Preserving the Union

A trainee teacher: “Scotland separating from the United Kingdom? So? Does it matter?”

A retired General. “I’m not saying I believe this, but there are some people who think it might be quite good for England. That Scotland is taking advantage of us.”

An artist. “I’m not that political. Shouldn’t you be asking a politician?”

A newspaper editor: “We haven’t decided our editorial position. We won’t decide whether the newspaper will be backing the United Kingdom until much closer to the vote.’

The head of a large membership organisation: “I’m afraid we can’t be seen to be “political.” It’s complicated.”

But on 19 September we could wake up and find that Scotland has separated. That the United Kingdom as we have known it for four hundred years, has vanished. That a third of the land mass of Britain has broken apart. That anyone going to Scotland – on holiday or to see a relative – will be entering a separate country. Officials will be racing north and south to negotiate the terms of the separation: working out what to do with the Nuclear Submarines in Scotland, with the national electric grid, with currency and passports. Anyone with mixed English or Scottish blood will have to choose a single new identity, and reject a part of their previous identity. Scots in England will have to decide either to return “home”, to try to engage in the very difficult and uncertain task of launching a new much smaller, country; or to make a new life in England – as an immigrant in a foreign country.

Why has there not yet been a mass demonstration of support for the Union? Our population has never been so educated, long-lived, confident, well-travelled, or well-informed. We are concerned with poverty in Africa, nuclear power, the environment, the welfare state, and super-fast broadband. A change to the Lobbying bill, or a threat to the Public Forest estate can fill an MP’s inbox with thousands of emails. A proposal to build a wind-turbine can bring a hundred people in an instant onto a windy moor in the rain. A million people demonstrated against the Iraq war; more demonstrated against the hunting ban. Voters are rarely shy to say what their values are, or what they want for the United Kingdom. So why is there so little energy in saving the United Kingdom itself?

If a state tried to secede from the United States, the reaction would be beyond imagining. Even in gentle understated Canada, hundreds of thousands of Canadians from outside Quebec, rallied before the referendum to plead with Quebec to stay. You might expect every major British public figure – editor, writer, film-maker, actor, scientist, sports person, and historian– to make their own passionate and sincere arguments for why they care about Britain. But they aren’t.

It is tempting to blame apathy; but I suspect the problem is our identity. In most of Europe, nationalists worked to simplify their identities: invented new governments and reintroduced old languages, moved borders and then populations to eliminate diversity. Mixed territories – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or much more recently Yugoslavia – were broken into smaller ‘nation-states.’ The idea was to ensure that someone, who might once have been simultaneously German, Czech, Czecho-Slovak, and Austro-Hungarian, became “simply” Czech.

But here it was different. The United Kingdom is the result of centuries of shared institutions, language and culture. It is the deep grammar behind our lives, our dreams and our actions. It is the context of our democracy, and the framework of all our government. Soldiers sign up to serve – and if necessary die for – the United Kingdom. When we vote in a general election we are choosing people to represent the United Kingdom; that is what the Prime Minister and Queen and the BBC are representing. The United Kingdom is the definition of what our nation is about, and who we are. The United Kingdom is precisely what we have – for more than three hundred years – been working to improve and preserve. After so many centuries it is very difficult to imagine what our identity would be without it. But none of this makes the United Kingdom any easier to understand.

The United Kingdom is a system in which a single state and monarch contains four different nations. We feel proudly English, or Scottish and also British, in different bewildering combinations. We have the same national broadcaster but separate legal systems. We compete against each other in Rugby but alongside each other in the Olympics. Cumbrians sometimes talk about Britain, sometimes about the United Kingdom, sometimes about England. We have forged an identity, which is contradictory, complicated – including both the Shetlands and London, where sixty per cent of people were not born in the United Kingdom – and sometimes almost invisible.

But that complexity is not something to try to deny, or “simplify”. It is something we should embrace. Not through pompous pieties. Or faking a rainbow community. We need different voices – poets, musicians, sports-people and community groups, from both sides of the border: people who – unlike politicians – are capable of being passionate about our predicament, and funny too. We should be able to be outrageous, even rude to each other, without denying our future together. We should revel in the complications, the oddities of our borders, and the contradictory names we give our islands. We can hate each other on the sports pitch but still want to keep each other. We – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – experience this tension, muddle, discord, and love, precisely because we are a family. We should not just abandon that 400 year old relationship, just because it’s not “simple”. We have never been simple people. And that is the strength of the United Kingdom, in a world that isn’t simple either.

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