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A Passionate Case for the Union

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It has always been acknowledged that the case for a 'no' vote in September's referendum has to be made, to put it rather crudely, from the heart as well as the head. The rational position for voting 'no' has been explored convincingly at length but alone, it is unlikely to convince.

I wrote this piece after a long reflection of what union means for me: a Londoner, Englishman and a proud Brit. I wish to argue that the union of the different nations of the United Kingdom is fundamentally a good thing for all of us, wherever in our islands we are from. Pride and passion are not emotions reserved exclusively for the yes campaign.

A personal perspective, it necessarily draws on personal experiences. But I do think they are demonstrative of bigger ideals and sentiments.

In the summer of 2012 I was in Edinburgh performing at the Fringe Festival with the Durham Revue. One day after our show we went down to a local bar to catch the Olympics. We had arrived late, and Mo Farah's race had already started.

Sat next to the bar underneath the television were two tall, bald, tattooed Scottish men. They were chatting quietly between themselves and did not look up as we entered. Then, as Mo rounded the final bend one nudged the other.

"Who's our guy?"

His friend looked up from his pint.

"That one, come on Mo!"

His friend echoed him, and we joined in, cheering until we all went hoarse with delirious happiness.

That experience exemplified for me the positive, unifying power of the United Kingdom. The fact that two Scots were cheering for a Somalia born west-Londoner is a powerful testament to the feeling of togetherness, strength and pride that we draw from and give to each other in our union. Union is strength. In bringing us together, it bears us up into something bigger than just our national identities, inviting us to participate and share in something collective and collaborative.

Another personal experience that neatly demonstrated to me a different positive aspect of union came from the other side of Scotland.

Half my family live on the beautiful island of Islay. I visit regularly and one February I took up an offer to go to a local cèilidh.

I must admit I was a little nervous. Although I know some of the islanders fairly well and like them a lot, this was a much more public occasion than going round for a cup of tea with my grandparents. Would my accent make me stick out? Would my dancing be terrible? Would I come across as too, well, English? The islanders had only ever been kind and welcoming to me in all my previous visits so I need not have worried but worry I did.

I went along, danced fairly poorly and had a wonderful evening listening to previously unknown tunes and songs. I had never heard Gaelic sung live before and, with the wind whipping round the little village hall, it was truly magical. I felt incredibly proud to be able to share in a culture so entrancingly beautiful and so endlessly fascinating.

It struck me on the way home that what had felt so 'right' about the evening was, in the event, how at ease I felt.

After a long while of reflection I concluded that the reason I felt so at home was because I did not feel like a foreigner. I had not gone to the cèilidh to learn about someone else's culture but to explore a part of my own British culture that had previously lain untouched.

Being British is an invitation to leave your cultural comfort zone, to finely balance different feelings of identity in a spirit of adventure, curiosity and respect. Being British can be so exciting!

While writing this article, I have been repeatedly reminded of Caliban's lines in The Tempest.

'Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.'

This could almost be a rather a lovely description of our United Kingdom. Proudly distinct, we all add our own voices to our nation's cultural tapestry. The variety within British culture and society is astonishing and something we should treasure deeply.

Being in a union of nations makes us value difference and acknowledge and respond to the needs of others whose priorities and wishes may be very different to our own. It undergirds a social solidarity that connects the people of these islands from St Davids to St Ives, Skye to Surrey, Belfast to Bolton. Fundamentally it is our political union that gives expression and meaning to our social union.

Union means the sufferings of other Brits are our sufferings and our responsibility. Positively put, their triumphs are our triumphs. This is an important point. Poverty, suffering and exploitation are abhorrent wherever they exist, but for most places and peoples on the earth we are limited in our emotional involvement and response. In the end it is another government's problem.

In the United Kingdom however societal problems in Lancaster are as important to us all as those in Leith. Furthermore, the union not only shares our problems but, crucially, pools our resources to deal with them.

This has been true throughout our long history and I would like to believe, despite the catastrophic financial crisis and devastating cuts, still true today.

Of course many people around the United Kingdom are fed up with conventional politics, disgusted by the sleaze, expenses scandals and London centricity. But that does not mean we should give up on the union. Rather, we should be even more engaged in it to change it for the better. It is only by acting together that we can make the United Kingdom work for everyone.

Ours can be a dangerous, changeable and threatening world, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight. The union, binding us together, makes us stronger against possible future threats, from climate change, the rise of China and the re-emergence of a threatening Russia to poverty, inequality and exploitation at home.

By acting together we can achieve so much more than acting alone.

Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, Cornish and English: we truly are better together.

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