Monday, October 27, 2008

Britannia Waves Goodbye?

An article written for the Scots Independent:

If there was an orthodoxy on which you could count in Scotland last century, it was that public support for the union, implicit or explicit, could be taken almost as read. After the war, you knew exactly what it was you stood for – God, King and Empire. Britannia ruled the waves – and Britons never, never, never would be slaves.

Despite economic decline and the need for reconstruction, the British were still a force to be reckoned with. We had the A-bomb and a seat at the top table of the new UN Security Council. Although the USA might have been the emerging power as the sun set on the empire, they still, as younger siblings sometimes do, needed our wise guidance and experience to keep them right.

Despite the need for reconstruction at home and US loans to stave off national bankruptcy, Britain was still great. As the Iberian peninsula endured the yoke of fascism and an iron curtain came down to separate Western Europe from the new Soviet satellites in the east, Britain could stand aloof and proud. Throw in a chance to pity the poverty of the Irish, and you could have a vaguely plausible, if smug and misguided view of the world and your place in it.

It's easy to understand the optimism ushered in by the 'new Elizabethan age’. It saw the end of rationing, great technological progress and huge advances in social provision. Following the success of central planning during wartime, big government was better government, and the man in Whitehall always knew best. Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ may have been blowing, but for many, we had indeed never had it so good.

The loss of corporate control as headquarters moved south may have been a cause of regret, but never managed to fire Scots into a pro-independence state of mind. Perhaps that was due to the lack of progress which the SNP had made in terms of securing a place in the mainstream for its central goal. However, with the soft left in the ascendant, institutions such as the National Coal Board, British Rail, British Leyland, BP, even the National Health Service, could all be pointed to as examples of the import of British policy to our sense of wellbeing and identity.

But that was then. With the ending of 'consensus' politics in the 1970's and the privatisations of the 80's, the British state dimension to Scotland's political economy declined in importance. If Britain's place in the world had seemed secure before, with the benefits of standing together economically, socially and militarily seeming axiomatic to most, then how would it fare if those circumstances were to change?

Given the recent rise of the SNP and consequent support for independence, the answer, it would seem, is not very well. As the case for small independent states pooling sovereignty in a confederal Europe gained ground in Scotland, so too did the more general notion of self government amongst unionists.

For some, it was as a means of halting the gradual SNP advance. For others, it was about stopping the writ of an unpopular Conservative government at the border. What can't be denied is that through devolution itself and the election of an SNP government, a direction of travel towards greater autonomy has been well established over the past decade.

So, if the SNP narrative of Scotland in the world is clear, what then are the unifying ideas, the big imperative behind unionism today? With the role of the central state diminished and shorn of a meaningful international role or a plausible external threat, does anyone know what Britain is for any longer?

Many advocates for continued union struggle for an answer to this, preferring to cast their arguments in terms of past history or the supposed weaknesses which would befall a Scottish state. Vague and uncertain concepts such as 'economies of scale'; being 'greater than the sum of our parts'; or trite slogans about being stronger together are advanced, with seldom anything concrete offered to back up why this may be the case.

For some, their preference for existing structures is largely a default – an attitude developed through osmosis. Even if the matter has been considered to any great degree, it's rare to find much in the way of hostility to the idea of Holyrood assuming greater powers or Scotland becoming independent. In contrast, the political leaders of unionism in Scotland all too often seem better at disparaging the case of their opponents than in articulating a convincing set of arguments of their own.

Even with the recent world financial turmoil, where contentions about the benefits of scale become easier to advance (even if no more accurate), certain political leaders have found themselves unable to resist having a dig at other small countries, most of whom are doing considerably better than the UK. Which is, in part why I found David Cameron's recent assertion that an independent Scotland was perfectly possible to be so interesting.

I've argued for a long time that unionists of all stripes should have no difficulty in ditching the scaremongering to be able to say without equivocation that 'we accept that Scotland makes many great contributions to the UK, and here's why she should continue to do so'. If nothing else, enlightened self-interest ought to suggest that were Scotland to become independent in the near future and they wished to play a significant political role thereafter, the electorate would be unlikely to grant this quickly to those who had been so vehement in their reluctance to assume new responsibilities.

Cameron, of course, is not about to become a supporter of independence and will, I suspect, be a formidable opponent for the SNP if he becomes Prime Minister. However, the change to a more emollient tone and a new found respect for Scotland in Westminster could well start to alter some of the political topography we have become used to fighting around.

The most significant point from this is that if such an approach were maintained, it would remove some of the intellectual barriers which people have to direct engagement in the independence debate. Unionists have nothing to fear from a more mature and honest approach to the constitutional debate in Scotland. And if we're confident in the SNP about the essential logic of our arguments, then neither have we.

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