Comment: Notes from a niseach

Cracks in the coronation mug

There was a time when even the people of the periphery felt they were “British”.

As someone around the age of 50, I can just about recall these days. We were given books with titles like The Life of Winston Churchill at school prizegiving. We ran around the playground pretending to be commandos (“Achtung! Achtung! Gott un Himmel!”) charging a German tank or swooping like Spitfires and Hurricanes, spume on our lips as we spat out machine-gun bullets at our enemies. And when we reached home, our parents scooped out tea-leaves from tea-caddies decorated with the serene faces of a young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and drank out from coronation mugs.

Sometimes the conversations that took place over these coronation mugs were equally enlightening. One man might talk about his National Service and how there was this man way down in Coventry who remained a good friend. Another might speak of the liking for Cockneys he had gained during his time in the Merchant Navy. Equally as enlightening was the old geography teacher whose mind and tongue often rambled when he brought his cup of tea to the classroom, talking endlessly to the boys as he wandered light-years away from his subject. Time and time again he revealed his distaste for his fellow Scots, the men of the Red Clyde.

“So, of course, we were risking our lives in war, and what were that mob doing? They were out on strike.”

However, with the exceptions of a few spats like these, all seemed peaceful. After the ravages of the Second World War, the kingdom was united and content.

Yet looking back, it is all too easy to see that this period was when the fragmentation of that kingdom started, that the aftermath of that war was when small cracks between the nations of the British Isles began to widen. There was, for instance, perhaps too much made of The Myth of the Blitz, a few too many choruses of “The White Cliffs of Dover”. The bravery of the citizens of the south-east, the exploits of the Brylcream Boys of the RAF was celebrated in the nation’s tales and songs. In contrast, the courage of the men from the nation’s northern edges, those who served in the Merchant Navy and brought food to these shores, was barely mentioned; their heroism unheralded despite the terrible loss of life on these largely unprotected ships steaming homeward from foreign ports.

The young queen’s title, too, brought its share of problems. I recall some of my relatives still spitting furiously some ten years after her coronation. Pointing out the scroll below Her Majesty’s head on their long-cracked mugs, they would declare:

“Elizabeth the Second! And when did we ever have a first?”

Some, of course, took their resentment of this title a lot further than a little splutter of PG Tips. They were the Scots who used to take their chisels to brand-new post-boxes in order to scrape off an “I”. While this reaction was clearly extreme, there is little doubt that the young queen’s new title was a remarkably insensitive one. She should have been Queen Elizabeth I of the United Kingdom – just like James VI of Scotland had become the first James of a new nation all these years before. It seems to me that this single, stupid decision formed the basis for much of the resentment that was to come.

Because it snowballed; the tiny cracks in the coronation mug growing larger every time a London weather-forecaster, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, declared “We’re all going to have a fine, hot day today,” when the northern part of the kingdom was blotted out with cloud. It grew wider still when England’s victory in the World Cup of 1966 became the most prolonged event in sporting history. (They think it’s all over? Those north of Hadrian’s Wall thought it was never going to be.) And then, of course, there is that endless muttering that emanates from the southern media – their misunderstandings about the true nature and reason for the Barnett formula; their complaints about the number of Scots in the Cabinet. One can only wonder where their attention wandered when John Major sat in Downing Street – how many members of his Cabinet came from constituencies north of Huntingdon? – or when Harold MacMillan crammed the top table with his cousins? A quick squint at Cameron’s crew and one can easily see these “Happy Days” might be “here again”. With the proper order restored, the products of Eton will rifle through the family silver as they have done for centuries before.

And the cracks will grow wider and wider, until soon the cup (or mug) may no longer be able to hold …

Yet there will always be fissures within nations – small gaps between communities that might at any time threaten to fracture and grow. Even Alex Salmond’s new government of Scotland, for all its fancy footwork to date, has not avoided stepping into them. The recent introduction of Road Equivalent Tariff (for a trial period) to the Western Isles alone seems to me to have been the kind of error that could lead to this splintering. It looks like the worst kind of pork-barrel politics, a reward handed out to those who helped vote the Nationalists into office. And for the rest, nothing.

The East Coast already has its resentments. It seems to me, for instance, as a Gael, that there is every reason and justification for Gaelic television. It helps sustain a language – something that is greater than all the treasures in the Louvre, the National Museum, the Hermitage in St Petersburg. It provides work. It corrects a historical wrong . . . Yet that case has never been made by my fellow-Gaels. And as a result of their silence and the new government’s actions, there are already cracks and misunderstandings, flaws in King Alex’s coronation mug.

Who knows how they will grow and expand in future – for there is one thing certain. devolution and independence are not ends in themselves. At the very moment we believe the cup is full and complete, it will begin to fracture and break.

Donald S Murray


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