Another day goes by and another death knell sounds for the increasingly fragile unionist cause. This time it comes in the form of John Cleese’s response to Fraser Nelson’s appointment as editor of The Spectator. Despite the most recognisably Scottish thing about Nelson being his first name, he is still, according to John Cleese, “a half-educated tenement Scot”. Cleese was none too happy with the assault on “our English press” by a rag-tag ‘North Briton’ – to use Hume’s preferred moniker. His indigent response raises questions about the historical power dynamic between the elites of both nations.
Born of the economic violence of the English Parliament, the deeply unpopular Union of 1707 saw Scotland incorporated as junior partner in a new state. Its elites quickly set about anglicising their customs and their speech, with such luminaries as Hume and Smith employing English tutors to help rid themselves of ‘scotticisms’. Let this atmosphere of cultural inferiority simmer for 300 years and you arrive at the infamous ‘Scots’ cringe’ and a large part of the Scots elite being almost indistinguishable from its English counterpart. For the English elite, however, for whom being British was only ever about being English with bells on (as any cursory glance at literature will attest), this disguise cuts no mustard.
Far from being an unprecedented outburst, issuing forth in the white heat of rage, Cleese’s extraordinary vitriol is in fact indicative of a long-standing undercurrent of greater (in the sense of being more populous) country chauvinism on the part of England that is no less evident when it remains unspoken. Indeed, since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament this has come into ever-clearer focus. While MSPs have and exercise legislative powers across a vast number of spheres, and many of them enjoy a large amount of Scottish public recognition, former London mayor Ken Livingstone went on record saying that “most people in Britain have not heard of [Kezia Dugdale]”. Given that Scotland is a country of some five million people, in comparison to the UK’s 64 million, this is no more than a tacit way of saying that most people in England have not heard of her, and as a result she is unimportant.
Yet while the explicit articulation of the sentiment is easily dismissed when it falls from the lips of arch-contrarian rent-a-mouths like Katie Hopkins (who once described Scottish people as “little sweaty jocks”) when it comes from someone once considered a ‘national treasure’ it is far harder to forget. Especially when his national allegiance – to England and England alone – has been so openly avowed. More generally, the whole debacle reveals two things about the state of British society today. The first is that the days of the Union are numbered, as the entire ideological edifice on which the idea of Britain is built is torn down before millions of eyes by the supposed gatekeepers of national culture. The second pertains to the ‘half-educated’ and ‘tenement’ in Cleese’s insult. Rigid social stratification and insurmountable class boundaries are back with a vengeance. That Fraser Nelson the boarding-school boy should be target practice only demonstrates how impossibly high the barriers to entry to the new elite are being set.
Ultimately though, we should be thankful to the old comic. In speaking out he dropped his visor, allowed us to see the raw face of Britain as it has always been. A bunting-festooned farce of English national chauvinism, vapid elitism, and class oppression.