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Bring Back the Danelaw

The legend of the Danish King Cnut attempting to bid back the waves springs to mind when considering the response of London apparatchiks to Scotland’s tidal movement away from the Union in general and London in particular.

Scotland, led by a Scots Nationalist government recently re-elected by a landslide, is gearing up for a vote on independence. This isn’t going down well with London, which hates not being at the centre of everything.

Worse is in store, however: London is going to be ignored. In preparing for an independent future, Scotland is also beginning to shift its attention away from the Sassenach south, and back to its historic neighbours in the east and north.

‘An independent Scotland would shift much of its attention away from the UK to become a member of the Scandinavian circle of countries, with its own army, navy and air force modelled on its Nordic neighbours, according to detailed plans being drawn up by the SNP…. They reveal that SNP leaders want an independent Scotland to look north and east in Europe for partnerships, trade and key defence relationships, rather than continuing to focus on western Europe and the Commonwealth, as the UK does now.’

This story caused howls of anger and ridicule in England – or rather, in the London media and political elites which seem united in their bitter opposition to the increasingly inevitable prospect of Scottish independence. Largely because this means the end of the imperial/global pretensions of ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’, and of course those London institutions founded on it.

Personally, I welcome and support full Scottish independence. Partly because I think it will do them a power of good, but mostly because it means us English will have to finally find out who the hell we are.

And closer ties with its Scandinavian neighbours seems to me a perfectly sensible move for Scotland. The Scots have much in common with the Scandinavians. Many are descended from them. Scotland and Scandinavia are oil-producing, socialist-leaning, sparsely-populated regions which also tend to produce very similar hard-drinking morose TV detectives.

But then, England, when it isn’t tuning into the latest series of The Killing is in denial about its own Scandinavian heritage. By rights, we should talk not about ‘Anglo-Saxon’ but about ‘Anglo-Saxon-Danish’. As a result of large-scale settlement by Vikings the English language has been greatly enriched by a host of rather useful Danish words, such as ‘law’, ‘sky’, ‘window’, ‘knife’, ‘husband’, ‘call’, ‘egg’, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ and ‘arse’. Without the Danish contribution to English our TV soap opera scripts would be very difficult to write indeed.

As a measure of the influx of Danish blood, English patronymics ending in ‘son’– e.g. ‘Clarkson’ or ‘Simpson’— are likely to be Danish in origin. And under the Danelaw in the 8th and 9th Century, half of England was occupied and run by the Danes, from my hometown of York (then Jorvik), which was at the centre of a thriving trade network stretching from Iceland and Dublin to the Black Sea.

And in the Danelaw, not only were Danish/Old Norse words borrowed by English, Anglo-Norse dialects which were in some ways more Scandinavian than English took root, bequeathing us the distinctive sounds and argot of the Lake District, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

In the early 10th Century the Danish King Cnut the Great managed to preside over a kingdom that included Norway, Denmark, all of England and much of Sweden. His reign in England was said to have been maintained in part through ‘bonds of wealth and custom’ rather than sheer might. In other words, a shared trade and culture. A wise and popular king, it was only the Cnut’s failure to produce a lasting heir that brought the collapse of his Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom (and single currency) which would have changed the history of these islands, and perhaps Europe itself.

His famous bidding back of the waves was not a sign of megalomania but rather a deliberate demonstration to his subjects of the limits of kingly power. It’s a lesson that Westminster really needs to learn again in regard to Scottish independence.

It was of course the successful invasion by William the Conqueror in the watershed year 1066 that finally oriented England southwards and towards the Continent for the next Millennia, replacing the ruling Saxon class with fellow Normans. But Francified William was of Scandinavian descent himself: ‘Norman’ means ‘men from the north’. And he defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold at Hastings in part because Harold was exhausted by a forced march to York (and back again) to defeat an invasion by… Norwegians. 1066 was a very Scandinavian year indeed.

So as a ‘-son’ of York who dwelled in London for a decade or so but has since returned to his ancestral stomping grounds to become a provincial lesbian, I say good luck to Scotland with its dreams of a future safe in Scandinavia’s arms. And if a newly single England still won’t acknowledge its own Scandinavian heritage, or if the south keeps inflicting a London/Norman/Tory government on the rest of us maybe the east and north, where valleys are Danish ‘dales’, streets Danish ‘gates’, and counties are still — no matter what the south insists — Danish ‘ridings’, should just revolt and bring back the Danelaw.

 

I Agree With Alex

By Mark Simpson

So the Scots Nationalist Party has failed in its court action to force the BBC to include their leader Alex Salmond in the final TV leaders’ debate. Everyone south of the border working in politics and the media seems to be very much agreed that this was the ‘right’ outcome. Except for this Englishman. Not least because of the breathtaking, downright imperious hypocrisy of the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

Clegg couldn’t wait for the court decision. He claimed a few days ago that Salmond was “stamping his foot on the sidelines in fury that he’s not on this debate programme. The broadcasters have arrived at the particularly reasonable position that the debates should be held by the three people fighting this campaign up and down the UK.”’

A ‘particularly reasonable decision’ because the chief beneficiary was Nick Clegg – someone who, if you remember, was mostly stamping his foot on the sidelines until he appeared on the TV debate himself a few weeks ago, upstaging the other two party leaders (‘Who is that new guy with the nice hair?’) and provoking a wave of Cleggmania by calling for an end to the ‘old politics’. Perhaps he’s worried that if Salmond is permitted to appear beside him he might be upstaged by the new boy the way he did Brown and Cameron.

Especially since Salmond has a cheeky, Shrek-like, twinkly-eyed man-of-the-people quality that would probably play very well next to Cameron and Clegg’s silver spooning and Brown’s apparatchik chic. The last thing that Clegg wants is to be out-Clegged.

Of course, none of the three main Westminster parties – or the BBC – want to share the limelight with Salmond on their political X Factor show. David McLetchie, head of the Scottish Tories’ election campaign was equally dismissive of Salmond’s bid, invoking the ‘British’ thing: “It’s British general election. Alex Salmond isn’t a candidate in this British election and he doesn’t want to be prime minister. In fact, he wants to destroy the UK.’

In other words: we don’t want him on the show because he won’t play by our rules. But contrary to how it has been portrayed in the media, this isn’t an American Presidential Candidate debate – this is a party leader’s debate. And Salmond is the leader of a party that has several MPs in Westminster – and is running Scotland.

What these arguments overlook – deliberately – is that post-devolution, and with a party devoted to total independence for Scotland in power at Holyrood, ‘Britain’ as a political project has largely already ceased to exist. This is the really ‘old politics’ that the Palace of Westminster doesn’t want to give up. The Union and the imperial identity it engendered is pretty much a dead letter. We’re just waiting for the decree nisi.  Which admittedly has probably been delayed in the post by the recession – but rest assured a Tory Government in Westminster would certainly help focus Scottish minds on their future again.

North of the border almost no one with a Scottish accent is ‘British’, while south of the border it’s usually a way of not talking about the English – or letting them have their own Parliament, or National holiday. Or in the case of the TV election debates, ‘British’ means two slick, super-posh Englishmen in nice suits laying into the plain Scots guy in a bad one. Which is no doubt part of the reason why Salmond wants to muscle in.

Allowing Salmond on the show would be an acknowledgement of how out of touch the ‘old politics’ really is. It would break the spell of ‘let’s pretend she’s just having a kip’ that surrounds the demise of Britannia. Neither Clegg, nor Cameron nor Brown, nor the British Broadcasting Corporation, want to do that because it would severely puncture their own imperial and imperious self-importance.

Now that it’s clear that the TV election debates effectively are the election campaign, let’s have the SNP in one of them next time – and why not Plaid Cymru, UKIP and, if they win any seats, the English Democrats?  Let’s take an honest look at the crazy-paved, devolved nature of post-imperial 21st Century UK politics. After all, 90 minutes is a very long time to spend watching two Blair impersonators and an automaton audition for the part of Emperor With No Clothes.  Especially without a camp Irish compère to lighten the mood.  Bring on, I say, the political version of Britain’s Got Talent.

Clegg talks a lot about an end to the old politics, the urgency of the need for Proportional Representation and how coalitions are not something to be afraid of, but instead welcomed: politics as complicated, grown-up stuff.   But of course coalition government and PR mean taking ‘fringe’ parties that don’t happen to be the Lib Dems a little more seriously.  It means an end not just to two party politics but also and end to three party politics.  And the fond notion that Westminster is still the centre of the world.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2010

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