11 June 2013

The positive case for the Union: British nationalism?

Last week, the pro-Union campaign launched Better Together London, with an event in the Great Hall, 1 George Street, London.  The BBC has popped highlights online, including remarks of short compass from representatives of the three main parties, including the Tory peer, Lord Strathclyde, Danny Alexander and Alistair Darling (including many of the same gags that got the Scottish Tory Conference in Stirling cackling, I notice). 

Almost to the day, last year, I took a look Ed Miliband's first proper speech on Labour's approach to the defence of Union. I argued that Miliband's positive case against perfidious Scottish Nationalists was strikingly nationalistic in content itself.  A departure from the amorphous "welfare Unionism" you usually hear from Labour politicians, in the speech Ed lingered most and most feelingly over his sense of Britishness, suggesting that if voters feel any speck of British sensibility at all, they ought to vote No in 2014.  According to the Labour leader, at its core, the referendum is about whether you feel British.

I was interested, therefore, to hear what the Liberals and Tories had to say at the launch of Better Together London. What positive case, if any, would they make for the Union amongst friends?  I'm not one of those independence supporters who believes that no positive case can be made for the abiding Union of Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom. There are several one might make, drawing on radically different ideological resources, from the politics of shared identity and national sentiment, to broader political ideas about the pooling of resources, a just distribution of public goods, and collective defence, both against external threats, and the internal enemies of poverty and want. 

To be scrupulously fair, none of the speakers had much time to speak, and doubtless, given the opportunity to elaborate their case, each would have offered up more developed arguments, weaving different strands together.  On the other hand, brevity also focuses minds, and reveals priorities.  So what did the speakers have to say? What ideas did they foreground? First up was Lord Strathclyde, who sourly characterised the campaign for Scottish independence as "this poison at the heart of British politics", which should be "eradicated once for all" by a thumping No vote. His Lordship began, however, on note borrowed from Ed Miliband. It's all about identity, you see.

“In the great lottery of life, I was handed a double gold. Not only was I born a Scot, but I was also born a Glaswegian, and I’m proud to be a Scot, and a Glaswegian, but I’m also proud to be British. It is part of my identity. And one of the things I object, most of all, to this campaign that we’re going to go through, that if it goes the wrong way then I, and people like me, will be forced, by law, to make a choice that I’ve never had to do before. Because no longer will it be possible to be Scottish and British. This is part of the outrage that nationalists have put upon us. When I, as so many of you, are here today, as patriotic about Scotland, and about the United Kingdom, together.” 

Interestingly, Danny Alexander also commenced on a similar note, again foregrounding issues of identity in his contribution:

“Like you, I’m a Highlander, I’m a Scot, I’m a Brit – and I’m a European too. And what – like I think everybody in this room, all of those different identities are important to me. And, if, you've come here tonight because being Scottish is an important part of your identity, whether you’re someone like … er … those of us who are speaking tonight who have a vote in the referendum, or whether you are someone who will not, I urge you all to get involved in the Better Together campaign (…) Like many of you, I have close ties both in Scotland and in England. I’m someone who as Mary has revealed, spent my school days in Lochaber in Fort William, at Lochaber High School. University in England, in Oxford. I'm a Scottish MP, I serve my constituents in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, and I serve the whole of the United Kingdom as a member of the government. And for all of those reasons, I believe very strongly that being part of the United Kingdom offers us, as Scotland, huge advantages in the 21st century, and I believe that Scotland, as a part of the United Kingdom, offers advantages to the rest of the United Kingdom too."

What should be immediately striking is that these are mainly points of identity and biography, not exactly reasons why the United Kingdom should remain united, without the admixture of a little sentimental British nationalism.  Every one of us can easily roll off our own list of entanglements in these islands, and outside of them. I spent my school days in rural Argyll, then Glasgow, went to university in Edinburgh, then the Netherlands, then at Alexander's alma mater in England, and live here now.  So much, so indeterminate constitutionally.

I'm conscious, for reasons I outlined recently, that I'm not at my most empathetic when it comes to my fellow Scots sense of Britishness, however thin.  It is, I suspect, a blind spot for many Scottish Nationalists.  I don't criticise this sentimental case against independence.  I may not feel British, but I'm an independence supporter with regrets and am not without pangs about the project. But can British nationalism really be the effective positive story for Better Together to tell, in between their rhetorical bombing raids and strafing fire on the viability of an independent Scotland? Identity, identity, identity?

Several commentators have remarked on the paradoxes of the current constitutional debate. In much of the London media, aspirations towards Scottish independence are cast in child-like forms, depicted by turns as quaint and sinister, an atavistic ethnic project animated by hatred of the English and a juvenile expression of Caledonian whimsy which sober, serious-minded folk shouldn't entertain for a moment.  Nice legalisms are exchanged, distinguishing Scottish nationalism (Bad) and British patriotism (Good). George Orwell is often quoted to lend a veneer of intelligence and authority to this self-serving pettifogger's distinction, though usually only in summary, and invariably without reference to the idiosyncratic definition of nationalism which Orwell actually employs in his Notes.

Scottish Romanticism is set against gritty British technocracy and political fatalism.  British Romanticism, by contrast, is unexplored, passed over in silence. This scoffing rejection of Scottish independence as a credible political project serves a useful but profoundly conservative ideological function: it avoids any serious confrontation with the idea that the way Britain is ruled may be problematic. It's all just a little irrational bother on the northern frontier. 

Bloody nationalists.


  1. "I'm not one of those independence supporters who believes that no positive case can be made for the abiding Union of Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom. There are several one might make, drawing on radically different ideological resources, from the politics of shared identity and national sentiment, to broader political ideas about the pooling of resources, a just distribution of public goods"

    But we've got the Union now and that plainly isn't happening. It may have happened in the past - in truth, during a brief period between 1946 and the 1970s - but that only shows us that it COULD happen within the Union, not that it's an inherent CHARACTERISTIC of the Union.

    The same, of course, goes for independence, but looking at the current political realities north and south of the border, it's not much of a task to work out which is the more likely approach to achieve those goals in Scotland for the forseeable future.

    1. Don't disagree with that. All I meant was, that from a pro-Union perspectives there are a number of arguments, however plausible or implausible, however aspirational and however achievable in reality, which might be pressed into service. It is interesting, and significant, which weapons are snatched up first, and which left to rust.

    2. Ah, right. When I hear "There is a positive case for the Union" I assume that to mean that there's a valid one. It seems weird to say that there's a case which could be made despite being cobblers - in that case, Unionists might as well say that the Union is the only way to ensure Scotland is showered with diamonds by magic cloud pixies in top hats, because that's pretty positive too, and more or less equally valid.

      But even as theory, social redistribution of wealth is an argument for socialism, not the Union. The Union is completely irrelevant to whether it happens or not, because the separate parts of the UK are all capable of voting for socialism if they want to.

    3. RevStu,

      I think it really depends which of the "positive" arguments you're making. As you say, the muddy instrumental-socialist-welfare-Unionist contention that the current dispensation is the only way - that case looks decidedly shoogly when thrown against the real world.

      By contrast, if you are an out-and-out British nationalist, determined to make your decision in 2014 on the basis of your identity, and the claim that British identity should entail British government and statehood, that's a valid argument. Not for you or me, perhaps, and not necessarily for every Scottish person who feels at least a sprinkling of Britishness, but for some people.

  2. I spent my school days in rural Argyll, then Glasgow, went to university in Edinburgh, then the Netherlands, then at Alexander's alma mater in England, and live here now.

    I had no idea you used to be a foreigner, LPW. Do you still wake up at night sometimes, screaming? How did your parents feel about you becoming a foreigner for a while? Did they have to deny they'd ever had a child called Andrew when in polite company, as I suspect Magz Curran will do when her son becomes a terrible foreigner post-independence?

    I love Tom Strathclyde's contribution, incidentally: "And one of the things I object, most of all, to this campaign that we’re going to go through, that if it goes the wrong way then I, and people like me, will be forced, by law, to make a choice that I’ve never had to do before."

    I wonder if he's ever considered that those of us who don't feel British are "forced" to make a choice regularly in life. Presented with a form asking for "Nationality", I have often had to hold my nose while writing "British", or felt sad at a drop-down list of countries having "Antigua and Barbuda" but not "Scotland". Still, at least I've not been forced by law, like people will be after independence.

    "Right, I'm arresting you on suspicion of refusing to admit you now live in a separate Scotland, rather than the warm, loving embrace of good ol' Blighty."

    Most of all though, I just love the sense of annoyance dripping from his words, peeved and perturbed at the audacity of the Scottish Government to put the country through this silly separation charade, when we all know what the right answer is. How very DARE they?!

    1. That's right, Doug.

      As soon as I touched down in Amsterdam, I received the text message from my mother, "I have no son."

      Just what any caring parent would have done.

  3. Lovely stuff. The dismissive attitude to Scottish independence as a concept that you outline isn't, of course, purely a London mentality, it pervades certain institutions in Scotland as well: Pour l'exemple le plus, voir le Labour!

    I'm also convinced, as you are, that there are ways to make a very positive and probably persuasive case that Britain can work and that it is the best way forward for the people of these isles. The problem is that the people who would be charged with making such a case don't believe it themselves, as they would see any talk of redistribution, increased devolution, socialism, reformed capitalism or greater integration with Europe as simply morsels for the Nationalist lion to chew on and grow hungrier. Their short-term outlook blinds them to the long-term implications of their short-termism.

    I have mused on this before: http://bit.ly/10hHctN

    1. True that; plenty of parallels, I've found, between the (primarily bourgeois) sniffishness towards independence which I've encountered both in Glasgow, and down south.

  4. An interesting comment on facebook on this from James Morton, worth cross-posting here.

    It is the refusal to cast British identity as the sum of its parts, that confuses me. Parse the statements made by BT and MSM, then you detect that there is this seperate entity called Britain, which Scotland has been generously allowed to be part of. It has contributed nothing to the success of Britain and still contributes nothing to this day. From Ruth Davidson to Anas Sarwar, we are subjected this odd notion of Scottish learned helplessness, which has been ameliorated by the soothing balm of British identity. It's a magic cloak that allows Scotland to hide its true character of mediocrity and dependancy. It allows us to trade with the world, to be a player of the great game, to respected in the club of nations. But if we spurn this cloak, then our true hideousness will be seen by all. Instantly revert to imbicility and backwardness.

    To the unionist that is the power and majesty of the Union. To me back in 2007 voting SNP because I could not in all good conscience vote labour, it was not even on the radar. Watching this party in opposition in collusion with the lib-dems to constantly bring the Scottish Government down, appalled me. But that is nothing compared to my reaction to the policies enacted and being planned by the Coalition Gov in the UK. It was that eating away at the ties that bind while talking patent nonsense about the SNP & Scotland that made me a "regretful" supporter of independence.

    I waited for the positive case, and saw more insanely unbalanced outbursts from the NO camp, that I simply do not recognise the country they think they are talking about. The swivel eyed mendacity, the wilfull ingnorance was...is simply breathtaking.

    And so their British identity is couched in terms of it being a subtle ploy to allow Scots to hide being Scottish, largely because we are so feeble minded. It's a Scotland I don't recognise..now or in the past.

    If they had talked up the Union by stating Scotlands contribution, on how it benefits from it, and how the rest of the UK benefits from Scotland...it would have been a much tougher proposition for the SNP.

    So why didn't they? In my opinion it's down to an inconvenient truth. That is, that there is no such thing as a "British" Identity It's a collective term to describe the UK's disparate parts. You could argue for the Union in those terms but that would be to recognise the contribution all parties make to the whole. But you can't argue for an identity that doesn't actually exist. So what option for them but to imply the weakness of one partner in the Union in the hope of keeping it ticking over, while glossing over the slow corrosive effect neo-liberalism is actually having on it.

    A yes vote would be a clean break & be the short sharp rUK needs. If we vote no on the day, I predict a constitutional crisis of the sort that ushered in Devolution will engulf the UK. So my feeling is that Scotlands involvement with the Union will end at somepoint in the next decade. How messy it is, will depend on that vote in 2014.

    1. A great comment, and definitely worth the cross-post. I particularly like the first paragraph