Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Identity politics in these islands

A new forum sets out to save the UK – but time is ticking

Is Scotland’s destiny anyone’s business but the Scots? The legislation to initiate a second independence referendum must come from Westminster, but beyond that, are the perspectives from the rest of the British Isles helpful or counter-productive in influencing what Scots think?

Last time around, in the 2014 referendum, the consensus view was that the less Scots heard from English politicians, the more likely they were to stick with them. The then Chancellor, George Osborne, announced the pound was not for sharing if Scotland broke away, but this was an exceptional intervention. David Cameron resisted Alex Salmond’s efforts to goad him north for a head-to-head debate. Non-Scottish Labour politicians also stayed out of it as best they could.

Much has happened since then, not least to the Labour Party in Scotland. In 2014 it was central to the “Better Together” organisation. Now it has only one MP. The UK advocates’ left flank is duly exposed. For the Conservatives, the characteristics that made David Cameron (Eton, Oxford, posh southerner) unappealing to many Scots have been replicated in Boris Johnson – perhaps even more so, if that is possible.

Last week, a relatively new forum for promoting keeping the UK together called These Islands held its conference in Newcastle. Many of its guest speakers were Scots, including Gordon Brown. But the majority of accents crackling from the temperamental PA system were English, with a smattering of Welsh and Irish. To some Scottish nationalists their intrusion is a provocation. Or, as Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the former SNP MP and business partner of Alex Salmond put it, “choosing Newcastle as their location shows they want to keep a safe distance from disgruntled Scots.”

The Trafalgar Square rally had a simple message – feeling British is not shameful

That may be. But is broadening the diversity of campaigning voices beyond Scotland such a misjudgment? It was disillusionment with how the Better Together campaign was fighting the referendum campaign in 2014 that led the historians Dan Snow and Tom Holland to organise a “Let’s Stay Together” rally in Trafalgar Square, just days before the vote. Where the official campaign had focused on the economic arguments, the Trafalgar Square rally had a simpler message – that feeling British is not shameful and that the rest of the UK loved Scotland and wanted to stay with it.

Both Snow and Holland are now on the advisory council of These Islands, along with, among others, the Oxford theologian Professor Nigel Biggar, Trevor Phillips and the forum’s chairman, the businessman Kevin Hague. The messages that came clearest from the two-day conference in Newcastle were very much those that prompted the Trafalgar Square rally in the first place.

Whilst Scotland’s deficit is now far worse relative to the rest of the UK than it was in 2014, the case for pitching the pro-Union case should not rest on constantly repeating the same economic arguments as if a sense of identity is determined by money alone and not by sentiment and vision too.

If voters take statistics seriously it is when they illustrate a wider belief or intuition. Scottish nationalists have successfully created a compelling narrative. It blends ancient and modern, parochial and global. It is a story that says the “braveheart” nation of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce that yearned to free Scotland from the English yoke beats still, but now as a liberal, Scandinavian style community-minded social democracy that loves the European Union and all things international.

Their fellow Celts in Wales and Northern Ireland are conveniently erased from SNP consciousness

It is a claim that makes pro-independence Scots feel that they are progressives, rather separatists. The difficulty with this Nationalist pitch is that it contains a distinctly “Wha’s like us” dog-whistle to the tune that Scotland cannot achieve its caring-sharing destiny if it remains in union with the English who, by implication, are small-minded individualist bigots. To support this, the fellow Celts of the UK in Wales and Northern Ireland are conveniently erased from SNP consciousness. The SNP message is that only the Scots are all in it together.

The These Islands group is important to re-energising the pro-Union cause because it seeks to do what few Unionist politicians have achieved – which is to move beyond questions of subsidy and currency and create a compelling narrative of why feeling British is the more optimistic option.

Accepting the need to tell a better story is the easy bit. Outlining the plot is more difficult. The NHS? – yes, but thanks to devolution in Scotland an SNP administration oversees it. The Royal Family? – well, some of them more than others. The Mother of Parliaments? – greedy self-serving politicians, many of them Tory. The armed forces – in which case why were so many famous Scottish regiments amalgamated out of existence, and haven’t we had enough of foreign adventures? The BBC – yes, but won’t the best bits still be viewable north of Berwick? The spirit of 1940? – yes, a finest hour indeed, but it was a wee while ago now.

For sure, there are areas where the UK is forging ahead and for which a compelling future-looking tale can be told. But nobody pledges loyalty to a country just because it’s got some promising ideas in AI and blockchain technology.

The narrative could also make itself ridiculous by asserting that Britishness is all about the mouthy urgency of the rappers Stormzy and slowthai. If so, that’s Mrs McGinty in Auchtermuchty lost. And, as Tony Blair, discovered, the problem with embracing figures from popular culture is that they’ll stand close to the drinks tray when it comes around but then mouth off against you when you have a difficult week.

The Unionist cause has many problems – political in nature – to resolve before it is ready to fight SNP fire with fire. Not least of these is whether to promise even more devolution (as Gordon Brown proposed) or say “that’s your lot.” Hearing the full spread of opinion on this issue was the other major debate at the These Islands conference.

If the Nationalists had a spy in Newcastle last weekend the report sent back to HQ would suggest that These Islands had done a good job in identifying the Union’s weak spots and unresolved issues. But they were nowhere near agreeing on a strategy that moved from the defensive and went on the attack. They must hope that time is still on their side. But is it?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover