Patriot Games: In Defence of Britain

Unless you've been living inside a black hole since the early 1990s, the allusions to the current referendum must be apparent. For as a child of Britain, unable to affect the potential break up of the United Kingdom on Thursday, the naïve response is to feel this is unfair...

As a product of separated parents, I've experienced first hand the consequences of divorce. I was 10 when my parents sat me and my sister down and told us that they were no longer living together, and after the tears (mostly from me, my sister has always held a stiff upper lip), I slowly struggled to readjust to a life of separation. After years of tortuously slow legal proceedings and settlements, they get on amicably now, my mother with her new boyfriend and my father with his new wife. Their new unions are as artifically constructed in law as their first and I've no doubt they love their respective partners dearly. Yet these relationships, while legally valid have never filled the space left behind.

Unless you've been living inside a black hole since the early 1990s, the allusions to the current referendum must be apparent. For as a child of Britain, unable to affect the potential break up of the United Kingdom on Thursday, the naïve response is to feel this is unfair.

No one listens to the whining voice in the corner however, and too few sadly take into account debate outside their comfort zone. So prepare for a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but one that seeks to signify something.

My provocation to speak out on this political divorce came as, browsing internet comments in a masochistic desire for information, I came across a comment that asked how one could be a proud Scot if they were voting no. It bewildered me that the commenter had somehow discounted the nationality on their passport as an option for personal and political pride. Cynic that I am, I try not to bandy around with the word patriotic, particularly given its inclinations in certain circles towards racial discrimination and ill conceived, irrational supremacist values. But nevertheless I consider myself to be a British citizen above all else, and a patriotic one at that.

At this point, I'm sure any ardent separatist will be filled with a desire to remind me that I'm speaking on an issue irrelevant to me, that as a non-Scot I should, (as Scottish Labour MP Gregg McClymont was told whilst campaigning a few doors down from where he grew up), to 'f*** off back to England you f***ing Tory). But to call yourself Scottish but not British is to ignore basic facts of history. For Britain, whose greatness may be in doubt of late, has always defined her most important institutions, both at home and on the world stage under a united banner. The army, foreign service and NHS that the English, Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish share are British. Queen Victoria never ruled over an English empire. The happiest years of my life, spent at university in Wales might never have happened if we defined ourselves as separate nations.

While Alex Salmond might not have intended it to be as such, much of the debate leading up to this referendum has been along overly partisan lines. It has framed a Scottish national identity against a foreign, English other, using contempt for Westminster and it's civil service as machinations of a Tory agenda (just look at the comments of Nicola Sturgeon on Twitter for evidence of this). These battle lines, a rhetorical recreation of bloody Bannockburn and Culloden, have sought to draw stark differences between a Scottish 'Us' and an English them. While I admire the fierce pride displayed (though not many of the ugly remarks that have developed from this), it paints a thin veneer over the historical, philosophical and political landscape that has led from the 1707 Act of the Union and a whirlwind of events in which Britain, as England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all shared.

A quick glance at a historical atlas suggests that the world of 1707 was a very different place. The United States, Australia, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Brazil, Iraq, Canada, Nigeria and Argentina did not exist as nation states. It would be another 100 years before the abolition of slavery. The locomotive, the machine gun, the electric light bulb and the internet were twinkles in the eyes of babies not yet born. Union was not nearly as oppressive as some have led the public to believe. Since 1688 there had been clamouring for Union on both sides of the border. The following decade saw a strain in the relationship brought on by economic burdens.

Scottish trade with France and the 'seven ill years' of poor quality harvests led to shortages at home whilst the disastrous 'Darien Scheme', an attempt to develop foreign investment in Panama, built on the investments of the bourgeois class saw severe economic strain. The accession of Queen Anne in 1702 saw calls for closer political ties and while public opinion was poor, the political class of Scotland hoped to stabilise against further economic shocks and rebuild a damaged financial system. These divisive issues, of self-governance against economic prudence seem remarkably similar. Only back then, the majority of the Scottish political class was batting for the other team.

The rest as they say, is history. What lingers on from those fragments on time, crystallised delicately in our imagination is a legacy that has quite literally revolutionised the world. Our philosophers and political theorists reinvigorated the spirit of democracy, our economists were responsible for the rise of the dominant market forces in today's world. We have fought against tyranny, oppression and injustice across the globe, perpetrated both by others and ourselves. It is true that England and Scotland do share a history of conflict, one that is thankfully fought at Twickenham and Murrayfield, but no less fiercely. To be British is to be a product of both Adam Smith and Maynard Keynes, John Stuart Mill and David Hume, Andy Murray and Tim Henman. Together, through smoke and steam, commerce and conflict that we built, for better or worse an empire on which the sun never set and watched its collapse. It is Britain, not England that achieved all this.

Indeed the institutions of democracy founded in the British Isles are instrumental in allowing this referendum to take place at all. Most movements for independence, in Tibet, Sudan and Catalan are suppressed or even violently oppressed. Here the revolution, if it happens will be televised. For a state to permit legitimate separation is a surprisingly rare occurance in our supposedly civilized world. Our common culture permeates every aspect of life and is why so many of those south of the Tweed feel they have a right to an express an opinion.

Of course the Unionist politicians are self interested. If history has shown us anything, it is the self-interested nature of those with power. But to presume that the Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and the separatist leaders are any less ambitious is to block your ears and yell blindly into the storm. If their successful, the independence campaign have promised a Scotland governed by the Scots. They seem to assume that the unionists will meekly succumb to the majority of the 50% plus a few. A determined and bitter resistance has the potential to blight many of these dreams.

Equally though, should the union be maintained, a deep Scottish nationalist sentiment will continue to affect British politics. Ironically, given the increasingly likelihood of a currency union and a reliance on the Bank of England as the ultimate guarantor of Scottish debts, they might have more influence over Scottish macro-economic policy than as an independent nation, although greater tax and wage powers are not guaranteed without it. Separation and the resultant division of assets, from my own personal experience will be a long and complicated legal process. It is likely to leave both parties more resentful than ever before, a resentment that will take time to heal, one not helped by the unionists threat that there is 'no going back'.

If I could vote, as you might have gathered, I would vote no. I'm inspired by the revolutionary action and engagement that this referendum has unleashed and hope that the trend for greater popular political debate continues. But my hopes are for a United Kingdom that I'm proud to call my own. Our lives are a breeze in eternity, a passing kiss soon to be replaced and centuries of union could melt into air, body and frame.

It is Scotland's choice to separate from Britain, a choice that has risen thanks to the British system. But if she goes, we will be left with a collective space suddenly unfilled.


What's Hot