For the Union

Tom Doran

Independence Town Sign 300x208 For the UnionDavid Cameron has just made his biggest intervention yet in the fight over Scottish independence. This may or may not prove to be a good idea.

The PM is a skilled public speaker, but his party’s image in Scotland remains pestilential*, not helped by Cameron’s own background. Unfair though it is, he’s a gift to nationalists who want to portray a Braveheart-like dichotomy with plucky, salt-of-the-Earth Scots on one side and sneering English aristocrats on the other.

Still, it’s good to see the main parties taking it seriously. While I tend to share Dan Hodges’ conviction that the result of the referendum isn’t really in doubt, it’d be tempting fate for the pro-Union side to adopt such an attitude, as it were, officially. If something unexpected happens between now and September – a French invasion, say, or Alex Salmond gaining magical powers – and the Yes campaign edge it out, then the knowledge we could’ve stopped it with a little more effort would be excruciating.

I didn’t always feel so protective of the Union. Having been educated entirely through the medium of Welsh, I grew up surrounded by the deep nationalism – and socialism – that suffuses Welsh-language culture. Outright anti-English hostility was rare (if hardly unheard-of), but the general worldview we were steeped in was roughly as follows: Wales is a tiny but proud nation standing battered but defiant after nearly a millennium of colonialism. We may not be big or powerful or rich, but we are righteous, humble and close to the earth. The English occupy a role English nationalists in turn assign to the United States: brash and overweeningly culturally dominant at best, brutal conquerors at worst.

This, very approximately, was the image I carried into early adulthood. But, like my youthful leftism, it was a prefabricated ideology, used right out of the box with barely a second thought. The more I read and learned – the two are regrettably not synonymous – the more I came to appreciate that the relationship between England and Wales (and England and Scotland even more so) was more complicated than oppressors vs oppressed.

That’s not to say oppression didn’t take place. It certainly did. One example – hardly the worst – that has stayed with me since childhood was the “Welsh Not“. Used in Welsh schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was usually a piece of wood a child had to wear around their neck if caught speaking Welsh. Whoever was still wearing it at the end of the day would be beaten. Most insidiously, a victim could get rid of their Not… but only by turning in another child, a truly totalitarian touch.

Welsh nationalists can argue with some justice that, through these means and others, independent Welsh culture was eroded to the point where a national identity separate from England almost ceased to exist, and that this above all explains Welsh fealty to the Union (even more overwhelming than in Scotland). But in a debate over the actually-existing constitutional settlement, this point is irrelevant.

Wales will never leave the United Kingdom, not because of some Westminster conspiracy but because the Welsh people do not consider their English neighbours (and relatives, in many cases including mine) to be foreigners. This sounds almost like a tautology, but really isn’t. A nation-state stands or falls on mutual consent, the feeling that its citizens broadly identify more with one another than with foreigners. Where the majority manifestly doesn’t feel this, as happened in Ireland, independence is a workable proposition; otherwise, it’s the answer to a question nobody asked.

This brings us, finally, to Scotland. The nationalists there have a great deal more going for them than poor old Plaid Cymru. The latter is hamstrung by being too left-wing, too rural and too dominated by Welsh speakers all at the same time, while Salmond’s SNP has successfully broken out of fringe status to become a major party. Its astounding electoral success over the last decade is perhaps what makes the Yes campaign so bullish despite the polls: the public know what we stand for and voted for us anyway, so voting for independence itself is but a formality, right?

Wrong, as it turns out. For the awkward truth about the SNP is this: the less it talks about independence, the more successful it is. The Nationalists’ two victories at Holyrood came as a result of successfully positioning themselves as a serious party of government, a fresh alternative to the stagnant, generations-old dominance of the Scottish Labour party. They campaigned on issues people actually care about, in other words.

People don’t care about Scotland’s constitutional position. Well, of course they do, but for all those outside the bubble of hardcore nationalism, it matters in the same way as a distant asteroid: interesting to think about, but not really urgent unless it’s heading straight for you. The Yes campaign has abysmally failed to demonstrate such a threat exists, some unanswerable imperative to justify colossal change. Scots may have grievances, but they do not feel oppressed, conquered or cheated – or at least, no more than people in Yorkshire do.

This is why, as many observers have noted, the SNP case for independence keeps shifting. There’s no one-line answer to “why should we do this?”, so instead, every single new development is upheld as a reason for independence, like a desperate defence barrister building a case on the fly.

The case for No, on the other hand, is simple: the United Kingdom is historically, culturally, emotionally and economically one country. It’s up to those proposing a change to the status quo to explain why the benefits of independence would outweigh all this. They haven’t, not even close.

By the time the referendum date was set, I knew I’d be supporting the Union. What I didn’t expect was the strength of feeling it now arouses in me. The United Kingdom, for all its flaws and oddities, is a real, living and discrete entity, and it could be torn apart by some freak electoral chance. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.

*”Toxic” is far too much of a cliché by now; Mr Thesaurus is your friend, people.

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  • greggf

    Nice piece Tom. I lived in North Wales for 5 years and my children were taught in Welsh and sometimes would converse in Welsh so we couldnt understand! However when I heard him say “cariad” I guessed he must have a secret girlfriend…..
    Happily they are both thoroughly right-wing!

  • Peter A Bell

    Didn’t read past the mention of “Braveheart”. There was no point in doing so.

  • Rev. Stuart Campbell

    “There’s no one-line answer to “why should we do this?””

    No more Tory governments we didn’t vote for.

    Next question, please.

  • Pacificweather

    “it could be torn apart by some freak electoral chance.”

    Spoken like a true Blairite. Anything over 35% will set them free eh?

  • Jon Danzig

    Wind the clock forward. It’s now February 2017. The Prime Minister has just made an impassioned, personal speech about the referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. He found that he only needed to make minor amendments to his speech of February 2014, urging Scotland to stay with the UK. The arguments were almost identical…
    See my re-write of Cameron’s ‘pro-Union’ speech on my EU-ROPE blog. EU-ROPE dot COM

  • porkfright

    “The PM is a skilled public speaker”. I am glad you didn’t say a good one.

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