I recently met a die-hard English unionist who was worried about the dearth of Scottish students attending the great British public schools and to be found in the ornate halls and cloisters of Oxford and Cambridge. At first blush, these anxieties seemed highfalutin and even comical, but what my interlocutor was really worried about was what he saw as the emerging lack of Scottish corporate solidarity with British elite experiences and values. It was essential, he thought, for an admittedly tiny, but he judged, potent minority of young Scots to be enrolled in the stoutly British public sphere not just educationally, but in ineffable common experience, sentiment, and friendship.
"Give me the child and I'll give you the man" is an old Jesuit boast, and hardly an original insight, but something about his idiosyncratic disquiet and his equally idiosyncratic solution struck me forcibly. Here was a fellow with a sense of the deep crisis of British unionism revealed by the referendum campaign, trying to think longer term, trying to think strategically about how political ideas can be produced, how they are popularised and how they (perhaps even inadvertently) are enfeebled and dissipate. The idea that the Union can be preserved in the longer run by Vows, Commissions and Scotland Acts alone is fanciful. His choice of solution and objects may be peculiar, but he understood this clearly.
After the heart-stopping anxieties of early September, only a remarkably complacent unionist would now think their work complete, and their initiatives, concluded. To see the ongoing political struggle for a popular, winning, organic unionism only in terms of tactical voting against the perfidious separatists in May is colossally to miss the point. The Better Together parties looked deep into the eyes of the Scottish people, and found dealer's eyes peering back at them, unsentimental, commercial, counting the pennies, weighing the odds.
For pro-union writers such as Alex Massie and Hugo Rifkind, to conduct constitutional debates as double entry accounting was to neglect the urgent, emotional register of continuing union, but the official No campaign essentially conceded the mercurial loyalties of the electorate, accepting the disturbing provisionality of Scots' attitudes to the Union, and piling in with numbers and arguments likely to pique the interest of a canny, and cautious investor.
That was an effective strategy for the 18th of September 2014, but securing loyalty through anxiety is not a sustainable device for securing continued Union in the longer term. Machiavelli may have judged that it was better to be feared than loved, but folk often forget, he recommended that the prince should aspire to be loved also, and thought "merciful, faithful, humane." The Union may have been temporarily saved by resort to fearful measures, but unless Scots can once again be persuaded to identify emotionally with the British state, none of the policy autonomies granted to Holyrood will be worth a clipped farthing.
Only a vanishingly small segment of pro-union opinion seems alive to this wider context, and the fundamental challenges it discloses. The Prime Minister has declared the Scottish question, answered. Jim Murphy has shed his unionist skin altogether. But behind today's news that big infrastructure projects are to bear plaques with Union flags and "Funded by the UK government" labels, we can perhaps detect the beginning of an attempt, as Alistair Carmichael put it, for a "greater presence" of the Westminster government in Scotland after the No vote. The move has obvious echoes with the now muted, and taken for granted, but significant and symbolically powerful rebranding affected by Alex Salmond's first administration in 2007.
But it is still about the cold hard cash. And it still does not answer the deeper, more ineffable concerns of my old unionist about how to build the British solidarity found wanting in the run up to last September - and how to retrench Scotland's position in the union using softer, more sentimental means that the hard nuts and bolts of primary legislation and institutional reform. It also reminds me of something I wrote when the Smith Commission's proposals were revealed. Plastering the Union flag across these big projects is a material expression of the idea that the Union must keep large parts of the doing of British government in hand:
"For all of the panicked focus in the rest of the United Kingdom of the end of the Union as we know it, the Smith proposals are, essentially, a conservative restatement of the idea that the Union must do things and be seen to do things. Big things. It cannot be an empty vessel within which an autonomous Scotland is contained, and set at liberty to pursue its own priorities. A disinterested lender of last resort, or an organiser of armies and navies with no real interest or say in the domestic affairs of Scots. It must be a state with a purpose, with a mission. To characterise this as an unprincipled "fudge" is fundamentally to misunderstand the political thinking undergirding it.
For Smith, the Union cannot be conceived a loose confederation of mutually uninterested parties, pursuing their own distinct political priorities. There must be Union dividends. It must pay you back in cold, hard cash. It is a single market in which the worker must be at liberty to float freely, and in which the worker can expect the same minimum wage whether she labours in Cumbria or in Aberdeen. Where her pension is paid from the same pot as her cousin in Kent. A union which builds homes, sustains communities, builds ships, heats pensioners. A Union which secures your fealty, not out of fellow feeling, or a dim sense of identity, but by keeping hold of the purse strings. By keeping significant parts of the doing of British government in hand.
You may no longer work for state-owned corporations. Ravenscraig may have closed. But the Union justifies its existence by being a force in the life of every person in this country, more and less happily, more and less forcibly. Bugger the abstract calculations: Unionism must remain a matter of self-interest. The UK parliament and government must be felt to be a force in the land."
All of that, in a wee flag.