Monday, 7 May 2012

A positive case for the Union

My last piece has been labelled, by some nationalists, as ''negative''.  I believe - increasingly - that this is a default position. If anyone questions the SNP or its (in my view) somewhat sketchy vision of a future independent they are labelled negative.

Moreover, let's face it, there's plenty of negativity from both sides. The genius of the SNP campaign thus far is to talk about relentless positivity regardless of what is actually happening. This isn't a criticism - I admire the politics!

Let us put that to one side.

If it is a positive case for the Union they want, a positive case they shall get. I should note that nationalists are likely to disagree with this. That is fine. Good politics is built on disagreement. What I hope they will see is a positive elucidation of unionist thinking.

It will not be a forensic accounting exercise. That may come another night. My issue with economic arguments is that by their nature they end up being negative (x is better off than y is both positive and negative after all).  

Identity matters
I believe that many people in Scotland view themselves as British. The majority of these will see themselves as Scottish and British. I concede, of course, that many in Scotland do not view themselves as such - that is their right, and it is to respected here. However, we should not brush under the carpet that many do view themselves as - to some extent - British. Being a nation state is about rather more than having a defined population, a flag and whatever else is jotted down in the provisions of the Montevideo Convention.

People tend to dismiss stuffy appeals to a shared history, a shared culture and the shared achievements of the nations of these islands in the wintry North Atlantic. I am not at all sure why they do.

History, culture and identity are of fundamental importance to all nations and all states. What is a nation if it isn't the sum of the acts of those who have gone before? I will focus a little on that sort of ground but I hope to try to anchor the debate in the present.

We will all define Britishness differently (as, for that matter, we all define Scottishness differently). I'm not going to spend time defining a list of values that I think equate to Britishness (because I always feel such lists can be equated to the identity of most peoples). Away from an appeal to values, for me Britishness is about having ties across the borders that cross these islands. It shows an intangible connection that matters to many of us. More Scots live in England than ever before. The English are the biggest minority group in Scotland. The majority of Scots have relatives south of the Border. This might seem irrelevant but it shows to me that increasingly we are not a separate people, living separate lives, thinking separate things. We are increasingly mixed.
 We are increasingly, truly British.

And it isn't just individual people. It is communities. Glasgow is a special place, a dear place, but many of the issues it faces are similar to those of Liverpool and Newcastle. Liverpool is remarkably similar to Glasgow. People who say otherwise haven't spent enough time in either city. More fool them.

The mill towns of the North of England are similar to many of the towns in Ayrshire and the Lanarkshires. The hill farmers of Dumfries and Galloway are remarkably similar to the hill farmers of Cumbria and of Snowdonia. We have more in common than the colour on our passport. Their needs are similar. Their wants are similar.

This shared history, these cross-border ties matter. They matter, so much, that we increasingly hear about ''a social union'' when Alex Salmond discusses the topic. That isn't a criticism of Mr Salmond. I am pleased he has noticed that the social union exists between the peoples of this sceptred isle. I think that is stronger as part of a nation state. This, again, is part of his wise strategy to ensure moderates and markets are not spooked by independence.

A chronic failure?

I've heard more than my fill - and I am sure you have too - of people saying ''Scotland is a subsidy junkie''. Moreover, I've equally had my fill of Scots making the argument the other way when factoring in oil revenue (real or imagined). This negates the whole point. In any state, be it  Britain or an independent Scotland (or, for that matter, within the EU), money will transfer from the rich to the poor, from one area of the country to another, via taxation. It is not a sense of shame that 'x takes from y'. It should be a mark of pride in any civilised society.

These are the sorts of things we should be proud of - and there are others. Together we have achieved things. Things that have shocked and shaped the world.

As Bill Bryson put it ''What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled an empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state - in short, did nearly everything right - and then spent the rest of the century looking at itself as a chronic failure''.

I know that many will miss the word ''generally'' and focus on the mistakes of the empire. He is, however, broadly correct.

The narrative of time...

The empire forms part of a wider narrative that we hear today: the union was originally a merger between two states which was beneficial to both. Over the years, we did many great things together but as the
 esprit de corps of the 2nd World War withers and as the Empire recedes into memory it is natural to think perhaps a de-merger is necessary? That such an act would be good for the people of England and for the people of Scotland? The Union was a useful construct but now it has no use.

I disagree fundamentally with this narrative and this analysis. I may view the union as a merger (I do not view Scotland as a surly or unruly tenant nor do I view England as a domineering husband) but the merger has 
changed each and every one of us and each of its constituent parts. Scotland is a proud place but it has shaped, and been shaped by, the union as has England, Wales and Northern Ireland. At its best, the union is four nations - and the people of them - working together for the betterment of all. That has been true for centuries and is just as true now. Those who argue that Britain is an artificial construct are surely correct but is it one that the majority of us care for. After all, most nations are artificial constructs.

We have achieved more than we could have done apart and that continues to be the case to this day. That is not something to be buried under the carpet. It is something to be cherished. Something to be damned proud about.

But what have we achieved? Well here are a few...

  • The NHS - the vision of an Englishman and a Welshman - has helped us all. Scotland benefited from the vision of Bevan and Beveridge. 
  • The BBC - the vision of a Scotsman - has helped us all, and many beyond our shores. 
  • The Civil Service - much derided as red tape and bureaucracy but, still, the finest around at its best. Kickstarted by a Londoner and a man from the West Country.
  • Our armed forces - you may disagree with the causes that they are often sent to fight in but they are, pound for pound, the finest forces in the world. Scots have always played an enormous part in that.
  • Our soft-power in the world - something that never gets mentioned. It is my understanding that Britain, for example, was the second largest donor (in terms of total amount) to the Haiti earthquake victims.
  • Our economy - built by us all, and as perilously balanced as it may be - is the 7th largest economy in the world. These little islands, this islands off France, house some of the richest people in the world.
And works continues across borders - and not just for headline projects like the Supreme Court. For one - a tiny one - the steady flow of Scottish brains to English universities and the steady flow of English brains the other way is a simple one example. People may say ''but we'd still be able to go the English Russell Group universities post-independence'' . Maybe. What I am getting at is that many in Scotland - without even thinking of it - apply to English universities without thinking they are going somewhere ''other''.
The Silent Partner?

The idea that Scotland is a silent partner, or a junior partner, or is domineered by England is anathema to me. This Scotland? This Scotland that has rocked the world in which we live? Domineered by England? Dominated by anyone? No chance. Why do these people talk Scotland down?

The Scotland I cherish isn't dominated or domineered by anyone. It has always played an enormous role in every aspect of British life. It continues to do so. We are all the richer for the impact of Scots in politics, law and other fields of public life - but let us not forget that whilst Scotland's influence in the main political parties, and in the trades union movement, is vast that Scots have equally benefited from the geniuses in other parties and other movements.

Listening to some of the proud Scots who trumpet the achievements of our sons and daughters - and we should be proud of them - you would think that no one from elsewhere in the United Kingdom has ever done anything.

We all benefited from the geniuses that Scotland has given the Union. And we are richer for Churchill, Darwin, Turing, Wilberforce, Bevan and Pankhurst.

Another narrative that has been cultivated - largely because Scotland has not returned many Tories in recent years - that Scotland is a more progressive, more social place where community somehow matters more than it does in rapacious, conservative England. England - and Southern England in particular - may be a more conservative place but remember, for a moment, that the co-operative moment started in Rochdale; the Trades Union movement started in Manchester; the WSPU was founded by Pankhurst in Manchester and Engels and Marx wrote in that Northern city. You may disagree with these movements. My point is merely that Scotland has embraced these and been affected by them.

So yes, Scotland has made a mammoth contribution but for every Keir Hardie, there is a Nye Bevan. For every Viscount Kilmuir, there is an A.V. Dicey. For every John Boyd Orr, there is a William Booth. For every Lord Reith, there is a Sir Charles Trevelyan. All Britons. All making Britain a better place.

I argued above that the problems that our people face transcend the borders that criss-cross our country. 
Some will argue fairly that places in Scotland have individual, specific problems that need a more local parliament to address them. That is no doubt true and I welcome the additional powers that look to be coming to the Scottish Parliament. Perhaps what we should learn is that less power should reside at Westminster, less at Holyrood and more at the local level?

I have not written about the economy in this piece. That is for another night. Tonight, I've tried to focus on identity, history and why the union is a living, breathing matter. I've tried to focus on what stronger together actually means.

Scotland has always been somewhat separate with her laws and legal system, her educational system, her proud ancient universities and her Church. Scotland, equally, has always played a massive and integral in the Union. That Union is a living, breathing entity and one that is forever changing, and forever changing us all. 

As an Englishman, I am a unionist because I realise that we are better off with Scotland's immense contribution. As a Scotsman, I'm a unionist because I want to make that contribution and because I see the contribution that our friends and brothers from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have made.

I do not believe that this can be adequately replicated by the social union nor do I believe that the benefits of independence (and, of course, there are some) outweigh the feelings of identity that I, and many others, feel.