Stand up for the Union or lose it


Patriotism can take many forms but the real dividing line is between inclusion and exclusion.

Inclusive patriotism sees love of country as a uniting force, something that can transcend social, racial and religious differences to bring people together. A patriot’s admiration and sense of duty are not contained within lines on a map and he may feel he belongs to other, broader identities. He can be for his own nation without being against anyone else’s.

The exclusive patriot, who is invariably a nationalist, cannot comprehend this mindset. For him, the nation is special and commands a special loyalty; other causes must take lesser priority and other nations a lesser place in his heart. He views inclusive patriotism as promiscuous and is quick to suspect its sincerity. It is not enough that he loves his country, he must love it more than everyone else and to prove this he invests much time and energy in identifying those whose ardour is lacking.

Last week brought a gruesome showpiece in exclusive nationalism, a grand guignol performance of lurid, horrifying insularity. A contingent of Scottish nationalists gathered near the border with England. Dressed in hazmat suits and sporting face masks, the flag-bearing convoy had come with a message for visitors to Scotland. ‘Basically, what we’re saying is, stay the fuck out,’ one of the participants declared.

Others reportedly shouted ‘plague carrier’ at cars arriving from England and pledged to ‘Keep Scotland Covid Free’. Another attendee explained that the registration details of holidaymakers were being recorded. ‘If they’ll not stay at home, we’ll shame them to death,’ he said.

After calls from opposition MSPs, Nicola Sturgeon eventually distanced herself from the border-blockers, but the damage had already been done. Images of self-appointed frontier guards with more saltires than sense howling into the headlights of English camper vans painted a picture we would sooner not have in the minds of our compatriots south of the border when they are planning their next getaway.

That picture made Scotland look small and mean, an angry little fortress guarding against an enemy that doesn’t even realise it is an enemy. It made Scotland look like a country of exclusive patriots.

Days after that grim display, we were given a presentation of its polar opposite: an inclusive patriotism aimed at building up the country, rather than battening it down. Chancellor Rishi Sunak once again stepped up to support struggling families and businesses across the UK, regardless of whether they were in Portsmouth, Penarth, Portrush or Pollokshields. In doing so, he sent his own message back up the M74, past the border-patrollers and directly into the living rooms of ordinary Scots.

He told them: ‘This crisis has highlighted the special bond which holds our country together. Millions of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been protected by the UK Government’s economic interventions – and they will be supported by today’s Plan for Jobs. No nationalist can ignore the undeniable truth: this help has only been possible because we are a United Kingdom.’

Scottish nationalists are allergic to talk like this, not only because it reminds them of the economic consequences of their grand political project but because it demonstrates that the four nations of the UK are, to borrow a phrase, better together.

Separatists, because they are exclusive patriots, view support from the Treasury as dependency on a foreign institution and, if they are unable to convince themselves that Scotland actually subsidises England (there are nationalists who believe this), they find it humiliating that Scotland is accepting handouts from what they imagine to be a colonial power.

That these nationalists are relaxed about other forms of pooling and sharing of sovereignty and resources, for example the European Union, is not mitigation for their aversion to a comparable arrangement with England, it is in fact more damning. They value solidarity across an entire continent but not an island.

Supporters of Scotland’s place within the UK are stuck in a rut at the moment. Opinion polls indicate that backing for secession has tipped into majority status and voter surveys suggest Nicola Sturgeon is heading for a landslide victory in the 2021 Holyrood elections. Boris Johnson is distracted by a four-pillar agenda of Covid-19, Brexit, levelling up and overhauling the civil service.

Michael Gove has been appointed to oversee a pro-Union fightback but it is not yet clear whether he will be afforded sufficient resources and political capital to make the most of it. Meanwhile, the opposition in the Scottish Parliament is marked by drift, indecision and irrelevance. Advocates of inclusive patriotism who wish to see Scotland prosper inside a prosperous Britain have not been in such glum circumstances since the SNP’s yellow tsunami in 2015.

It is easy enough to slouch in complacency and let the clock run out on the Union. There is no second referendum on the horizon and, even if there were, something would happen, someone would come forward to save the United Kingdom. It would all work out. The harder path is the one that recognises this kind of thinking for the defeatism that it is. The Union has endured for 313 years and, although we live in a time when tearing down is more fashionable that building, there is no reason it shouldn’t be here 313 years from now.

Whether it is, or whether we end three centuries of history in a moment of sentiment, depends on the Union’s ability to serve the broad sweep of people who live within it. Materially, there can be no doubt that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are wealthier, healthier, fairer and more internationally significant for being part of the UK. Undoubtedly, there are social problems but not one of them is caused by the solidarity between our four nations and not one would be solved by breaking that bond.

Pro-Union campaigners must never lose sight of the importance of material conditions. They must strive to improve the lot of the worst-off, and of average families, across the country. There are enough people whose first and last thought every day is of a flag. But with one eye on the material, Unionists must train the other on the philosophic.

Why, when the Union is in the interests of a majority of Scots, does there appear to be an emerging majority against it?

Why do so many Scots buy into the SNP’s exclusivist view of patriotism rather than the more inclusive identity of Scottish and British?

Why is the Union which the Scots largely built, regularly tended, and often ruled falling out of favour?

There are many potential answers for these questions but we will concern ourselves with three important ones.

All opinion polling should be read with caution but let us suppose that the most recent polls indicating a majority for Scexit are accurate. Not only is this not surprising, it is remarkable that it took so long to arrive at this point. Almost six years since 45 per cent of Scots opted to break away and set up a separate country, and despite Brexit and Boris, only now has Leave achieved a breakthrough.

The delay has very little to do with anything the pro-Union side has done because the pro-Union side has done very little. Prime ministers have said No, their emissaries have echoed dutifully, and Unionists in Scotland have strained to move on to other matters.

In moving on, however, pro-Union voices have vacated the battlefield at the very moment their adversaries are gaining strength. Agitators for dismantling the Union have continued fighting for what they believe in but those who oppose them have mounted no such case for their constitutional vision.

For six years, separatists have been saying Scotland should be a separate country and Unionists have been saying it’s time to change the subject. The voters have yet to hear a defence, let alone a trumpeting, of the Union because no one of any prominence has deigned to make one.

Few if any pro-UK politicians got into politics with the Union as the sole or even primary cause. Almost all Nationalists are where they are because they believe in their cause entirely and above all else. While it would be a mistake to become a Unionist mirror image of the SNP — all flags, all the time — their opponents could learn something about their unquenchable enthusiasm, iron determination and breath-taking stamina. Nationalists do not give up, they do not take No for an answer, they keep going until they convert. They are in the business of soul-winning.

Those who are by instinct for the Union lack that evangelical fervour when talking about it. They reserve their vim for literacy standards, proper funding of care packages, and better provision for the marginalised, all of which are worthy causes but none of which will win a single vote for the UK. They should not abandon their social and economic agenda but they ought to set more time aside for talking about the Union, the good it does Scotland and why it must continue.

Scots need to hear from people as passionate and articulate about the virtues of the Union as they do from those enthused by the idea of ripping it apart. The voters cannot be expected to be inspired by a worldview if the people tasked with selling it are uninspired and uninspiring.

Unionists need to stop talking about the Union as a series of pragmatic alternatives to separation (secure currency, bigger coffers, more defence firepower) and start thinking of it as an ideal, a vision for the country that gives us hope and pride and something to work towards together. Stop talking just like accountants and start talking like dreamers too.

Scottish identity has always been distinctive, in part because the country retained so many of its own institutions while entering into a union with England and in part because we are by temperament a thrawn people wedded to our idiosyncrasies and traditions.

But Scottishness and Britishness were, until relatively recently, able to coexist with relative ease. The emergence of parliamentary nationalism and especially of nationalist government has changed that. The SNP has used the many levers of devolved government to emphasise Scottishness as something fundamentally different from, if not incompatible with, Britishness.

Again, the response from their opponents has been a mutter of discontent and not much else. Every now and then a UK Government, whether Labour or Tory, starts a debate about ‘British values’ then either abruptly abandons the discussion because it has strayed into issues of multiculturalism in England or simply forgets about it. Otherwise, Britishness is scarcely heard of anywhere in these isles, let alone north of the Border, where it is needed.

Fostering a British identity that can encompass 66 million people is no mean feat but the United States manages it with 327 million across 50 states and India with 1.4 billion across 28 states and eight territories. What is missing is the will and the gumption. Supporters of unity must come to appreciate the importance of identity.

Economics may have appeared to carry the day in 2014 but the real choice was between certainty and uncertainty, and the UK no longer represents the dull stability it did just six years ago. There is a reason the saying ‘may you live in interesting times’ is considered a curse.

Unionists watch their opponents waging and winning a war of culture and identity and tell themselves a few more fiscal analyses will see things right in the end. To the extent they are doing any preparation for a future debate on separation, they are paving the way for a quiet, humble defeat.

Instead, they should look to their inclusive patriotism and strive to erect an identity around it, a modern Britishness that accommodates all of the UK in its manifold distinctions and variations. The foundation stones should include fairness, freedom, opportunity and global responsibility and these should give rise to an identity united by common purpose, equal effort and shared achievements. We should be proud of what we do, not merely who we are. Britain should be a philosophy as well as a country.

No honest assessment of the challenge ahead can ignore the unfortunate obstacle in the middle of the road, all the more unfortunate because it was devised, packaged, spun, delivered and initially governed by Unionists themselves.

The Scottish Parliament has not only given the SNP a platform but almost an entire state at their disposal and they have not been shy about using it to their own political ends. What well-meaning but short-sighted men intended to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ in fact delivered separation its most powerful battering ram against the Union. Devolution is the Trojan horse that Troy built itself.

Unionists can venerate inclusive patriotism all they like. As long as exclusive patriotism controls the Scottish Parliament, it will continue to use its legislative and administrative powers to push its own version of Scottishness and to undo the Union that forms the basis of inclusive patriotism. This is not a problem that can be fixed at Holyrood. The UK Parliament will have to confront the basic structural flaws in devolution, or it will come to rue them with bitter hindsight.

When their commitment to the country is impugned by nationalists from Nicola Sturgeon on down, Unionists turn indignant and defend their patriotism heartily. The rest of the year round, they seldom think of it. But patriotism is not something to store on the shelf and polish occasionally; it must form part of a Unionist’s political consciousness and help inform his priorities in politics and public policy.

Inclusive patriotism is not a gentler devotion; it should be no more diffident or sluggish than its nationalistic counterpart. Unionists should not be so inclusive that they fail to make a case for what they believe in.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay.

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