Whatever the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence next month will be, conflicting views will remain on what the British political identity means to us, across the UK. Opinion will continue to vary within our nations, between our nations and across the political spectrum.
In the British corner, we’ve got Protestant Unionists in Northern Ireland, Scottish “No” voters, most English people and most people in Wales.
In the opposite corner, we’ve got Northern Irish Catholics (who want union with Ireland), Scottish “Yes” voters and a minority of English and Welsh people in favour of independence for their own nations.
My rough-and-ready estimate is that around 60% of the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined are in the British corner and 40% in the opposite corner. However, I think it is fair to say that a significant proportion of voters in Scotland and Wales who favour staying within the UK, do so on economic grounds, rather than because they “feel” British : the British political identity holds no great attraction for them.
What my analysis shows is that there is significant support in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for national independence and on the other hand, significant support for staying in Britain. I think we all know this.
My strong view is that the UK should dissolve into its constituent nations however, this puts me in a minority in England. I won’t go into the reasons here as I have done so in several other articles on my blogs. However, I have to face the reality that Britain looks set to continue as a political unit for some time to come (with our without Scotland) and that there is considerable support for this across the UK. As a democrat, I respect that preference. The point of my article is that I want to challenge pro-British people across the UK to examine what their Britishness means to them and to take practical action to make it a more attractive and unifying force, if indeed they are serious about their Britishness.
The opposition to Britishness within the countries of the UK is neither imagined nor simply based on knee-jerk nationalism. Such opposition by Northern Irish Catholics is understood and respected by us all. Both Plaid Cymru and the SNP enjoy some support from English people living in Wales and Scotland respectively. Pro-Unionists have a job to do if they are serious about selling the union to us “independistas” and also to maintain its appeal to future generations. A multi-nation identity is a sophisticated concept and can only be kept alive with effort (or military domination, which no-one advocates). All relationships need effort and commitment to make them work over the long-term. The UK is sometimes described as a “family of nations”. So how could British Unionists improve the relationships within this family in practice?
Many of us in the UK have family, social and business links with other parts of the UK. But for most of us, some parts of the UK don’t feature on our radar. People in England are generally more guilty of neglecting to take an interest in the other countries of the UK. We can all learn more about our countries and regions – history, culture, local politics etc – and perhaps even cultivate new friendships with people in different parts. We can also learn more about places and people we are already familiar with. We could set aside say 30 minutes a week to do this. I have spent time understanding Scottish politics better as a result of the referendum campaign but my knowledge of the history, culture and politics of Wales and Northern Ireland is limited. I have been on holiday to those countries but not done too much more. This is also a worthwhile exercise for us “independistas”, but all the more so for people who have nailed their colours to the British unionist mast.
There is a difference here between unionists and “independistas”. Supporters of English, Scottish, or Welsh independence have a responsibility first of all to nurture their own national identities. It is obviously helpful for us to understand our neighbouring nations but we can feel free to do this more or less as we please. British unionists, by contrast, have signed up to the cause. They have a moral duty to understand better and engage with the other peoples in the UK, whether they feel like it or not. That’s only fair. So for example, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, who believe in the union, have every right to express disappointment to English unionists if they see that they don’t make much effort to appreciate their nations and follow what is going on there. I have heard this criticism of English people more than once.
If unionists want “Project UK” to succeed, they must accept that this will not happen by accident, inertia, top-down political directives, or by shifting our focus onto international politics. The support for Scottish independence should have given us all a wake-up call in this regard. All British unionists – politicians and ordinary people – have a responsibility to make it work and to sell their case to the rest of us. I for one would respect them more for trying.
So where could the leadership for “Project UK” come from? Realistically, I don’t see much interest yet in England. True, some of our famous people have made an emotional appeal to Scots to stay in the union. I have been critical of them for focusing on emotion, but they could develop their brief in the kind of way I have suggested. I can’t speak for Wales or Northern Ireland.
From my observation of the Scottish referendum debate, there seem to be a hardcore of Scots who believe in the Union. They are faced with a choice for independence and are making a conscious decision to reject it. The referendum debate will have challenged them to consider issues of identity and political relations within the UK much more than the people of England. I would suggest to them that they have the tools and qualities to lead “Project UK” if they set their minds and hearts on it.
I know that many Scots who will vote “Yes” are sceptical of “No” voters’ enthusiasm for the union. I myself believe that there is no energy or vitality left anywhere in the UK to encourage the kind of grassroots nation-building work that I am challenging unionists to do. But, I’m prepared to give British unionists a chance to prove me wrong. Even if they don’t succeed, their efforts to improve understanding and relations between nations can only be for the good of us all.
As I have said above, “Project UK” is undeniably on the rocks and its supporters need to take the initiative to rejuvenate it, if in fact they are serious about it. If they are not serious about Project UK, or their efforts fail to make any real headway, I believe that they should be honest with themselves and us all, and call time on Project UK. We can all then get on with organising our affairs along national lines and remaining good neighbours.