The lies that bind: the grand delusions of Unionism and the fate of the Union


by Tom Montgomery

The ‘noble lie’ has been an instrument of political control since the writings of Plato and has been utilised by rulers throughout the ages for a variety of motives.  Many governments have employed a variety of grand deceptions in the belief that manipulating the masses can provide a greater good for a state and its citizens, but others have realised that the ‘noble lie’ can also be a useful method of assuring their position in the social and political elite.

It is tempting to believe that such theories belong to an era of ancient city-states but when careful attention is paid to the words and deeds of those who seek to ensure that Scotland’s future remains within the United Kingdom, it becomes clear that for some, the ends continue to justify the means.

The tangible reluctance of Unionist politicians to express a positive thesis for Scotland’s future to rest within the United Kingdom contrasts sharply with the conspicuous confidence on display when they are painting the prospect of an independent Scotland as a scene of destitute calamity.  

This approach reveals more than just a lack of imagination or creativity on the part of Unionists in Westminster or their allies at Holyrood.  In fact the hesitation of Unionists to articulate a vision of what the Union represents betrays a realisation that the myths once used to hold the Union together are now a busted flush in Scotland.  

The forthcoming independence referendum will therefore confirm that the UK government and its Unionist partners in the Labour party are not the fools that some observers would have us believe.  The comments recently by the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Scotland reveal an understanding that fear and uncertainty are powerful weapons during a global economic crisis and these are weapons which they are willing to deploy remorselessly in the debate over Scotland’s future.  A twisted logic is employed to vindicate a position that presents the Union as being so critical to the prosperity of Scotland that they are willing to destabilise our economy to prove it.

The tactics displayed by Unionists thus far form part of a wider strategy to undermine the aspirations of the Scottish people, a strategy underpinned by two ‘noble lies’ that have been refined and regurgitated to generations of Scots.

The first of the two noble lies that Unionists circulate is that the United Kingdom has never fully lost the resplendence of its great power status and that the world is too complex and dangerous a place for an independent Scotland to navigate alone.  This lie has undoubtedly lost some of its wider appeal but it nonetheless remains intoxicating in many quarters, not only within those parties now forming the current coalition but also with those who led the previous Labour government.

The idea that the British could still project their power across the globe was not a theory in remission during the many military adventures of the Blair years.  Even now in the midst of an economic crisis and crippling unemployment, influential voices within the current Prime Minister’s own party still view the UK as a balancing force in Europe and therefore perceive successes such as those seen in the German economy as a threat rather than an inspiration.

The noble lie of the UK as a global power still to be reckoned with has steadily been eroded by the Real Politik of the twenty first century but it is the prospect of Scottish independence that may deal this delusion a swift and inglorious end akin to the humiliation endured by an emperor revealed to have no clothes.  Furthermore, in a Union governed by those in Westminster for whom privilege and status has been a familiar way of life, the stature of the UK on the international stage matters much more than the fate of the Scottish economy.  Consequently the collateral damage of the livelihoods of the Scottish people is an acceptable price Unionists are willing to pay in order to perpetuate the noble lie of a still powerful Britannia.

The strength of this first noble lie may have arguably receded in many sections of wider society throughout the UK, but it is aided by both the memories of the past and the threats of the present.  Consequently it is far easier to propagate in comparison to the second noble lie of Unionism, namely that the United Kingdom is a place where the responsibility for social mobility rests squarely upon the shoulders of the individual, on the grounds that said individual enjoys the advantage of living in a society which is rooted in the British idea of ‘fair play’.

Against a background of rising pay inequality, mass unemployment and increasing austerity measures which punish the majority for the sins of the privileged few, it has become all the more important to repeat this lie loudly and often in the hope that it drowns out the reality of life inside the Union.  Many states are facing similar issues during this economic crisis but the noble lie that the UK is a beacon of freedom where hard work and individual effort is rewarded with social mobility is a mantra that over the years has been proclaimed with pride by Unionists of each party colour.

Such a delusion has however become all the more difficult to perpetuate when the UK is consistently criticised for its soaring levels of poverty and is presently governed by a coalition comprised of individuals whose ascendancy is best explained by the fruits of oligarchy rather than the seeds of democracy.  All of this is further compounded by the fact that the Labour ‘opposition’ in Westminster is led by those who, when at the centre of the Blair and Brown governments, were directed by the same values now guiding both Cameron and Clegg.  The false dichotomies within Unionism are therefore revealed by the joint venture of the noble lie.

The acceptance of these noble lies may ultimately cost the Scottish people their own statehood.  Furthermore it could resign them to a future where Westminster governments abandon any prospect of social mobility in pursuit of an economic arms race where success is measured by whichever state prevails in exposing its population to a survival of the fittest free market reality.  Although it  simultaneously manages to protect its financial sector from it at any cost.

Many Unionist politicians have nevertheless attempted to convince the Scottish people that the contemplation of independence is no more than a sideshow and a distraction from Westminster,  where a ‘real’ debate is happening in regards to the economy.  However the path followed by the Scottish people thus far suggests that they believe the opposite is true and that the values and arguments which drive policy-making in Westminster have become increasingly irrelevant in Scotland.

The differences in social, political and economic thinking between Scotland and Westminster have  crystallised and have summoned a new found confidence within the Scottish people.  These differences which we once believed to stem from national identity now extend to a distinct political culture.  Consequently, the unfolding debate leading up to the referendum may witness the final rejection of the noble lies of Unionism.

The reward on offer for the Scottish people is an independent sovereign state with a political culture that fosters a society in which social mobility is a reality rather than an aspiration.  A state where the wider world is perceived not with delusions of grandeur, but through a pragmatic lens of modernity.