Scotland will not halt Britain's ongoing transformation
As we approach September 18th, the forces of separation are upon us. Those of us - and there are many - with family North and South of the border, are feeling the pain of being on both sides of the most heartfelt contest of our lives, whether we have a vote or not. This is not an election which can be re-run in 4 years, it is not a competition for temporary glory like the World Cup. This is a decision about how we are going to face the future within a rapidly changing world. Do we go smaller to get more control over our own fate? Or do we stay large to model the very unity in diversity that the globe now desperately needs?
I'm Dutch born, with an Indonesian father, once married to an Englishman now partner to a Scot. I'm a late convert to Britishness for what I believe are worldly, historic reasons. I grew up within a post-war, post imperial world. The rejection of a colonial identity for Britain (and Holland) has taken most of my life time to find a positive expression, but I think it is now beginning to, although it is still very fragile and hesitant. Simply put: if Britain once invaded and exploited the world, that world has now come home to roost. With London as a starting point, Britain has shown a capacity for becoming a microcosm of the globe - a crucible for integration, a node in the network of diasporas, the beginnings of an Open Society.
Many of you reading will laugh at my idealism, but idealism is the biggest thing I have in common with the Yes vote, so I will push on. Any one who travels on a London tube (or even more so, the London overground) will know what I mean: glorious mixes of all colours, professions, attitudes. And it's not limited to London despite the prevailing media narratives: while researching community cohesion for the Barrow Cadbury Trust in the Midlands, I came across repeated, inspiring instances of cross cultural solidarity in the face of racism, class and the real enemy, poverty. Not that people come to Britain and morph into recognisable Brits - it's more modern than that, they become global citizens, at ease on our shores. Despite demands from an anxious political establishment requiring assimilation, new settlers have found that they can side with India on cricket and still root for England in football, Wales in rugby, Romania in athletics - all the while paying their taxes here. The blurry boundaries of Britishness don't make it any less distinctive and are what makes it flexible and strong in the world.
This vision won't chime with everyone: in Scotland perhaps, immigration as a problem stroke opportunity has not yet become central to the offer. Even so the progressive elements of the Yes campaign see themselves as looking outwards towards Europe, Scandinavia, the world. They know, unlike Nigel Farage, that we cannot put the genie of globalisation back in the bottle any more than King Canute could hold back the waves. But how do we best establish and hold the vision of a benign globalisation in our sights as we cope with daily attempts by extremists of all kinds, to scare us into hiding, or worse, trick us back into the old controlling behaviour? How can we best ensure that over the next generation, we do the hard work of embracing, finding common humanity, and thriving on diversity?
On this score, my worry about a Yes, is twofold. Firstly that without our Scottish ballast the UK loses balance and veers towards the right: even a small shift will see the possibility of leaving Europe and becoming a fortress much more likely. My second is that divided, both Scotland and rUK will be obliged to turn inwards to cope with the new dynamics. Just as with a marriage break up, both partners have to spend time wrestling down the hurt and searching for a new identity: their friends generally choose sides and any influence they had as a couple is damaged, or at least suspended. An independent Scotland will have not only the No voters, but also the disenfranchised Scottish diaspora to appease. The rest of us will be dealing with the amputation of a precious limb (some would even say decapitation). At a moment of global turmoil, the UK will be facing the other way.
Not having a vote on whether or not the UK breaks up, has, ironically, made me more powerless than the Scots have ever been in any election about who reigns at Westminster. And yet, I am not powerless about how I respond.
If it's a No on Thursday, nothing less than the recreation of internal power relations should be on the table for all UK parties. These are radically new times and our nation must, as Gandhi popularised, be the change we wish to see in the world. On the same note, if the voters come out strongly in favour of a Yes on Thursday, we must wish them well. In particular I will be championing the new political cultures within Yes, that have so many resonances beyond Scotland.
But whichever way it goes, I will be challenging myself to remain steady in an idea of global Britishness. I won't be accepting the Scottish nationalists' invitation to think of myself as reduced and obliged to come to terms with my Englishness, but will be working to enhance strong, ongoing narratives about a Britain that embraces and integrates. If Britain was a wooly concept in the past - is it an island? is it a nation? - it can become a stronger, clearer entity in the future, embracing Scotland, Wales and England in a field of collaboration.
On the lines of Simon Anholt's Good Country principles, whatever happens on the 18th, Britain must continue its journey of transformation to better serve a world in chaos. Join me if you will.