by Ed West
Monday, 30
November 2020
Debate
12:07

Love, not money, will save the Union

An emotional case for Britain needs to be made
by Ed West
Happy St Andrew’s Day. Credit: Getty

Happy St Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Scotland, and whose cross forms one part of the Union Jack. How long that flag exists is a question to which none of us have an answer.

As depressing and awful as the Brexit referendum was, it’s easily forgotten how depressing and awful the preceding Scottish independence referendum was.

To those of us down here, the most demoralising aspect was the unionist campaign itself, which focused entirely on economic and technocratic arguments for keeping the Union. The entire argument seemed to be that Scotland gained financially from staying, and with that uninspiring message they managed to squeeze through with 55% of the vote. Project Fear, or realism depending on your view, might have worked with a once-hugely successful 300-year-old union, but two years later it failed against a still-evolving 40-year-old one.

The unionist argument was the long-term death knell of the union, not just because it turned Scotland into a SNP one-party state (just as a Remain win in 2016 would have hugely benefited UKIP, whereas victory killed it); but because the arguments in favour were so bloodless and, ultimately, self-defeating.

From an English point of view, if Scotland is only in the union for the money, then they should go. Ireland does pretty well despite its size and location, and Adam Smith’s homeland would likewise be fine, eventually.

But that’s the problem when you have people in charge who don’t understand patriotism, and what it means to belongs. That is not the case with historian Neil Oliver, whose paean to Britain makes the emotional case as a British Scot, that this is our home. He writes:

“If not economics or history, then what? How to make the claim that we, the inhabitants of these islands, are one family? In the end I can only speak for myself and from my own heart. That much is all I truly know….”
- Neil Oliver, These Islands

That is ultimately what the question is about: are we, the inhabitants of this island, a people and a family, with a shared bond of history and culture?

There are obvious reasons for the declining salience of Britishness. The things that united the union — empire, Protestantism and our shared language — are no longer there or unique to us. In England, Britishness has become more inclusive, and therefore weaker, increasingly associated with values in order to de-associate it with ancestry — and these “British values” are a set of political beliefs a large section of the population does not sign up to.

On top of this, the British state often appears weak and ailing compared to the dynamism of the Scottish executive and, this year for the first time, the Welsh. Historical trends suggest that the union’s demise is inevitable, and the next time a referendum comes along, one would not confidently bet on the unionists winning again.

When that does happen again, the battle will not be about financial prudence — certainly not the case a Brexit-supporting Tory party can make — but about ideas, ideals and belonging.

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