Over the past three years, I've become an ‘accidental Unionist'
Back in the summer of 2011, I proposed to my colleagues at Debating Matters that we should do a debate on Scottish independence, in response to the surprise victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in that spring’s Scottish parliamentary elections; the SNP’s manifesto pledged (as it always has) to call an independence referendum if the party ever won a majority in parliament.
I recall having to make the case for the debate quite forcefully, on the basis that no one else thought it was a particularly interesting issue. But I did convince my team in the end that this was an incredibly vital issue (if not now, then soon), and went on to write the Topic Guide resource for the debate, entitled ‘We should maintain the Union’.
On reflection, that lack of interest from my colleagues simply reflected what most people south of the border felt, and it’s really only since last week that the referendum has been at the centre of political thought and debate across the UK - quite rightly in my opinion - due to the first poll that put the Yes campaign in the lead, published in The Sunday Times last week.
Now, I claim no special political insight from this tale, but my gut response to the idea of Scotland breaking away from the Union – which was back in 2011 rather too visceral and unformed – remains to this day: I see little, if anything at all, positive about the Balkanisation of the UK.
And so, over the past three years, I’ve become an ‘accidental Unionist’, finding myself asked to defend the the status quo, the British state, and even the nation state itself - all things that friends and former colleagues will tell you I’d never have believed could be the case, having been an ardent supporter of Irish freedom, for example, not so many years ago.
But here I find myself, all the same.
One of the frustrations for people on my side of the Yes/No divide is the apparent lack of a ‘positive’ case for maintaining the Union, and I concur with many critics of the Better Together campaign that the main ‘No’ campaign has tackled the apparent hope and aspirations of the Yes campaign rather unconvincingly with scare stories of Scotland being too poor and too wee to go it alone.
There’s a ubiquitous quote from the Yes camp – Nelson Mandela’s “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears” – which is a rather powerful one, and I think this is reflected in their rise in the polls, the evangelical feel to their campaign and the sense that the Union case is all but lost as a result. I’m not here to defend the Better Together campaign at all by the way – it’s been crap, and the ineptitude of the entire political class in this matter has been staggering.
But as the author Carol Craig said in a superb piece earlier this week about the origins of the positivity of the Yes campaign, in the online publication Scottish Review, if the No side is Project Fear, the Yes side is Project Pollyanna.
And so for those of you of my persuasion in this debate, looking for a snappy, sexy sound bite that can win it for the pro-Union side with just six days to go before polling, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. I don’t have one. To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy defending the status quo – especially when that status quo seems so inadequate.
More importantly, I think there’s something profoundly unpolitical about the search for feel good counter-soundbites, and the idea, perpetuated particularly by the creatives on the Yes side, that what matters here is hope and positivity about the future for Scots. Such a view denies debate, patronises the electorate, and reduces this most serious of matters - which is complex and nuanced - to a game of brinkmanship. So, I’m simply not going to play that game, as dictated by the Yes campaign.
So, what cheer can I offer fellow Unionists in this debate?
Well, there’s all the usual historical stuff I hope most of you will be familiar with by now, but it’s no less true and powerful for perhaps seeming like old hat.
Britain, and latterly the UK, has been the most stable voluntary union of nations the world has known, established on shared interests and purpose - the birth of the modern nation state as we know it, in fact. It was forged not, as one historian put it, at the ‘end of a bayonet’, as most of Europe in the eighteenth, nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries had been, but as a wonderful product of Enlightenment thinking, transcending race, nationality, religion.
Three-hundred years of shared history and endeavour, of innovation and development, of a common language, of culture, of borderless family ties which, as Alex Massie, in another great piece this week in the Spectator points out, is no small thing - it’s the sometimes intangible stuff that makes us more than individuals, it’s what makes our society’s what it is. So to ignore all that as unimportant in a debate about the future is to deny its importance at all.
But equally, when looking at building a new nation, one has to look forward right? To what might be possible, to what sort of society one might want. What worked for the last 300 years may simply not be good enough now.
But as I said at the start, I see nothing positive about the case being made by the Yes side now, nor the consequences of a Yes vote in the future. A good friend of mine once said to me that there was no positive case to be made for the Union, as the argument was necessarily a counter to those calling for separation, and if one felt separation were wrong, you could only make a case against it. So let me have a stab at what’s wrong with Yes, and maybe why No is the positive approach in this debate.
The Yes campaign’s propaganda likes to portray the referendum as a battle for self-determination. But let’s be clear that Scottish independence is not a national liberation movement, resisting an external power denying it such. To quote writer Kenan Malik: “Scots are not being denied the right to vote, or to celebrate their culture, or to express their identity, or to act as citizens.” And so the assertion of national identity in the UK in 2014 is not the positive demand for democratic rights the national-liberation movements of the postwar period were.
The Yes camp is a broad mix of everyone that’s fed up with the status-quo: those cynical about Westminster politics and politicians; those who think capitalism is unfair but doesn’t know what to do about it; those who used to be part of the Left but, disgruntled by defeats in the 80s, and disgusted by a society that doesn’t look as they wish it did, are quite happy to trash their own nation as a minor act of anti-Tory revenge, in the hope that they might be slightly bigger fishes is a much smaller pond.
This backlash against the status quo by the Yes camp is powered by the same motivation which caused the political upset that was UKIP’s European parliamentary election victory – a rejection of the established political order, which no longer seems to represent the people. Not itself a bad thing – we should take that instinct forward if we can - but I’d argue certainly, in this context, the wrong approach.
Scottish independence has become a kind of Year Zero for everyone who’s given up on what exists, but can’t imagine change on a broad scale, just a smaller one. Independence means everything to everyone and, in fact, can mean anything you want it to because, after Scotland’s freed from England’s grasp, anything is possible, right?
As a result, I suspect all but the SNP, whose reason for founding and existence was always based on the goal of an independent Scotland, will ultimately be disappointed if it’s a Yes, as the reality becomes 18 and more months of compromise and argument to end up with… well, something that looks remarkably like the UK, just led from Edinburgh, not Westminster. The same royal head of state, the same currency apparently, the same parties in its parliament. It’s a change of who manages the process, not a social revolution. Remember all that talk about ‘hope’ and ‘change’ around Barack Obama’s first election?
Those who don’t recognise my take on this will argue what’s being created in Scotland is a new civic nationalism, based not on birthplace or race, but on a shared vision for a more egalitarian, socially democratic Scotland. But if that’s the case, why haven’t we seen these new political norms emerging in the past 15 years of the Scottish Parliament? Why? Because the crux of the Yes campaign is that whatever Scotland’s problems are, someone else is to blame. In this case, Westminster.
That reaction against Westminster mirrors a much broader trend in British society as a whole, and right across Europe I think – the disengagement of people feeling separated from the political process.
As such, the fragmentation that seems de rigueur today – socially, politically, geographically - represents the abandonment of broad movements for change, into parochial ones pulling up the drawbridges, protecting their own, with a narrow world view based on identity, not commonality.
Some argue that we are heading towards a post-Westphalian future, where the nation states of the modern period will be replaced by smaller groupings of people who share the same identity, working in harmony on a regional level with people of alternative identities, with the stuff we’re too small to do by ourselves across borders dealt with by supranational bodies. This is Scotland, as part of a regionalised Britain, a member of some larger alliances, run from Brussels.
So what is the positive case for the Union? For me, it’s that Scottish independence can only exacerbate these conservative, fragmentary, cynical trends, and will fail to reengage people and politics, much beyond this immediate campaign period. And that in the process of maintaining Britain as we know it now, although there’s much to change and improve, we at least aspire to a broader political and cultural identity.
If we want to change the world, to reinvigorate a sense of agency, to reclaim politics from a detached political elite, we cannot do so through narrow identity politics. We need new ideas and an understanding of why the world looks the way it does, and we achieve this better together.
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