Understanding and defeating the argument for the union in twelve steps
Sunday National, August 30th 2020
It has been an uplifting last few weeks to be an independence supporter. Not only has there been a swathe of polls showing a growing independence majority, the pro-union side seems to be in a bit of a panic.
Michael Gove has been desperately trying to wake up the UK Cabinet to the dangers of independence saying it could bring the government down. Gove has been in discussions with the new self-appointed defender of the union – George Galloway – which shows how much of a fluster they are in. While Scottish Labour were judged not to be ‘a serious rival’ to its opponents in an assessment by British Labour high hiedyins.
Even the annual publication of the GERS figures, and the tales of austerity and apocalypse of what an independent Scotland would look like have now been trundled out so many times there is an element of Groundhog Day and diminishing returns. Then there is the over-the-top contribution from uber-right-wing London commentators such as Douglas Murray who said recently: ‘If a referendum happened today, Scotland might sail off to join sub-Saharan Africa in the ranks of the world poverty indexes.’
Still in the next couple of years – up to and after the 2021 elections, and in the run-up to a future indyref – we are going to hear ad nauseam the argument for the union put by Tory, Labour and Lib Dem politicians, along with business figures and celebrities. It would be advisable for independence supporters to understand the case and its logic to be better placed to argue, rebut and defeat it, and win over more converts to independence.
First, is the power of British identity and Britishness. This is the ‘emotional connection’ argument. It argues that independence forces people to choose on some existential level between Scottish and British identities. Yet, Scottish independence could facilitate and allow for a new era of Britishness – cultural, civic, social – not about political governance – if rUK were enlightened enough. Britishness could even become a regional identity in the way being Nordic does.
Second, is the dividing friends and families and making them foreigners point. This is an amplification of the first argument – manifested in walls being built, physical and psychological, border controls and in particular, the Scots and English seeing each other as strangers. This ignores Ireland and how it is defined in UK law in the Ireland Act 1949 which specifically says it is not a ‘foreign country’, allowing for reciprocal rights, and built on the common travel area of the two countries established in 1923.
Third, is the solidarity with Sunderland (not the Duke of Buccleuch line) which means class, not nation matters. This argument taps into the centre-left values of most Scots and also plays on the point below of an England/rUK left to itself being permanently right-wing. However, solidarity does not mean you have to remain in the same political union as there are international and regional expressions of solidarity. More practically, independence would not prevent workers and trade unions across these isles still organising and co-operating across the border – as happens now with unions such as Unite organising in the UK and Ireland.
Fourth, is ‘pooling and sharing’ resources. The UK does pool and share resources as every political union does but a reality check is needed on the notion of Britain as this benevolent union. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world – and one of the most regionally divided and unequal countries in the developed world. Whatever ‘pooling and sharing’ takes place doesn’t do enough to counteract these huge divisions and levels of inequality. And so far UK Governments have lacked the political will to act on the scale they would have to.
Fifth, Scotland could not afford UK welfare state standards. This was recently expressed by Kevin Hague of These Islands when he said ‘you’re not seriously suggesting that the welfare state will survive beyond the union?’ which brought the retort from Kirstein Rummery of Stirling University: ‘He knows the welfare state would thrive beyond the union’ in Scotland. Lib Dem Michael Moore when in office talked of the ‘generous welfare state’ when state pensions are 29% of average earnings and unemployment benefits among the lowest in Western Europe.
Sixth, England/rUK would be Tory forever if left to its own devices. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian concluded a debate with myself in the indyref by exhorting the Scottish audience: ‘Please don’t leave us. We need you to be there. Don’t leave us to permanent Tory rule.’
The fact is that in twenty-one UK general elections since 1945 the Tories have won a majority of the popular vote in England only once – in 1955. That was the same year they won a majority in Scotland. Tory popularity in England is not as powerful as it appears, and is inflated by the First Past the Post electoral system, and Labour’s continual nervousness to talk about England – which surely wouldn’t last after independence.
Seventh, there is the UK’s clout on the global stage point. The Tory Campaign Guide of 1997 – which used to be produced for every election – claimed that independence would reduce Scotland to ‘a minor player on the world stage’ and that ‘Scotland would lose her strong voice on the international stage.’ The UK clout argument is drawn from an earlier age of power politics: of UK membership of the UN Security Council, the G7, nuclear weapons, and the delusions of Empire. It is not a very forward-looking case for 21st century diplomacy.
Eighth, taking the above further is the ‘we are safer in the UK’ viewpoint. This was expressed in 2014 by John Scarlett, former head of MI6, when he said the SNP’s proposed measures on intelligence and security were a risk. Tory Lord Fraser, former Lord Advocate for Scotland, went further in claiming that independence might force the rUK forces to take out Scottish airports for security reasons and ‘come and bomb the hell out of Glasgow airport and Edinburgh airport.’ This isn’t a great argument but in a world of significant threats – Russia, China, terrorism – expect to hear more of this scaremongering.
Ninth, is the cultural and sporting kudos of Britain. This taps into the Team GB at the Olympics argument and don’t we win more medals and punt above our weight in music, film, drama – giving the UK the kind of soft power that really matters today. There is a cultural reach of Britain that has had global impact, but increasingly it is dominated by the presentation of a Downton Abbey, ‘us and them’ romanticising of the past – because it sells to overseas markets.
Tenth, there is enough instability in the world and in the UK with Brexit, so don’t rock the boat further. This says that after four years of instability with Brexit and several more to come why would you want to invite more uncertainty with independence? The weakness of this case is that Scotland did not vote for Brexit, and the ensuing chaos and economic damage is a direct consequence of Tory Government actions.
Eleventh, are the costs of setting up an independent Scotland. This is increasingly a last-ditch argument (like who can vote in indyref2) because it begins to imagine and talk about a future independent Scotland. It says look at the costs: setting up new systems, establishing embassies and a separate international presence, and currency and central bank costs.
This plays into people’s anxieties about scarce resources and priorities. But it misses that numerous other states have done this and become successful. The end of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia along with the breakup of Czechoslovakia saw two dozen states become independent and, while Belarus has always been a concern, more common and relevant have been the successes of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia – all EU members.
Lastly, there is the argument that independence is a jump into the unknown in a world of risk – COVID-19, Brexit, Trump, climate change – and the unknown unknowns that we cannot even imagine from the present. The key issue in this who do you best trust to manage that risk.
As independence becomes the new normal the tenor of pro-union opinion will change. Some such as historian Peter Hennessy, chronicler of the British establishment, will feel understandably emotional loss, talking at the end of the 2014 vote of the Britain he knew and loved having passed away.
He asked then about the future: ‘Will there be a union-sized and UK shaped map in the minds of the young men and women who will stream into the Scottish electorate in time for a referendum in the early 2020s?’ He knew in his heart then the answer unless the UK political classes changed tack; they haven’t and in fact have got worse.
Others will lurch for desperation which is where George Galloway comes in. Galloway once waxed lyrically about the right of Scottish self-determination but now talks of the wonder of Britain and multi-national unions, even lamenting the end of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, neither of which were democracies.
The more serious argument in this is the decline of unionism into English nationalism – aided by David Cameron’s Downing Street speech the day after the referendum on ‘now England must be heard’, English votes for English laws, the 2015 Tory attempt to question the legitimacy of SNP MPs at Westminster to undermine Labour’s Ed Miliband, and of course, Brexit.
Those political manoeuvrings by Tories in 2015 caused Hugo Rifkind to note the hypocrisy at the heart of Tory unionism: saying one minute we are all in it together, and the next talking of SNP MPs as somehow being less equal. This state, he concluded, had led to ‘Tories abandoning unionism for their own self-interest (while pretending they haven’t) and Labour cleaving to it for theirs (while pretending they aren’t)’.
The argument for the union will have threat, fear, lament, emotions and the use of a few facts. History and our backstory will come into play, as will culture, identity and the perilous state of parts of the world today.
What it won’t contain – which could potentially just save it – is a serious strategic attempt to reform the UK politically – at its governmental centre. Nor will it have a coherent answer and story to talk to, inform and shape the future. Increasingly, Britain’s best stories are about the past, and an obsession with a selective telling of Victorian times and how Britain stood against the Nazis. Successful, vibrant countries have collective stories of their future.
Without these the union case is not without resonance for some, but it is increasingly restricted to fighting a defensive argument – one which does not allow it to reframe the arguments. And if this remains the case – for all the many words and bluster – the union’s days are more and more beginning to look numbered.
But no one on the independence side should for a moment take anything for granted or have any complacency. The union case might be increasingly threadbare, but it needs to be understood, and the case for change positively made.