Comment: I supported Irish freedom. Now I support the union

By Justine Brian

Back when the Scottish independence referendum was announced in 2011, I never imagined I would become as forceful supporter of the union as I am today. Yet while I held a visceral reaction to the idea of Scotland breaking away – an instinctive rejection of the Balkanisation of the UK – I could sense that I was very much in the minority among those south of the border. As is now becoming clear from the hysteria gripping the Better Together campaign, that lack of understanding over the value of the union was shared by too many others charged with defending it. 

So, over the past three years, I've become an accidental Unionist, finding myself asked to defend the status quo, the British state, and even the nation state itself. Having been an ardent supporter of Irish freedom not that many years ago, it is not a position which comes naturally. But here I find myself, all the same.

One of the frustrations for people on my side of the Yes/No divide is the apparent lack of a positive case for maintaining the union, and I concur with many critics of the Better Together campaign that the main 'No' campaign has tackled the apparent hope and aspirations of the 'Yes' campaign rather unconvincingly with scare stories of Scotland being too poor and too wee to go it alone.

There's a ubiquitous quote from the 'Yes' camp – Nelson Mandela's "May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears" – which is a rather powerful one, and I think this is reflected in their rise in the polls, the evangelical feel to their campaign and the sense that the union case is all but lost as a result. I'm not going to defend Better Together campaign at all: it's been crap, and the ineptitude of the entire political class in this matter has been staggering.

So, what cheer can I offer fellow unionists in this debate?

Britain, and latterly the UK, has been the most stable voluntary union of nations the world has known, established on shared interests and purpose. It was forged not, as one historian put it, at the 'end of a bayonet' – as most of Europe in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and the early Twentieth Centuries had been – but as a wonderful product of Enlightenment thinking: transcending race, nationality, religion.

The union represents, to me, over three-hundred years of shared history and endeavour, of innovation and development, of a common language, of culture. It has also produced an important legacy of borderless family ties which, as Alex Massie has pointed out, is no small thing. It's the sometimes intangible stuff that makes us more than individuals, it's what makes our society what it is. So to ignore all that as unimportant in a debate about the future is to deny its importance at all.

Equally, I see nothing positive about the case being made by the 'Yes' side now, nor the consequences of a 'Yes' vote in the future. The 'Yes' campaign's propaganda likes to portray the referendum as a battle for self-determination. But let's be clear that Scottish independence is not a national liberation movement, resisting an external power denying it such. To quote writer Kenan Malik: "Scots are not being denied the right to vote, or to celebrate their culture, or to express their identity, or to act as citizens." And so the assertion of national identity in the UK in 2014 is not the positive demand for democratic rights the national-liberation movements of the postwar period were.

The 'Yes' camp is a broad mix of everyone that's fed up with the status-quo: those cynical about Westminster politics and politicians; those who think capitalism is unfair but don't know what to do about it; those who used to be part of the left but, disgruntled by defeats in the 80s, and disgusted by a society that doesn't look as they wish it did, are quite happy to trash their own nation as a minor act of anti-Tory revenge, in the hope that they might be slightly bigger fishes is a much smaller pond.

Yet what will an independent Scotland really look like? Well, something remarkably like the UK, just led from Edinburgh, not Westminster. The same royal head of state, the same currency apparently, the same parties in its parliament. It's a change of who manages the process, not a social revolution. Remember all that talk about 'hope' and 'change' around Barack Obama's first election?

Those who don't recognise my take on this will argue what's being created in Scotland is a new civic nationalism, based not on birthplace or race, but on a shared vision for a more egalitarian, socially democratic Scotland. But if that's the case, why haven't we seen these new political norms emerging in the past 15 years of the Scottish parliament? Why? Because the crux of the 'Yes' campaign is that whatever Scotland's problems are, someone else is to blame. In this case, Westminster.

That reaction against Westminster mirrors a much broader trend in British society as a whole, and right across Europe – the disengagement of people feeling separated from the political process. Yet this disengagement only seems to be channeled into fragmentation: an abandonment of broad movements for change, into parochial ones pulling up the drawbridges, protecting their own, with a narrow world view based on identity, not commonality. The 'Yes' campaign is driven by many of the same anti-elite sentiments as Ukip's victory in the European elections.

So what is the positive case for the union? For me, it's that Scottish independence can only exacerbate these conservative, fragmentary, cynical trends, and will fail to re-engage people and politics, much beyond this immediate campaign period. In the process of maintaining Britain as we know it now, although there's much to change and improve, we at least aspire to a broader political and cultural identity.

If we want to change the world, to reinvigorate a sense of agency, to reclaim politics from a detached political elite, we cannot do so through narrow identity politics. We need new ideas and an understanding of why the world looks the way it does. And we can achieve this better together.   

Justine Brian is one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival taking place at London’s Barbican on 18-19 October.

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