Perils of British independence: what does residual unionism tell us about living together?


Commentary by Christopher Silver

“The vote on 18 September could indeed be a moment of destiny, but not the one the separatists are praying for: one where a proud nation that wants to uphold its traditions and institutions in the face of the levelling effects of globalisation and the temptation to go it alone chooses instead to become a beacon to the world, a shining light for all countries seeking better ways of living side by side, and demonstrates that interdependence – a citizenship now driven by the will to cooperate with others – is a far bigger idea than independence.- Gordon Brown, ‘This is Scotland’s Moment of Destiny,’ The Guardian, 12 September 2014


On both sides of the constitutional divide Tony Blair’s admission that Scottish independence is now “more credible” due to Brexit has been met with a great deal of angst.

Christopher Silver

At the heart of the flurry of commentary that the remark provoked sat the standard, unthinking, assumption that the constitutional future of the UK hinges on a cost-benefit analysis. Thus the bigger the economic cost of continued union, the more likely it is that Scots will take the leap and set up their own state.

The reality is much more complex. It took an economist, Professor John Kay, to point out in 2013 that independence was “not primarily an economic issue.” Independence is a political question and politics, as Brexit demonstrates so clearly, cannot be reduced to simple calculations about being better or worse off.  Yet, in contrast to Brexit, Scottish independence has always been presented as a case for change that must be interrogated and refuted, so the numbers game tends to crowd out the bigger picture.

The truth is Blair’s recalibrated view tells us very little about how the case for independence, which has yet to be presented anew, has developed. But it does tell us something far more significant. Namely, that the terms of the entire debate around what the Union means have shifted beyond recognition.

A decade of hiatus

A year on from the 2014 referendum, the BBC’s Scotland Correspondent James Cook reflected on controversies around how the media had presented the contest:

“…people live in the status quo, so you can understand the notion that the obsession is with the unknown – could the media have done more to really get under the kind of, where we are in Scotland, Britain and where we are heading, is this a good thing if we remain in the union? I think probably they could have, actually, to be honest with you, and I wouldn’t like that to be seen as a partisan point.”

In strategic terms the status-quo offers the high ground in any political showdown. Rather than accepting this fact in 2014 and focusing on developing work-arounds, the SNP expended an enormous amount of energy trying to shift the unionist campaign off that high ground. This was an impossible task.

But that basic disadvantage, the dogged, cast-iron mantra of aye-been, has been removed. There is no status-quo in Britain left to defend. The formation of a settled future for the UK is unlikely to emerge with any clarity until long after the two-year time frame earmarked for Brexit negotiations. The most likely outcome – an interim deal that pushes key post-Brexit decisions beyond 2020 – will come into being amidst a morass of prolonged uncertainty, intensified austerity, higher taxes and a tangible decline in living standards.

This is why senior Tories have expressed fears to The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley of “blood on the streets in a couple of years,” as this toxic Brexit brew is ingested.

As Rawnsley notes, a big part of that anxiety stems from the fact that British politics is currently so dysfunctional that there is no realistic prospect of electing an alternative government.

During the coming decade of political and economic hiatus at the epicentre of UK power, it will be incumbent upon the union to make a renewed case for itself to the Scottish people. Blair’s admission offers a rare glimpse of this deep internal crisis that unionism must contend with.

It should be apparent to all but the most diehard unionist that the case for the United Kingdom needs a radical overhaul, at exactly the moment when a revolution at the centre of British politics makes this task almost impossible.

Residual unionism

Ironically, the only option left is a retreat to the politics of blood and soil nationalism. Certain key ingredients formed part of the mix in 2014: those slain in conflicts under the Union Jack, the sacred unity of the island, Britain’s destiny as a “force for good” in the world. When a second referendum eventually happens, these staples will be added to, as Blair MacDougall has already implied, with an attack on the SNP’s pro-immigrant stance.

Davidson: “fratricidal conflict”.

But this residual unionism, though basic, is already fraught with contradictions. Ruth Davidson who recently referring to the “fratricidal conflict” created by the independence debate, has built her entire brand on articulating a distinctly Scottish version of Toryism.

In one of her earliest speeches in the role of Scottish Tory leader she remarked: “We need to prove beyond all reasonable doubt we do indeed put Scotland first, and that we are single-mindedly determined to do so in the future.”

This leads us to the great mystery at the core of how people relate to the Union. With the exception of a few UKIPers and Twitter trolls, explicit British nationalism is only voiced in Scotland on rarefied occasions and amongst specific communities.

This is why even the Scottish Conservatives can scarcely bring themselves to talk of Britain as the unitary nation state it is. Time and time again the Union is described as though it is not incorporating, but rather an association of sovereign entities, a trading bloc, a confederation.

Scotland is currently an integral part of the UK’s domestic market. Yet the UK is routinely described as a “single market.” Michael Gove, predicting a Brexit majority in Scotland last year reasoned: “having voted to leave one union the last thing the people of Scotland will want to do is to break up another.”

Beyond use of the term “union,” the notion that the Act of Union which binds Scotland and England together has anything in common with the Maastricht Treaty is blatantly absurd.

But the absurdity can cut both ways: with a gang of separatists now running Whitehall even a Remain voting Tory like Liz Truss has taken to proclaiming that the enormously fraught Brexit process is worth it in order to “get Britain to the stage of being an independent country.” In short, the unionists not only have to defend the Union, they simultaneously to have to make their own case for independence.

This newly “independent” Britain, we are told, will be transformed. We are told it will be the result of an entirely novel project and aside from the most mundane examples, there is no longer any story to tell about Britain and continuity. In 2014 Labour’s polling station sandwich boards simply stated, “It’s not worth the risk.” But whatever happens to Britain’s constitutional set up over the coming years, we’re locked-in to a high-risk political process either way.

We’re all separatists now

Gordon Brown’s intervention at the eleventh hour of the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign did not save the day for the UK. But as his piece in the Guardian (quoted above) reminds us, it did bring a last minute rigour to a notoriously grim Better Together campaign.

Brown: Influential, once

The purpose was to express, after two years of Project Fear, a positive message about the Union. But it was also, I think, about creating a call back, via the figure of Brown himself, to the generations of Scottish Labour heavyweights that occupied senior roles in British politics. In contrast, it is safe to say that the one Scottish MP in high office today, David Mundell, is not of that order.

Since 2014 Brown’s interventions have become just another reminder of his tragi-comic fate as the man who claims a moment of long-awaited triumph, which then unravels in spectacular style. But his speeches did represent a watershed in the context of the independence referendum.

The pitch was welcomed because it presented the choice of independence or union as a false choice. This great fallacy, according to Brown, was the product of an obsessive movement that wanted to look inward, that told people they had to be either one thing (Scottish) or another (British). This was something of a double-bluff, using the accusation of identity politics to mask the stirrings of a revived British nationalism, but it was compelling. What could be a more tempting offer to the anxious undecided voter than the idea that by voting No, they could, in effect, be absolved of everything that made the decision problematic?

A tendency to focus on the flimsy alchemy of The Vow means that nationalists have overlooked the wider salience of Brown’s last minute appearance. But the moment needs to be understood and taken seriously, because there is now a vacuum in the space it once occupied.

Just as Sewell made a mockery of The Vow itself, the eccentric, but deeply ingrained notion that “the temptation to go it alone” was an inferior prospect to the renewal of post-war progressive British unity, now sounds like a cruel joke. Today, those intent on a study of fratricidal conflict would learn more from the current state of the party that founded the NHS than they would from the Scottish independence debate.

So the decision that Scotland faces now is not about whether to go it alone. That much has already been decided. Instead we must resolve the crucial direction of travel at the outset of a deeply uncertain journey. On these damp islands, as in the wider world, we face an era of endings and new beginnings: so it is also a decision about how we are all going to live together.