Vol. 42 No. 19 · 8 October 2020

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Bye Bye Britain

‘Who in the rest of Britain needs this union with Scotland?’ Neal Ascherson asks (LRB, 24 September). Well, most opinion polls suggest that large majorities of English, Welsh and Northern Irish voters do, enough at least to say they don’t want Scotland to leave the UK. Ascherson likes to criticise the ‘Anglo-British’ monarchical state – highly centralised, with an overmighty sovereign Parliament – and does so again here: ‘It is still, in its dark innards, a 17th-century kingdom.’ In the 17th century Britain didn’t exist as one kingdom, but as three: England, Scotland and Ireland, loosely joined under a single monarch. That system is superficially more similar to the one we have now – devolved parliaments in each of the ‘home nations’ – than to the one we had between 1707 and 1999. But I think Ascherson refers back to the 17th century because it allows him to ignore the long subsequent period in which the union between England and Scotland held up pretty nicely (and with plenty of democratic input: turnouts at elections were far higher at the beginning of the 20th century, for example, than they are now), as well as the complex interchanges to do with politics, empire, culture, commerce, work, technology, religion and marriage that it entailed.

The fact is that until the postwar Labour government and, most decisively, Thatcher’s ascent, the British state was highly decentralised, with most of its business conducted locally (some historians call early modern England a ‘monarchical republic’ for this reason). To assert that democracy was ‘introduced’ into the Union only with devolution in 1999 is to belittle every shared effort that contributed to the achievement of universal suffrage by 1928. According to Ascherson, it was only with devolution that the population difference between England and Scotland ‘suddenly came to matter’. Yet this had long been identified as an issue and was one of the reasons for the creation of the Scottish Parliament in the first place. Previously Scotland – allowing, always, for differences – had been an integrated part of a wider political community. Its enthusiasms were almost always in line with well-represented opinion in the rest of the UK, and frequently in line with majority opinion. This was the case during the long period of Liberal dominance in the 19th century and in the years when the Labour Party was growing in strength, and in those when it held power, or held power for most of the time (1945-51, 1964-79, 1997-2010). Scotland even swung solidly behind the Tories in 1955, contributing to their healthy majority. When it was thwarted and restless, as in the 1980s, its dissatisfactions tended to add to a UK-wide opposition.

The major change is that Scots have chosen to shift their majority support away from the Labour Party and towards the SNP, which operates only in Scotland and is largely uninterested in participating in a wider political community, except to point up its Englishness. There is little evidence that, initially at least, this shift reflected a desire for independence. It has, though, created the very situation that the SNP volubly deplores and adduces as evidence for the desirability of independence. By voting for a party that can never hold power in Westminster and which wishes to forge a separate political community, Scots make it harder for Labour to beat the Tories and enforce their own ostracism.

Ascherson’s view of England and the English is London-centric. He refers to ‘the southern attitude’ and ‘down south’. In the North we do the same: it’s one of the many things we have in common with Scots. I find it sad that nowhere in Ascherson’s essay does he regret abandoning large numbers of his fellow citizens to the not so tender mercies of the Tories, or ask himself whether the rise of the SNP doesn’t represent a shrivelling of a left/social democratic ambition that might possibly have delivered change for all the peoples of the UK. If English nationalism once had the ‘chance to mature into a radical, modernising force’, and Scottish nationalism already is one, might there not be a British version?

Geoff Thompson

Neal Ascherson writes: I wrote the article to ask why UK citizens outwith Scotland might want to preserve the Union. The only answer Geoff Thompson provides is that Scottish votes are needed to save England from Tory misrule. Even supposing the remnant of Scottish Labour could be revived, can he imagine Scottish electors – after a Yes vote in a referendum – clamouring to renounce their new independence so that the North of England could dump its Tories? There are many good progressives in England, like Thompson, who fear ‘abandonment’ if the Union ends. But they can surely fight for themselves, and their hour will come; in a few years, England will be impatient to kick this impossibly bad government back into the street.

I never suggested that the Union denied Scotland parliamentary democracy. It’s the Union as a structure which lacked democratic accountability – until the 2014 referendum set a precedent.

Finally, I don’t know why Thompson thinks that the shift of voters to the SNP over the past decade did not ‘reflect a desire for independence’. Only a minority of the shifters said that they wanted to remain in the UK. The rest read the label on the SNP tin and bought it.

Bias at the BBC

William Davies, in his thoughtful discussion of the fabricated culture war over the Proms, mentions in passing the new BBC director-general Tim Davie’s supposed plan to cancel ‘left-wing comedy shows’ (LRB, 24 September). This too was a made-up story. On Monday, 31 August it was announced that on Thursday, 3 September Davie would make a speech about the BBC. The Telegraph reported that ‘senior sources’ had said Davie believed ‘the BBC’s comedy output is seen as too one-sided,’ and that new measures ‘could see a number of shows axed’. For the next four days the story grew in the traditional media and online, without the ‘senior sources’ ever being identified or the quote verified. I personally declined a number of invitations to comment on it because I suspected it would turn out to be false, and broadcasters in a binary world aren’t interested in hearing that. When Davie made his speech on the Thursday morning it contained no mention of problems with ‘left-wing comedy’, and in a BBC in-house interview afterwards, which I leaked to chortle.co.uk (the relevant clip is on the ChortleUK YouTube channel, titled ‘Tim Davie on UK Comedy’), Davie said he had no idea where the story came from; that it was ‘all nonsense’; that comedy always has ‘a bit more edge against those in power’; and that he wants satire on the BBC. He also said that the BBC ‘should offer a platform where there is no assumed point of view’, and that comedy should have ‘a multitude of flavours’. Of course Davie’s denial of the Telegraph’s story didn’t stop it grinding on, or prevent it being used to consolidate the idea of liberal bias at the BBC, even in newspapers like the Observer and the Guardian. Job done.

Stewart Lee
London N16


Paul Taylor mentions that the PR firm hired by Ofqual to deflect criticism of its role in the A level results scandal is ‘run by former associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings’ (LRB, 10 September). That is entirely appropriate, since Gove and Cummings were personally responsible for the fiasco.

When Gove became secretary of state for education in 2010, with Cummings as his special policy adviser, he had already defined the problem as he saw it. A programme of dumbed-down learning and liberal values was being propagated by an ‘establishment’ of educationists, teacher unions, administrators and civil servants. The General Teaching Council for England, established in 1998 to regulate teaching and advise government on educational standards, most of whose members were elected or nominated, was abolished. Two other bodies, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) and the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), posed fewer problems since their leadership positions were in the secretary of state’s gift. In 2012 Gove appointed five new Ofqual directors, of whom four – the exception was the head of Harrow – had never taught in a school or marked a public examination paper. Among them was the present chair of Ofqual, Roger Taylor; similarly untainted by practical experience was his predecessor, Amanda Spielman, now Ofsted’s chief inspector.

Gove’s crusade began as soon as he took office. A level examinations must be ‘fewer but harder’. Convinced that intense end-of-course pressure was more ‘rigorous’ and therefore superior to modular assessment, he announced to Parliament in January 2013 that AS level examinations would be ‘uncoupled’ from A levels. Ofqual acquiesced; since 2015 students’ attainment across two years of study has been measured solely by final examinations.

Had the coronavirus struck in any year between 2002 and 2016, A level students would already have banked at least half of the marks on which their final grade would be based. In 2020 they had nothing. ‘Centre assessement grades’, confidential predictions whose only previous use was as a check against possible errors by the examining body, suddenly became crucial. In the ensuing debacle, the education secretary and the chair of Ofqual squirmed, waffled and remained in post. The men responsible for their plight were asked no questions.

Andy Connell
Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria

Vorsprung durch Techno

Ian Penman writes that Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ (1982) ‘swiped its beat’ from Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (LRB, 10 September). In fact ‘Planet Rock’ quoted the melody from that track; the (much faster) beat was a re-creation of the beat from ‘Numbers’, which appears on Kraftwerk’s later album Computer World. Accuracy matters here, given that Karl Bartos’s objection to Bambaataa’s (and his producer Arthur Baker’s) use of the beat was their failure to observe academic referencing conventions. ‘We felt pissed off,’ Bartos said (quoted in Pascal Bussy’s Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music from 1993). ‘If you read a book and you copy something out of it, you do it like a scientist, you have to quote where you took it from, what is the source of it.’ They settled out of court.

Martin McIvor
London SW17

Ian Penman writes that Kraftwerk ‘opened up parallel sonic worlds to young Americans of colour living airless no-exit lives in run-down housing projects’. Maybe so, but that description doesn’t fit at least two of the examples he cites. Juan Atkins and Derrick May were from middle-class families in suburban Belleville, not inner-city Detroit.

Benjamin Britz
Washington DC


Caroline Campbell’s piece about Sofonisba Anguissola is illustrated by her painting The Chess Game (LRB, 10 September). Properly set, the lower right-hand squares of a chessboard should be white. In the painting they are black. Perhaps the board was rotated by ninety degrees, which seems odd; or there wasn’t an actual game in play. Or could chessboards be configured as shown in the painting in the 16th century?

Norbert Hirschhorn
Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Suitcase

I think I know why Frances Stonor Saunders’s father was sending himself envelopes containing only blank index cards (LRB, 10 September). Some stamp collectors specialise in first-day covers, envelopes bearing newly issued stamps which have been franked on the day of issue. If such envelopes are opened, they lose much of their value.

Geoffrey Taunton
Montmorillon, France

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