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Across the border

23 September 2016

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SCOTLAND and the Battle for Britain (BBC2, Sundays) heralded its serious intent by refraining from extending its title with its celebrity presenter’s name — “With Andrew Marr”. This two-parter was his account of the rise of Scottish nationalism, the inde­pendence referendum, the Brexit debate, and the future of the Union itself.

What he chronicles is no less than a Götterdämmerung-scale col­lapse of the British political land­scape: Westminster and Downing Street out of touch with majority aspirations beyond the south-east of England; and short-term solu­tions leading to unfore­seen con­sequences. Both Labour and Con­servative fail­ings left the ground open for the rise of the SNP.

The Establishment’s campaign for a “No” vote in the Scottish referendum focused on warnings of economic collapse with no positive vision of the pos­sibilities of remaining united. Thanks, perhaps, to Gordon Brown’s un­­acknowledged last-minute injec­tion of just such a positive vision, the break-up was avoided; but they demonstrated their refusal to learn by repeating the same negative, vision-free line in the EU debate, this time disastrously.

The Brexit débâcle lays open the political divergence between the two kingdoms. Marr cast a cold eye on the success of a separate, inde­pendent Scotland: the lack of a strong Opposition has allowed SNP failures in government to go unchallenged, and the collapse of oil prices would make its economic future shaky. But this beautiful, passionate film pointed to failures beyond these islands: the sense of helpless despair that most people feel, caught up in forces of inter­national capitalism over which they have no control. Actual­ly, though they won’t admit it, this holds good for the politicians, too.

All Together Now (BBC2, Satur­day) might seem, both in title and subject-matter, a timely refutation of the break-up of the United King­dom. In this last pro­gramme in the series — in which amateur orchestras competed with each other for the crown of playing at the Proms in the Park — the final play-off, between ensembles from Dundee and Devon, showed the ability of music-making to unite people rather than set them at loggerheads.

The achievement of both bands in wholesale improvement was extraordinary, despite the imposs­ibility of finding the time and focus to practise properly every day, necessary to playing at a quasi-professional level while living an ordinary life of full-time job, houseparent, carer. As usual with such programmes, the clearest message was about personal trans­formation. The self-taught tim­panist from Devon said: “It has set me free to be myself again.”

Channel 4’s Paralympics 2016 coverage has, nightly, presented us with similarly impossible feats of determination and willpower, achievements far beyond reason — in which, wonderfully, the UK triumphed beyond all expectation. Boldly, in addition to the relaying of the races and competitions, they dared to treat this most serious of matters with a light touch: each evening The Last Leg: Live from Rio shared with us the self-deprecating humour of the Paralympians themselves.

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