The End Of the Union?

As constitutionally momentous occasions go, Monday October 15th, was a rather subdued affair. Two men sat down together in Edinburgh and quietly signed an agreement. The news coverage was brief and no panic or hullabaloo was reported on the streets.

Yet the agreement that was signed that day, now dubbed the “Edinburgh Agreement”, could herald the secession of Scotland from Great Britain.

More than three hundred years of union could be coming to an end.

A low key event, this was not.

And yet, as I sat and watched this historic moment unfold on T.V. I felt little in the way of exultation. No upswell of national pride. No desire to dance a merry jig under the Saltire.

Rather, I confronted a simple recognition that a moment was soon arriving for me, and all Scots, to finally consider what it is we mean when we talk about nationality.

Perhaps Alex Salmond would be relieved by this reaction. His talk is of a civic nationalism after all, a concept determinedly distinct from other, more rabid forms, of nationalism.

It is however, decidedly Scottish.

What I mean by this, is the political difference of opinion that has long separated Scotland from its (southern) English compatriots.

Even the most cursory glance at the political map over the past decades would have been enough to reveal the true divide that exists between England and Scotland.

For if England – and the south east and home counties in particular – is a Conservative heartland, then Scotland is sure fire Labour territory.

By this I mean Labour in the old sense. Not the glamorous, city-of-London loving version that Tony Blair brought into being, but a form of social democracy whose foundations and guiding principles are based on the notion that the state has a vital role to play in ensuring the well being and prosperity of all its citizens. That believes in togetherness and community as the optimal way of improving the lives and situations of all.

When Margaret Thatcher infamously declared that there was “no such thing as society” I remember, at the time, not only recoiling in horror at her statement, but being perplexed as to how she could see fit to utter it. And I was not alone in this reaction. My classmates at the time, thought it was patently absurd.

Whether our reaction was a uniquely Scottish response, is debatable, after all there are plenty of constituencies in England that are as staunchly red as anywhere in Scotland.

The point however, is that this utterance has reverberated throughout the years. Not so much a statement as a political dividing line. The philosophy contained in that one brief statement, was something other, something alien. Something that I would never have expected to hear in Scotland. And it was, I believe, the start of a sense of separation. That there was an aspect of English Britishness that we Scots did not share.

The harshness of Thatcher’s statement however, always had its counterpoint in the Labour party.

For while England may have ushered in successive Conservative governments, with no mandate north of the border, there was always a sense, that despite this, the Labour party existed as a nationwide, unifying force for the left.

For years, this sense allowed Scots to believe that somewhere, there was an England that shared the same values and goals as Scotland, and that was represented by the Labour party.

Sad then, that it was New Labour that was to prove to be the undoing of so many of these certainties.

The last few decades of unquestioned neo-liberal doctrine have led some of us to consider just how important such political beliefs are when it comes to understanding and forging a national identity.

I now wonder if it is this political schism which is at the heart of the moves for independence as much as any growing sense of nationalism.

Certainly, the Scottish National Party’s sense of social justice seems ingrained in their sense of Scottish identity.

Writing in The Guardian this week, Alex Salmond was very clear in his views as to what independence means:

The campaign for a yes vote will stress the need to protect the advances Scotland has made with the limited home rule that devolution has brought. The social contract, which has delivered universal benefits such as free university education and personal care for our elderly, is now threatened by both Labour and the Tories, and only a yes vote to an independent Scotland can properly protect these gains.

It was heartening to read that. The social contract. How long has it been since a term like that was uttered by a major politician? And uttered with conviction at that.

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

As the fiscal and financial crisis lengthens and deepens, it would appear that there may (hopefully) be a resurgence of these old socialist values within the left. Ed Milliband’s talk of One Nation certainly seemed to pointing towards a view of social democracy and identity that has for too long been absent from the discussion in the UK.

I can certainly imagine that some of what Milliband said at the Labour party conference would have resonated with Scottish ears. Whether he had that in mind when he made his speech, who knows, but it may, inadvertently assure that the Union remains in place.

For the fact is that a yes vote for independence is by no means assured. The third option for so-called “devolution max” has been consistently the preferred option among those polled on the question this past year.

In other words, Scotland would prefer to take full fiscal control for raising taxes and for spending on crucial social services, but as a member of the United Kingdom. As canny and pragmatic a solution as you could ever presume to find.

In this model, an understanding that there are aspects of Scottish identity that truly are different to those of England, could be acknowledged and accommodated.

But it is not to be. We will now face a straight choice. Yes or no to full independence.

And so we have to ask ourselves what it is we value more. A political philosophy that has diverged from that of England for the past decades, or the Union.

If Ed Milliband and the Labour party can establish the idea that a fairer, more just social system can be re-established in the UK, then some may pause for thought when they come to cast their votes and the Union be preserved for generations to come.

But if that idea of fairness and justice fails to take hold, if Milliband fails to seize the initiative and renegotiate a social contract with the British citizenry, then Scotland may come to believe that it, reluctantly, has no choice.

It must go it alone.

May you live in interesting times” as the old adage goes.




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