The British union, one of the most successful political unions in human history, is once again in danger. This is a shame, partly because it’s so unnecessary. It was, I’m afraid, always likely that a Brexit vote would reopen the debate about Scotland’s place within the UK. Clear enough that Boris Johnson, one of the chief architects of the leave vote, noted that it was a risk in the piece he penned but did not publish supporting a remain vote. But we are where we are. The case for Scotland remaining part of the UK may be marginally weaker than it was on 22 June, but it’s still overpoweringly strong. The SNP Government has published a draft Bill for a second independence referendum. They are positioning themselves so that, if the opinion polls turn as Brexit starts to bite, they are ready for a second referendum. And this means unionists need to be ready as well.
To be blunt I think that preserving the British union is the most important challenge Theresa May’s Government faces. If the union collapses on their watch they will be remembered for little else (assuming they don’t decide to nuke Moscow). It’s more important even than getting a decent Brexit deal, though I suspect the two are closely related. Indeed, if it’s clear that a hard-Brexit would break the union, I think there would be a strong case for a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership. The impact of Brexit on Scottish nationalism wasn’t much discussed during the referendum, and if Brexit is about to end the union there would be a strong democratic case for a second referendum to ask if this is a price people are willing to pay.
In retrospect it’s pretty clear that many unionists were, at least initially, complacent about the 2014 referendum. Support for independence had long hovered around 30%. As a result the British Government, whilst not desiring a referendum, saw it as a way of shutting down the question for a generation. They allowed the nationalists to draft a wording favourable to themselves, asking ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’ rather than ‘should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom’. They also allowed then to tinker with the electorate, giving the vote to 16 and 17 year olds who the SNP were convinced leaned towards independence. The result, 55% for ‘No’ versus 45% for ‘Yes’ was strong, but the nationalist gene was out of the bottle and the constitutional question became the dominant fault line in Scottish politics.
This piece is intended as a unionist call-to-arms (though I’ll admit it’s only likely to be read by a scoop full of people). Unionists, including English unionists like myself, need to start making the case for the union before it’s too late. And not just the economic case, though clearly this will be an important part of our argument, but the moral and emotional case as well. We should celebrate the success of the union.
Both England and Scotland have been at peace, and neither has suffered foreign invasion, since the Jacobite rising of 1745. It’s my view that the balance of probability is that this would not have been the case had Britain not been united. A united Britain allowed us, for better and worse, to transport our people, trade and way of life around the world whilst staying secure at home. It meant that when autocratic leaders sought to dominate the continent, from Napoleon to Hitler, we never had to fight them on British soil. British unity has been the foundation of our security for over 250 years, and consequently of our prosperity as well. If would be unwise to put this at risk without very good cause.
But the case for the union doesn’t just rest on security and prosperity, but on cultural compatibility and kinship as well. Put simply, whilst there are some cultural differences, the Scottish are objectively very similar to the English (and Welsh and Northern Irish). We speak the same language, eat the same food, watch the same TV, listen to the same music, have over 300 years of shared history and largely play the same sports. If two groups as objectively similar as the English and Scots can’t share a country, what chance is there of greater human unity ever being achieved? No Scottish nationalist has yet managed to explain to me how the interests of a bricklayer in Dundee are radically different from a scaffolder in Hull, and I expect they will struggle to do so. This isn’t humanist utopianism, I’m not calling for calling for a world Government, but I do think it would be astonishingly regressive if it turns out that the English and Scottish can’t share a state.
I have heard Scottish nationalists argue that, because of Brexit, things aren’t so clear cut. That rather than leaving a union, and adding to the fractures of humanity, they are merely exchanging the British union for the European one. But I’m afraid this doesn’t hold true. The EU is not remotely comparable with the UK. You can’t leave a full political-economic union, and join an incomplete political-economic union, and argue that you are doing anything other than strengthening the divisions in humanity. In any case the EU itself is starting to look a little shaky, and it’s perfectly possible that in the near future events (for example a Le Pen Presidency in France) will fundamentally alter its character or cause it to collapse.
Now I don’t want to make too much of economics, primarily because for me the benefits of the union can primarily be weighed in kinship/security rather than coin. And yet I feel I should mention it briefly. Scotland sells at least twice as much to other parts of the UK as to the rest of the world combined. If forced to choose between economic union with the UK and the EU, and I dearly wish the Scots hadn’t been put in a position where they might be compelled to, the UK option is far better from an economic perspective.
So to conclude, because of the EU referendum result the Brexit vote is once again in danger. And yet the case for the union, on cultural, security and economic grounds, remains overwhelming. Unionists can’t afford complacency, and we need to start making this case as assertively as we can. The battle of Europe is over. The battle of Britain is about to begin.