth Clarkson and so on. That's neither here nor there, though what still unites our nations, at a pretty basic level, is bad behaviour, its inevitable consequences being a sort of cultural dry rot.

More serious is a commercial Darwinism in which a few modes or authors are deemed to represent minority opinions within the state, and are promoted by Metrolit without any regard to the nature of their regional cultures. Scottish literature includes JK Rowling, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, Irvine Welsh: it would be a very poor thing indeed if it was defined in terms of them, but that's how it is. Much the same goes for history, defined by Simon Schama, David Starkey, Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and co, against a profession crippled by the ball-and-chain of the Research Assessment Exercise.

Point made, I think. London has agglomerated immense cultural property, but that's not the same as power; and indeed much of the property is administered from abroad or from tax havens. Its privileges have been immensely strengthened by the likes of Ofcom, which is there to steer the legal loot. Like most things to do with contemporary Britain, London is hollow - what Dennis Potter called long ago "a glittering coffin". If we're unlucky, the values of Anglophone culture, as well as the trash, will be buried in it.

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