Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg
Artillery Row

The ties that bind

Political unions are not determined by economic realities

Sometimes it seems that the British Government thinks of the United Kingdom as little more than an economic union +. It certainly felt that way on the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Scotland when talk of the “Awesome Foursome” was reduced solely to the financial advantages of staying together.

Yet history suggests that focusing on the economic benefits of a country staying together is not the best way to preserve its integrity. Boris Johnson, and supporters of the union, as a whole, are in danger of fighting the wrong battle.

History suggests that focusing on the economic benefits of a country staying together is not the best way to preserve its integrity

Ninety-nine years ago, the Irish Free State didn’t just want to run its own fiscal policy when it broke away from the UK after the Anglo-Irish Treaty; it wanted far wider freedom from the British.

Norway, which retains close relations with Scotland, was one of the poorest countries in Europe when it broke away (almost bloodlessly) from Sweden in 1905. The economic risks of splitting from its wealthier neighbour were ignored because the independence movement was built on the far stronger premise of romantic nationalism. The music of Grieg, the writing of Ibsen, and the paintings of Munch were all co-opted to create a sense of contemporary and distinct Norwegian culture that, once melded to the historical memory of a proud and independent Norway, aroused a desire for freedom from Sweden that couldn’t be swayed by warnings of consequential financial hardship.

The far bloodier demise of Yugoslavia was also caused by the reinvigoration of distinct ethnic identities that ruptured the union. There had always been tensions between the various groups, such as Croat academics of the 1960s claiming that their language – and therefore their people – were independent of the linguistically-recognised Serbo-Croat tongue.

These low-level nationalist feelings were given a supportive push and political validity by the befuddled 1974 constitution, which saw as an unforeseen consequence the public at large begin to actively define themselves more through their own ethnicity than as part of a wider Yugoslavia. Once these emotional attachments were in place and legitimised it was possible for nationalistic politicians like Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudman to manipulate the tools of power to rip Yugoslavia apart.

National identity is not based on economics alone. Countries are instead an imagined community, defined not by monetary policy, but by social and cultural links, and a historical memory that binds more than it divides. The renowned Harvard professor Rupert Emerson defined the nation as “a community of people who feel they belong together in the double sense that they share deeply significant elements of a common heritage and that they share a common destiny for the future.”

The SNP is busy nation-building at the expense of the Union. Their job has been made easier by the many structural exceptions that differentiate Scotland from the rest of the UK. Its laws, its police, its education system, and its religious settlement are all unmistakably Scottish, as have they always been. What we now see though is the Scottish government’s use of its political powers to make this institutions more distinctly non-British.

For example, the SNP may have cited operational savings as the reason to merge the ten distinct police organisations into a national force that was duly branded “Police Scotland”, but it was clearly aimed at creating an institution to distinguish Scotland from the rest of the UK. In 2018 the SNP government even announced its intent to merge the British Transport Police into Police Scotland – another means of dropping the ‘British’ presence from daily life there.

Then there is education. A shared history is at the heart of a community, something the SNP realised early on. As was widely reported back in 2012, children in Scotland are now taught about the great events such as the world wars through a Scottish, not a British, lens. And a syllabus that plays-up the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, but downplays the 1707 coming together of England and Scotland, is never going to be a supportive instrument of the Union.

Rather than continually pointing to the economic benefits of staying together, Boris Johnson’s government needs to start recognising the importance of re-building the identity of the UK. One way to achieve this is to create country-wide social capital, by which is meant to the effective functioning of social groups through a shared sense of identity. This in turn is based on shared norms, values, and symbols – which the SNP is trying to wrest from a British to a Scottish identity.

Creating social capital for the UK will not be easy. For a start, many of the theoretically cross-kingdom institutions are either diminished or have already acquiesced to nationalist demands to be devolved to them. Support for the monarchy is now substantially less in Scotland than in England, and the military has become too small to act as a force for unity. The media, a natural binder of national identity, has now split for the most part into separate four nations editions. The togetherness of the United Kingdom is undermined as a result.

All is not lost. There are options that Westminster can take to build the social capital of the wider nation. These pro-Union initiatives don’t need to be huge; as the Behavioural Insights Team of the British Government have shown, nudges can make a tremendous difference.

At present, there are separate NHS numbers for England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland; these should be replaced with a combined number that begins with the letters “UK”. If a nationwide identity card is ever brought in, it should be for the whole United Kingdom so it can help build national cohesion, as it does in Singapore or Germany.

Then there are flags. Which flag flies where may seem trivial, but the SNP knows only too well how vital they are as a symbol of nationhood – hence the furore when they were reportedly seeking to reduce the amount of times the Union Flag could be raised in Scotland. There should be an insistence, maybe even a law, that flags of the devolved nations can only be flown if the Union Flag flutters beside them.

In a similar vein, national guidelines for food and product packaging should be amended to underline the position that the devolved nations take within the Union. “Made in Scotland” should be “Made in Scotland, part of the United Kingdom”.

A more challenging task is the name of the country itself. Are we the United Kingdom, or Great Britain, or Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or a separate home nation? Each of these has its formal definition, but these aren’t well understood by the public at large. Simplifying them into one terminology would allow a stronger identity to be shaped, both home and abroad. We should perhaps coalesce around the “United Kingdom” as the nation and “British” as the descriptor. Once this is established it needs to become standard everywhere, starting with schools.

There are a number of political mechanisms that can be used to stymie the SNP. Refusing to hold a referendum, or even following Germany’s example and banning succession outright, might be an option.

Yet in terms of cordial relations what is better in the long run is making the Scots – and, in fact, all the home nations – be part of a wider entity, the United Kingdom. Brexit proved that economic threats don’t keep a union together; instead, cohesion has to be created socially. This is something the SNP fully grasps.

For years Unionists have been on the back foot, accepting separatist demands after the mildest of pushback. With the world increasingly fragmenting, now is not the time to be divided at home, so it is imperative that the British government fights back against the nationalists. To do so, Boris Johnson needs to create a healthy stock of UK-wide social capital, and not just economic capital, if he wants to keep the Union together.

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

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

Critic magazine cover