Margaret Thatcher once told a Scottish Tory: ‘Michael, I am an English nationalist and never you forget it.’ This explains a great deal of recent Scottish history. Our distaste for Thatcher and the Conservatives, and consequential fear of English dominance, is one of the fulcrums upon which the case for independence rests.
Despite its rejection in the 2014 referendum, Scottish separatism is still a potent force. The SNP won a landslide at Westminster in 2015 (though has since lost ground) and now a resurgent, mostly English nationalism is taking us out of the European Union, perhaps with no deal, despite the large Scottish majority which voted Remain in 2016. A foretaste of this threat came the day after the 2014 referendum when David Cameron pandered to English sensitivities by announcing a plan of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ which would make Scottish MPs an inferior class at Westminster.
And now the threat of a Boris Johnson premiership has led a majority of Scots to support independence and a second Scottish referendum is almost certain to happen in the next couple of years.
The impetus for this reflection on the Union comes from my reading two books on the subject. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s My Scotland, Our Britain was published before the 2014 referendum and is a defence of the Union as well as an analysis of its past, shifting concepts of national identity, and an argument for constitutional reform to strengthen the Union while providing greater autonomy to the individual nations and regions. Brown himself played a key role in the 2014 campaign; his impassioned speech just before the vote and orchestration of ‘The Vow’ certainly galvanized supporters of the Union. Professor Sir Tom Devine’s 2015 book Independence or Union is a history of the Union and its changing nature over three centuries by a great scholar who voted ‘Yes’ in 2014. Devine’s book, however, is an impartial historical analysis.
Both books show that the Union has never been static. Only in the later eighteenth century, as industrialisation and imperialism were harnessed through the Union by Scots to their great advantage, did a coherent national British identity emerge. There were many factors at play: a common Protestantism, a common enemy in France, and the Scottish sacrifices in Britain’s wars to name but a few. In the nineteenth century a distinctive Scottish identity was kept intact within the Union – notoriously, George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 was a carnival of ‘invented tradition’.
After two world wars and the creation of a UK-wide welfare state, British identity in Scotland came under pressure from increasing secularisation, Thatcherism, New Labour’s unpopularity (which Brown, alas, does not note), changing demographics, and globalisation, among other things. Devolution ironically gave the SNP a chance at power in Holyrood, an opportunity it embraced with great gusto, providing much more stable and competent governance from 2007 than the unionist parties had done previously.
Then came 2014 and defeat for ‘Yes’, and yet the threat of separatism remains. So why, despite everything, should Scotland stay within the United Kingdom?
Brown’s argument is compelling. He notes that the Union is one of sharing, wherein UK-wide welfare institutions (which we Scots were instrumental in pioneering) provide help and funding to the parts of the UK based on need, whereas an independent Scotland would have to raise funds based solely on its own economic output. In the UK, wealth is shared to the benefit of all the nations. We have a Parliament and more devolved powers post-2014. and so we are not, as we have never been thanks to our distinctive culture and institutions, subsumed or dominated by England. Brown proposes several constitutional reforms – a covenant between the nations involving greater decentralisation and power-sharing partnerships among much else, which he has reiterated in his recent memoir. These, he states, could vastly improve the Union by insulating all areas against dominance by Westminster, while simultaneously building a common British identity based on solidarity and sharing.
But even if we leave the EU and no reforms are made, it is still a fact that our greatest economic partners are the UK nations. To dissolve the Union would therefore entail great risks. And though, as Brown and Devine note, all four UK nations now see themselves as ‘English’ or ‘Scottish’ more than they see themselves as ‘British’, we still have a shared culture and history. Brown is correct when he says the only way to cope with globalisation is via interdependence. A Scotland in the EU but outwith the UK would still be more vulnerable, due to our greater economic closeness to the UK nations, than a Scotland within the UK but outwith the EU.
So, as a progressive and patriotic Scot, I say ‘yes’ to the Union: to success, solidarity, and friendship, come what may.