Europe solved the problem of Britain: only the SNP can save it now


Commentary by Christopher Silver

Sovereignty and borders — the great political themes of the current crisis, were a defining feature of both the SNP and Tory party conferences.

The casual observer could be forgiv en for seeing two nationalisms competing on broadly similar terms. But in this tumultuous phase of British politics, such simplistic distinctions won’t suffice.

Christopher Silver
Christopher Silver

When Nicola Sturgeon talked of a genuine sense of loss the morning after Brexit she was talking, in a sense, of the end of an easy way not to be British. But if the entire concept of Britishness is being rapidly torn to shreds by the polarities that Brexit has brought to the surface, it is precisely because the role of Europe, from the perspective of the peripheral nations of the British Isles, has done so much to hold things together.

For small nations Europe offers something different. It means access to bigger dreams for a smaller demos and a logical accommodation with the age-old psychological struggle to come to terms with the presence of bigger neighbours next door.

For years, Europe solved the historic problem of Britain. It gave citizens of the strange anomalous entity that Tom Nairn described as “Ukania” a looser way to understand who they were. It was a means to live in a kind of post-Britain, where layered identities, of the kind that Sturgeon and her SNP colleagues did so much to promote at the weekend, were the norm.


As the Tories seek to revive a more militant and singular form of Britishness, the archipelago once again becomes a Pandora’s Box of competing claims and traditions. For both independent Ireland and devolved  Scotland, numerous certainties have been cast adrift.

The policy of seeking “independence in Europe,” though never an uncomplicated step for the SNP to take, was a necessary enabler on the road to its 2007 breakthrough. Europe, inevitably, created its own problems and alienations, but above all else it answered a question. Namely: who are we in relation to each other?

The resonant symbolism of the SNP conference, which now has hitherto undreamed-of access to audiences in the south, is built on this outlook. The idea that there is a European norm, a continental mainstream that a large chunk of British opinion has always explicitly rejected.

Perhaps inevitably, this is not about actual policy or really existing European social democracy. Rather, it’s about that added layer of identity, that fuller sense of connectedness and aspiration. For nations like Scotland, with long and traumatic stories of emigration, the idea that there is a continent out there that is open to us holds an inherent appeal.

Those of a scholarly bent might also point to different legal, educational and religious traditions. Ancient Scots Law has always been a hybrid between the European civil law and the English common law systems. A historian might also note that the era of Europe as a place of strictly bordered nation states is still a relatively new phenomena and, in the grand scheme of things, it may not last.


Others might simply say that in a small country answers can rarely been found within. To be influenced and to assimilate that influence, rather than to wield it, is our lot. Something of this approach, perhaps, has never quite disappeared from the Scottish psyche. It has long been stored away: in institutions, in attitudes, in culture and in customs. In recent years, it has re-emerged to illuminate the British twilight.

Against that backdrop, the idea of Scotland as a nation with a state of its own, that never quite obscured option, is growing exponentially. In the current crisis it has allowed Scotland one clear advantage over England – it provides a mechanism to come to terms with what it means to live on a wet island that once held sway over vast swathes of the planet.

We were once the ones who drew borders. A quick look at the glorious artistry of the Victorian map-makers of Edinburgh is a useful reminder that carving up the world into different spaces was once Britain’s vocation. It is a matter of deep historic irony that it is an anxiety around borders that has rattled a post-imperial Britain to the core and that has led it to a place where self-harm is inevitable, and possibly fatal.

Forty years ago, Europe offered a route that could rationalise the post-imperial conundrum. Only two decades after Suez, this was a means to chart a new course within a collaborative club for the old European powers and their former vassals.

But a less imperial Britain was inevitably a less British Britain. Yet it still seemed possible the old power that might just manage to relax into its new role as a place of enormous cultural capital, a bridge across the Atlantic.


That route into the European mainstream always clashed with a significant body of opinion. Brexit was the last hurrah, the last futile charge, of the old Great Britainers.

The roots of that reaction against Europe go deep because sovereignty in British terms has always had a peculiar quality. British sovereignty was built in opposition to the existential threat of continental foes. Unfettered, its instinct is to build boats and project sovereignty outwards.

The essential new Royal Yacht, like many other “necessary” bits of Britishness, (not least those anchored 40 miles from Glasgow with a far more deadly cargo) is just a comfort blanket for the imperial dreamers. In the final act Prospero is refusing to lay aside his cloak and confront his lonely, isolated inheritance.

The course is pursued for the romantic and idiosyncratic reasons that were presciently outlined by de Gaulle all those years ago. British nationalism needs a story that places itself as the centre of the world once again, that offers superiority and exceptionalism.


But this new Tory nativism has an awkward date with reality – wait for the newly-minted trade deal with the EU to be vetoed by Slovenia or a sub-state like Flanders. In a fit of self-regard powered by unmitigated xenophobia, Britain tore up its most significant relationship only to find that, in its isolation, its glory days were for obvious reasons, irretrievable.

With this new British nationalist politics so dominant in the south, Nicola Sturgeon has inverted the terms of 2014, by casting the Tories as the separatists. Bizarrely, the SNP is now the unionist party, struggling with the centrifugal forces that the Tory party have unleashed.

Sturgeon has recognised, along with many others across the UK, that the time has come to salvage what we can from the Great British Crisis. But if she was to find allies in the south, the Scottish National Party could, remarkably, stage the one of the few interventions that might hold the UK together. Its task? To finally persuade Britain that it must reform its concept of sovereignty, to fit with 21st century realities, or perish.


  1. Some important insights here. You are spot on when you say that European identity and EU membership have helped Scots to feel more comfortable within the declining UK post-1945 than would otherwise be the case. But now that salve is unravelling. All that remains of the membership of the UK are disbenefits.

    The main reason we joined the UK and the nascent British empire and surrendered our sovereignty in 1707 was ‘trade with most’. Foreign trade was increasingly closed to us because of rising imoerialism internationally and the shared monarchy; England’s enemies were our principle trading partners and the Crown invariably took the side of England’s trade. Cross border trade had also flourished since the joint monarchy in 1603 but this was threatened by Scottish independence, had the parliament of Scotland in 1705 continued to take an independent stance of siding with England’s enemies over trade.

    The British empire and all the opportunities it presented for Scots, to compensate them for the humiliation of the loss of national sovereignty, ended with the loss of India in 1947 and by the 1960s all of Britain’s empire that Scots had helped to build was gone. But new opportunities presented themselves in the form of the post-war Labour government’s creation of the welfare state, a kind of home commonwealth of sharing in the nations’ remaining domestic bounty. But Thatcher and her successors put paid to that. Then the EU in 1973 presented another avenue for trade and a larger identity for small nations. With the Tories finally loosening that they have dissolved all the social glue that held the UK together and all that remains of it is subservience to England’s will whilst our oil wealth is stripped away from us and our developmental potential thwarted by the lack of sovereign powers.

  2. “But if she was to find allies in the south, the Scottish National Party could, remarkably, stage the one of the few interventions that might hold the UK together. Its task? To finally persuade Britain that it must reform its concept of sovereignty, to fit with 21st century realities, or perish

    The question I would ask here is do the Scottish people really want to keep the Union together? What for?

    What is the union doing for Scotland right now? Forcing us to endure the nasty policies of a government Scotland didn’t vote for? Forcing us to house and to pay a share on WMDs rejected both in Scottish parliament and by most of the Scottish MPs at Westminster? Taking away Scotland’s natural resources while investing back the bare minimum here? Stripping Scotland of jobs, subventions to the renewables industry, promises of 13 frigates built in Scotland that become none and a myriad of other broken promises all for the benefit of those down south? Dragging Scotland into neoliberal wars against its will? Dragging Scotland out of the EU against the will of the majority of the electorate in Scotland? Dragging Scotland out of the common market so the unionist parties can scrap a few more votes from the electorate in England?

    What is really the point for Scotland to remain in what increasingly looks like an undemocratic and unfair union?

    In my personal opinion, the time to ‘persuade Britain’ to reform is long gone. The last opportunity to do this was with the delivery of a vow that according to more than one unionist bigwig was going to make Scotland the most devolved country in the world. Turns out that it was all a big deception, wasn’t it?

    Unfortunately there is only so much deception a nation can take. I think now a line has been crossed and I think the blame for the demise of the UK as a union has to be placed fairly and squarely on the hands of the unionist MPs and the parties they represent. Why? Because is precisely those unionist MPs and parties who so strongly advocate for an union who have made it evidently clear for the people of Scotland that their voice counts for nothing in this union. Of course the only motive of the unionist parties for silencing the people of Scotland is their stubborn refusal to accept the democratic will of the people of Scotland because they are determined to reject the status of Scotland as a nation so it can be treated as a colony forever.

  3. Wow – now the worship of the EU has become so central that it even changes the purpose of the SNP which used to be to break up the United Kingdom and set Scotland free. Now apparently its purpose is to save the UK!

    • I do not think this has anything to to with ‘the worship of the EU’, David, and far more to do with the ‘worship of the union’ that some seemingly can’t live without.

      I think the SNP is quite clear in what it pursues in the same way that the people that voted for them and elected them in both elections do. It is the unionist parties who by insisting in conveniently forgetting that the reason for the SNP to be at Holyrood and Westminster is because they have been democratically elected by the people of Scotland, have condemned this union to its demise.

      Cajoling the SNP by hanging on them even the suggestion that it depends on them to ‘save the union’ is, in my opinion, as deceitful as it was using all those lies and broken promises to win the NO vote in indiref1.

      The reality here is that Scotland is being forced out of the EU against its will and by a political party in Westminster that was rejected by an 85% of those voting in Scotland during the last GE. It is not the time for the SNP to ‘save the union’ and correct the mess made by the self-serving unionist parties. It is now the time for the Scottish people to decide which union they want to remain in and what future they want for their nation.

  4. Trade is the lifeblood of any economy and our historic trading connections enormously influenced Scotland’s culture, the wey spek an hink an dae hings. As it happens I suspect I may be one of the last people who worked with the very wide spectrum of Scotland’s sea trade with our continental neighbours. As a Leith shipping clerk in the 1970s I was frequently in touch with folks in Bergen, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Amsterdam/Rotterdam, Antwerp, Rouen, Porto and Reykjavik etc who received our regular ships and their cargo, and vice versa. The only place we did not ship to very much was England. I would say that I have always felt culturally closer to our continental friends, no doubt due in large part to the historic trading exchange, and mutual respect that comes from that. Our company was subsequently taken over by London suits, as so many Scottish firms were, the ships disposed of, and cargo moved to trucks taking the road to Dover, Southampton etc. Things could have been different, with investment in Scottish ports and more modern ships, but there was no Scottish governing authority able to do this at the time or think strategically in the best interest of our nation. There is now, almost, and I welcome Nicola’s new trade initiative, which I think is partly in answer to my recent paper on Scottish ports and trade ( There is much that can be done, even with only devolved powers. However I would question Berlin for a trade hub – far better to locate at major continental hub ports, i.e. where most of the trade actual is – e.g. Hamburg, Rotterdam etc. Given the different directions ruk and Scotland may be taking, it will be essential to improve our shipping connections once more.

  5. I don’t want to hold the pestilential nest of racists and ne Fascists that is Tory Britannia together. The sooner it collapses the better, lets give it an effin shove of the cliffs of oblivions as soo as possible.

  6. I don’t really think that Berlin was chosen as a trade hub because of trade. The decision was far more political than that.

    • Sounds like some confusion between diplomatic mission and trade facilitation, but nothing new there for SE/SDI eh? We really need to focus more on trade facilitation, including upgrading Scotland’s Victorian port infrastructure and associated maritime services, and that requires different solutions to what has been proposed.

  7. There was always going to be a day of reckoning for the English economy after nearly 40 years of mismanagement. That nearly happened in 2008 but International reaction to the financial crisis bought it a respite. Now with the US signalling with rate increases a gradual return to normality and with the spotlight of Brexit that day has come.
    Its also not beyond the realm of possibility that elements of the London elite precipitated this Brexit diversion to condition and justify the inevitable drop in living standards required to reduce the current account and trade deficits to the English population.

  8. With all this DOGS BREXIT , what about this £1.62 trillion deficit and the Tory Battlebus expenses highlighted on Channel 4. Or £1.7 trillion if you want to express it as the margin of victory for the NO VOTERS


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