ANDYou may have heard of Gary Neville as a future mayor of Manchester. But what about Marcus Rashford and Gareth Southgate as saviors of the union, the two combining to win a trophy bigger than any sporting adornment: namely, the preservation of the UK itself?
The idea comes from none other than Gordon Brown, who this week unveiled new research to confound the view that UK nations are constantly breaking apart. Brown released polling data showing that, on what the former prime minister calls the “Southgate values” of diversity, tolerance and equality, the people of England are not only in agreement with the coach of the national team, but are also in statistical harmony with the voters from Wales and Scotland.
For Brown, this represents a challenge to Scottish nationalism especially, which, in his opinion, likes to suggest that there is an irreconcilable mismatch between the naturally conservative nation south of the border and the more progressive land to the north. It is far easier for the SNP to advocate for a break with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage’s “toffs and Brexit” England than the modern and inclusive England embodied by Southgate and anti-poverty activist Rashford.
Furthermore, the data shows a surprising level of agreement across the UK on health, education and the climate crisis. And, far from wanting to act alone, the different national electorates want their leaders to work together. What is added, says Brown, is “a new Britain, waiting to be born.”
Those who hope to see the union endure may feel comforted by that. The sentiment could be even stronger among those who are uncomfortable with English nationalism and who have long feared the prospect of an untethered England, free from what they imagine to be the moderating and moderating influence of the union. If English itself is changing (less Farage, more Rashford), that might calm your nerves.
Still, the outlook might not be as rosy as Brown suggests. For one thing, those “Southgate values” smell like apple pie – not many would admit to being against them. Forget Scotland and England – as a longtime nationalist told me, “I’d get identical numbers from Belgium and Borneo.”
What matters is the tough political decisions that those values lead to. And there the differences are too obvious. Just look at the map. Most of Scotland is yellow; most of England is blue. Even areas with almost identical social and economic profiles have taken radically different paths. On Two kingdoms, a new radio series on the union, the BBC’s Allan Little visits Motherwell, which has suffered the same de-industrialization as any part of the so-called “red wall” of northern England. It lost the steel plant that defined it. However, while their English counterparts voted to leave the EU, Motherwell voted for 62% to 38% to stay.
When I shared the Brown numbers with Professor Ailsa Henderson of the University of Edinburgh, who leads the Scottish Election Study, she told me that the ‘benchmarks’ of Britain’s constituent nations’ are and have always been the same. It’s the very different conclusions that voters draw from those values that are separating things. “
In other words, Scottish and English voters may well share affection for the England manager. But that doesn’t matter because, at the risk of stating the obvious, the UK is not ruled by Gareth Southgate. It is Boris Johnson who is in Downing Street.
The impact of that is very concrete. Witness the scenes in Glasgow in May, a few weeks before the Southgate men took to the court for the euros, as happens when immigration officials, responsible for Priti Patel and implementing the hostile environmental policy of the Kingdom government United, they came to arrest two men. Protesters in the streets and the Scottish government opposed the move. While UK ministers promise to reduce immigration figures, Scottish ministers, aware of the population decline, actively want new arrivals. (Though that hardly makes Scotland immune to bigotry – May also saw Rangers fans go on a rampage in Glasgow, fueled by sectarian hatred.)
The same goes for a Scotland-based fleet of nuclear submarines or free university tuition or, most important of all, EU membership. Shared values are fine, but they do not alter the desire to have what one nationalist calls “the tools with which to govern ourselves” and to make different decisions.
In fairness to Brown, he is fully aware of that need and called again this week for a more flexible union that allows British nations to go their own way. But that is also complicated. Henderson’s data shows that the more accommodating the arrangements for Scotland, the more English resentment and nationalism grow.
Still, despite all misgivings, Brown’s latest speech contains a crucial insight. There is a tendency, especially in England, to imagine that it is Scottish attitudes and actions that shape the debate on independence. England often presents itself as a mere spectator. But Brown has stressed that much of this question will be decided by England: what it does and what face it chooses to show itself and the rest of the UK.
For now, the long-term trajectory seems clear. Among Scottish voters aged 35 to 44, about 64% support independence. That figure rises to 70% among those under 34 years of age. Perhaps that trend could be reversed: Polls show that there is a large bloc of voters, what Brown calls “Central Scotland”, who appreciate their Scottish and British identities, and whose minds are not set on independence. What would help would be the arrival in Westminster of a government committed to maximum devotion and genuine cooperation among the nations of these islands. But, as of this moment, such a government seems as likely as Marcus Rashford sitting around the cabinet table. Maybe one day, but not soon.