A plea for my three countries: Britain, Scotland and England

I have no vote in the referendum on Thursday.  But the second of my countries may be on the verge of divorcing the third and abolishing the first. I make no apology for the emotional parts of this piece: nations are about shared affection and belonging. Here, I want to set down why I so desperately hope Scotland votes No, stays in the shared British family and helps to improve it.

Family and friends

For me, this question is deeply personal.

My father is a Scot.  He went to school in Edinburgh; his parents now live in England.  He fell in love with my mother, an Englishwoman, when they were both studying at Aberdeen.  My sister and I have lived in both Scotland and England.  My mother’s sister also went to Aberdeen to study, and married a Scot.  The marriage ended, but my aunt still lives in northeast Scotland.  One of her children lives in Aberdeen; the other is now in Leamington Spa.  We are all children of the Union.

Countless families all over Britain can tell similar stories.  Three centuries of common endeavour – of living, trading, travelling, fighting, negotiating together – have created them.  Without the Union, there will be fewer.  I’m not saying we’ll suddenly all regard each other as complete strangers and foreigners: but the nations of the UK will be less interested in each other, less involved, less intertwined.  There are about 400,000 people from Ireland in the UK: but there are about 700,000 Scots in England and about 400,000 people from England in Scotland alone.  It isn’t quite the same, and if it leaves Britain, in the long term the links with Scotland won’t be either.

We won’t become as foreign to each other as we are to anywhere else: but we will become more foreign to each other than we were before.  Anglo-Scottish families won’t cease to be families: but fewer Scots and English will intermarry than before.  Our horizons will narrow that little bit, and that would be desperately sad.

Scotland in the Union

Scotland is an extraordinary country.  In population, it is small: about the size of Finland, Denmark or Turkmenistan.  But its impact on the world has been out of all proportion to its size: in fact, I don’t think there is any other nation of five million people which has had anything like its influence.  That’s down to Scottish talent, enterprise, efforts and ingenuity: but the Union also gave a platform for Scotland to project itself to the world.  Scotland has always refused to be a ‘small country’, despite its size.

Scots have been at the forefront of Britain’s story, for better and for worse – as soldiers, diplomats, ministers, migrants and more besides.  To take one example, James Watt’s steam engine played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution – which he commercialised, at least in part, through partnership with the English Matthew Boulton.  Scots have served disproportionately in Britain’s Army for centuries.  There is a reason why Canada has a province called Nova Scotia.  Ships from the Clyde sailed the world.  There have been 10 Scottish Prime Ministers – more than population would suggest.  Scots invented penicillin, the telephone and radar, spread the British and Scottish presence around the world – and helped to shape that world.

In fact, Scotland didn’t just contribute enormously to Britain: in many ways, it created it.  Ideas of Unionism, in the true sense, emerged in Scotland before England.  Back in 1520, John Mair saw it as a way to prevent an English empire – an agreement to allow both to flourish.  James VI and I wanted a full union, but one which took full account of Scotland’s story as well as England’s.  And for all the talk of ‘bought and sold for English gold’ (which referred to Darien and not to the Union, by the way), Scottish negotiators honoured the Scottish unionist tradition.  The Scots Parliament may have ceased: the Kirk Assembly, with its larger place in Scottish life in that time, remained. Scots law, education, religion: these were preserved too.

Scotland, in other words, made Great Britain too. England’s security imperatives were key, of course they were, but the Scottish conception of union was crucial. The result was that 1707 secured the Hanoverian succession and a Parliament at Westminster, but also ensured Scottish distinctiveness. And proud Scottish Unionists would go on to celebrate Bannockburn, the Declaration of Arbroath, the fight against English kings – and see them as the battles that made an agreed Union possible. Britain is an extraordinary Scottish success story.

Britain: a country worth celebrating

For all its faults, Britain is also a country which is worth keeping, and without which the world would be the poorer.

For a start, Britain was always multinational: you could never be British without being something else as well.  Within our duffle-coat state, we have always had at least two legal systems, two national churches, at least two systems of education and more besides.  Devolution in 1999 was, in many ways, a modern variation on a constant theme.

That means that Britishness has never been a narrow identity.  It has always had to coexist with other senses of self.  That is a very precious thing in a world where societies are multicultural, identities are overlapping and integration is indispensable.  Because you’ve always had to be English, Scottish, Welsh or something else as well as British, it’s generally been easier to be British Indian, or Somali, or Chinese, or anything else.  Scottishness is generally inclusive too, of course, but I think the arrival of ethnic diversity in a land where multiple identities had been officially sanctioned for so long helped make it that way.

Secondly, Britain has done a lot of good as well as bad, and has a lot to be proud of.  It isn’t the first home of parliaments, but it has had an exceptionally long run of constitutional government.  That has often been enormously influential in other democracies: and in countries where Britons played oppressor, it’s striking how their own values were eventually used against their rule and helped to inform the successor state.  It is, in fact, a remarkable tribute to the British history of government by consent that this referendum is being held on an agreed basis: look at Catalonia or Quebec if you think that just comes with being a developed democracy.

Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish have also fought together, of course.  However you qualify it – and we too easily cast aside the contributions of Canadians, Australians, Irish, Poles, Free French and many others – there was a period when Britain had to lead the fight against fascism, and hold the ring.  It was one of the few democracies to fight the Second World War from beginning to end, and it mobilised an extraordinary amount of its resources to fight that conflict.  Everyone always mentions this, and that’s because it really is something we all share, and something we can be proud of.

Since 1945, Britain’s role has continued to be large – and Scotland, as always, has played a part out of all proportion to its size.  It was a Scottish Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, practising English law, who was vital in making the European Convention on Human Rights happen.  It was a Scottish Chancellor, in a British Labour government, who worked with an English International Development Secretary to create Britain’s Department for International Development.  DfID now has the second largest aid budget, and is arguably the finest international development ministry in the world.  It was a Scottish Foreign Secretary who began to position the UK as one of the most active of anti-death penalty states.  Britain played a major role in making the Arms Trade Treaty possible.

Scottish talent, ingenuity and enterprise has contributed a vast amount to our common home, and we are all better off for it.  A separate Scotland would, of course, play its part in the wider world: but it couldn’t be on the scale of Britain.  We do far more together than either of us would apart – and I don’t believe it would be true to Scotland’s story to turn away from that.

British social democracy

Domestically, we have built a welfare state together.  I don’t think we always realise how unusual the NHS is.  Even Sweden charges patients to visit their GP.  In Britain, healthcare free at point of use is non-negotiable.  No government would challenge it in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, because the social commitment to the principle is absolute.  Far from being a case for Yes, it is a principle we all share as British citizens.  It was a Welshman, Lloyd George, who steered through the People’s Budget and the National Insurance Act 1911; it was a Scotsman, Keir Hardie, who was the first leader of the Labour Party.

We also have a striking belief in the importance of a decent public culture.  We have the finest broadcaster in the world, the BBC, and it was founded by a Scot in 1926.  In communist eastern Europe, people listened to the World Service secretly, for real news rather than propaganda.  The last Labour government also gave us free museums – and again, we have some of the finest in the world.  Free museums aren’t typical: they’re exceptional.  They have, in only 13 years, become another thing we all share as citizens.

I know our welfare state is much more threadbare than it was: I hate what this UK government is doing to it as much as any Yes voter.  But I also know that Britain, a large country with a currency of its own and very slowly-maturing debt, had a choice in 2010.  We had the option of running a looser fiscal policy than we did.   A country of five million, without its own currency, doesn’t necessarily have the same fiscal options and can’t follow that particular path so easily.

More than that, I also know it’s happening to people in Gateshead and Glamorgan, just as much as Glasgow – and in fact, it’s happening more to people in Gateshead, because they don’t have devolution.  And I believe in solidarity: I want to see us standing together for a better Britain – not turning away from each other, and still less entering some kind of race to undercut each other to attract the multinationals. The Salmond vision of corporation tax cuts to beggar the neighbours holds no charms for me. I want the bonds of solidarity widened, not narrowed.

The better option is to support greater devolution to Scotland, including serious fiscal devolution, to allow social democracy to be pursued there while preserving the best principles of the British safety net: social security transfers, smoothing of the spending impact of the economic cycle and guarantees of the ability to provide a common standard of services for common levels of taxation, whatever happens in future.  That would allow Scotland to be a shining example of what social democracy could do – one for the rest of the UK to emulate.

Ideally, in fact, I’d have a federal state, with an elected second chamber to keep Whitehall in check and powerful legislatures within England to counterbalance the pull of the south east.  With Scotland in the UK, that becomes much more likely: and wouldn’t it be appropriate if the country which did so much to create Britain before 1707 did the same in 2014?

Finally …

Without Scotland, Great Britain wouldn’t exist, and the UK would be vastly poorer for it.  The most influential country of five million in the whole world would be leaving the most successful multinational state in history.  Ties of family would weaken.  Individuals would have to make painful choices about who they were, where they came from and how they chose to identify themselves.

It isn’t true that most Scots reject Britishness as an identity.  It might be subsidiary, or used at some times and not others, but it’s there nonetheless.  And that’s true for all the nations of Britain.  We don’t always know exactly how our different layers of identity relate to each other, but then we haven’t needed to.  Vagueness about identity is a British trait – not necessarily a flaw.

Voters in Scotland: rightly, the choice is yours alone. Please don’t make us all choose.  Please don’t turn away from all the things we’ve done, enjoyed, suffered and endured together. Please don’t separate my father’s country from my mother’s.  Please don’t place my English aunt in Scotland and my Scottish grandparents in England on opposite sides of an international border. Please vote No.

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