The pro-union campaign in Scotland has retreated from making the positive case for the union. But a meaningful debate on Scotland's future requires an understanding of the arguments in its favour, whilst recognising the limits of a binary approach.
This week has seen important developments in the pro-union campaign.
First, we are not meant to call it that; the organisers have indicated that the word ‘union’ won’t play any part in the title of the campaign. Second, they have revealed that they will have lots of money, resources, and celebrities.
There have also been reflective pieces by Colin Kidd and Bill Jamieson in the Scotsman which have added to public deliberations, the former in particular making a nuanced historical argument for the union.
Much of the tone of the Scottish independence discussion isn’t actually what most of us would consider a debate. There has been the Economist’s ‘Skintland’ cover, talk of Orkney and Shetland being lopped off Scotland, and bizarrely, Lord Fraser suggesting Scots airports could be bombed post-independence, then musing on how the whole breakup was somehow ‘inevitable’.
Some nationalists believe there is no positive case for the union. Unionist commentators such as Alan Cochrane claim that the positive case is ‘a nationalist trap’, assuming that there is a case to answer.
In the interests of democratic debate here are possible positive arguments for the union. First, the traditional argument. The UK punts above its weight in the world. In case you have forgotten the UK is a member of the UN Security Council, the G8, IMF, WTO and of course, there is ‘the special relationship’, that so-called force for good in the world. The least we say about the UK’s problematic relationship with the EU here the better.
Then there is the economic argument. The UK is the seventh wealthiest economy in the world, admittedly down from the fourth place of the Blair bubble era. It is still inarguably, despite the decline of manufacturing, one of the economic powerhouses of the world and a global centre for finance, banking and consultancy. Let’s pass on the endemic, inter-generational inequality which skews where much of that wealth ends up.
Then there is the cultural legacy of Britain, from pop music to literature, the arts, fashion and style. This takes the reach of Britain far and wide in a form of post-modern cultural diplomacy which was misguidingly branded as ‘Cool Britannia’, but which earns billions of pounds in exports to the UK and much more in terms of kudos and reputation.
We have the story of the UK as a multi-national, multi-cultural state, overhyped by Gordon Brown et al, who had to insist it was the most successful such state ‘in human history’. Yet there is something about the hybrid, pluralist nature of the UK, recognised in the wonderful writings of that English radical and iconoclast Bernard Crick who chose Scotland as his home for the last 20 years of his life.
It is true that the whole ‘Britishness’ project reached a level of caricature under ‘Broon’, with the NHS (which has four distinct systems) rebranded as the Labour version of Whig Britain, when to most of us it is a free health service and the mark of what any civilised society should have.
Perhaps the least powerful argument for the union is the role of the UK as a redistributionist state. Michael Moore, Secretary of State for Scotland, slamming Scottish independence in the Commons earlier this year, invoked Britain’s ‘generous welfare state’. Has he ever taken a look at our levels of unemployment benefits and compared them to our European neighbours? Obviously not.
The argument that Scotland is too poor and over-subsidised can’t be used except by the right-wing commentariat. The figures are contested, but we do know that Scotland is the richest part of the UK outside of London and the South East, the overheated hothouse of the British economy.
An interesting argument on the merits of the union versus independence would acknowledge that Scotland gains and loses by being part of the union, and would gain and lose by being independent.
Scotland gains from the pooling of resources in the union, from pensions to banking bailouts. We also lose by being in the union by not being able to decide some of these and other priorities. The same is true of independence, offering more autonomy, while having it constrained in an interdependent world. The debate might be posed as clear-cut by some, but it isn’t a zero sum game.
The positive case for the union will be trumpeted by the politics of fear. Twice before in recent times, the 1979 devolution referendum and 1999 Scottish Parliament Labour campaign, fear has been used to significant effect and worked. And in both cases in the long-term it eventually rebounded on those who used it.
Fear will be a force in the independence referendum and, on past evidence, will have an effect. It could even aid a pro-union verdict, but if it does, and people feel cheated or resentful, what it could do in the medium term is aid the forces of independence and weaken the pro-union argument.
Behind the current unionist absence of a positive case is a deep-seated loss of confidence and a belief that the nationalist case is unstoppable. Unionist forces don’t believe the polls that show they have a majority and feel they will have to pull out every dirty trick; already some Labour circles are talking of how to trash Alex Salmond’s reputation.
This week’s essay by Colin Kidd argued that Labour has historically represented an instrumental unionism, centred on fairness and redistribution, not the abstract ‘nation’. He saw this as a weakness, but it could be a strength if Labour articulated this vision powerfully enough.
Kidd is surely right to argue that Labour’s secondary unionism is the key to the outcome of the debate. It has at points been marginalised by Tory unionism across the UK, but if it put social justice and a different society first, it could speak powerfully to an agenda unclaimed by its opponents.
Some of the lack of empathy and understanding between the two camps of independence and the union doesn’t herald well for a reasoned debate and democracy. Most Scots don’t see themselves as part of these two tribes, yet they both claim to speak for all of us.
Unionism and nationalism are part of Scotland’s rich political tapestry. But they are not all we are. Unionism and nationalism on their own are not the answer for most Scots. Instead, this has to come from a real dialogue, posing choices which aren’t binary or black and white, and which accept the complexities we live with. If we do that we will aid the reinvigoration of our democracy, and enhance the chance that we might just make the right decision for the right reasons.
This article was first published by the Scotsman here