Miliband criticised for out of touch “candyfloss’ national identity comments

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By a Newsnet reporter

Speaking at the Festival Hall in London on Thursday during a debate about the constitutional future of the UK, Labour leader Ed Miliband asserted that Scots would lose all vestige of a British identity if the country votes in favour of independence in the planned referendum, due to be held in the autumn of 2014. 

Mr Miliband claimed that pro-independence campaigners were forcing Scots to decide between a British or a Scottish identity, maintaining that only the constitutional status quo permits Scots to feel both Scottish and British.

Mr Miliband also claimed that England should have a say in the debate over Scotland’s constututional future.  However, the bulk of the Labour leader’s speech was a call to the party to “embrace a positive, outward-looking version of English identity”. 

However despite speaking out in favour for a recognition of Englishness and an English identity, Mr Miliband ruled out any demand for an English parliament with powers similar to those of Holyrood.  Instead the Labour leader said he would prefer to see local government in England strengthened but did not specify which, if any powers, should be transferred to local authorities.   

Maintaining that the Westminster Parliament is the sole source of a British identity, and the only way in which people can feel both Scottish and British or English and British, Mr Miliband said that the Scottish National Party is offering a “false choice” and would force Scots to abandon any sense of Britishness they might feel.

He said: “A narrow view of identity would mean concern for the young unemployed in Scotland does not reach Newcastle or that we in England would care less for the pensioner in Edinburgh. What a deeply pessimistic vision. It’s a mistake wherever you find it. Having to say, Scottish or British, Welsh or British, English or British. I don’t accept any of that. It’s always a false choice.”

Speaking to a questioner after the debate, Mr Miliband said:

“People can be Scottish and British, it’s OK.  And if they feel primarily Scottish that’s fine too.  But if they leave the UK they won’t be British any more: it stands to reason.”

He added that Scotland and England were jointly British because they were part of a political union of parliaments.

However Mr Miliband’s opinions were immediately criticised for being factually inaccurate.  The Union of Parliaments of 1707 did not introduce the concept of a “British identity”. The terms “British” and “Great Britain” first came into widespread usage over 100 years previously, when King of Scots James VI inherited the English throne as James VI and proclaimed himself the monarch of “Great Britain”. 

The independence referendum is a popular vote that would see the Scottish Parliament regain the political powers it lost after the Union of 1707, the previous Union of the Crowns would remain unaffected.  An independent Scotland would thus remain a part of the Kingdom of Great Britain, although Westminster’s writ would no longer run north of the Border.  A “British” identity is therefore not dependent upon nor in the gift of the Westminster Parliament.

The SNP and other pro-independence organisations say that Scandinavian identity provides a good model for a modern British identity.  Although the Scandinavian countries co-operate closely and have many shared interests, each is an independent state capable of making its own decisions at a national and international level. 

Campaigners say this is a more positive model of co-operation between a group of different countries which have much in common culturally,  historically and economically.  Members of the Nordic Union have enjoyed passport-free travel and the right of settlement anywhere within the Nordic countries since 1952.  

The current UK is already a member of such a union.  The Common Travel Area which allows for passport free travel between the UK, the Republic of Ireland, and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man has been operational ever since the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. 

Although Crown Dependencies, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not part of the UK or the EU.  Many islanders still regard Britishness as a part of their personal identities despite the fact that they possess their own legislatures and are not represented in the Westminster Parliament.  

Asked about Mr Miliband’s comments by a BBC reporter, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond rejected the Labour leader’s remarks and said he [Miliband] didn’t know what he was talking about.

The SNP’s Humza Yousaf, MSP for Glasgow, said that the Labour leader’s remarks showed how “out of touch” he was with Scotland, and added: “The fact is, the current UK constitutional arrangements are unsuitable for Scotland, and unfair for England.

“What Mr Miliband desires for England can only be delivered by Scottish independence, giving both nations a new relationship based around a partnership of equals, bound by a social union of our shared history and culture.”

Isobel Lindsay, speaking on behalf of the Scottish Independence Convention, dismissed Mr Miliband’s comments as “candyfloss” containing nothing of substance. 

Ms Lindsay stressed that the real question facing Scottish voters in the referendum is one of choice – whether we allow the Westminster government to make important decisions on Scotland’s behalf, or whether Scots should make these decisions in our own Parliament.  Ms Lindsay noted that a series of recent Westminster choices had not necessarily been in Scotland’s best interests.

Ms Lindsay said: “Ed Miliband’s candy floss message managed to avoid any real political and socio-economic content.  When Scots, after decades of campaigning, won the right to make some of our own decisions with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, we made choices that were very different from those of Westminster irrespective of whether the government there was Labour or Tory-LibDem.  The political gulf over the past twelve years has grown ever greater.

“Let’s remember that it was Milliband’s Government that introduced university tuition fees opening the way for the Tories and Liberals to increase them.  Scotland chose differently.

“His Labour Government started the marketisation of the NHS which the Coalition has now accelerated. Scotland chose differently.”

Ms Lindsay highlighted other areas where Scotland had chosen a different path including personal care for the elderly, prescription charges and PFI, and added:

“His Government not only supported the existing nuclear weapons system (all based on the Clyde) but initiated a new generation of Trident weapons at vast cost.  Scotland did not have the right to choose.

“The present Coalition Government is initiating real benefit cuts for some of the most vulnerable in our society.  Scotland has no power to choose differently.

“When Scotland has had a choice, it has shown that its political values are different.  Unfortunately its powers are limited, which is why we need independence.”