The State of the Union: Can Unionists reinvent their argument on the UK?
Sunday National, March 1st 2020
In recent years the case for the union has been on the defensive – nervous and unsure of its own arguments and the future. It may have won the 2014 referendum, but there has been a rising sense of foreboding in pro-union opinion that the future is being made in the here and now by independence supporters.
Such sentiment was one of the reasons behind the gathering last weekend called ‘Our Past, Present and Future’ organised by These Islands, the UK-wide pro-union group formed by Kevin Hague, who rose to prominence challenging the fiscal and economic rationale for independence.
The two day gathering in the Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne brought together prominent pro-union politicians, academics, writers, intellectuals, campaigners – and myself. I came with a degree of curiosity and a small amount of apprehension – nearly all of which turned out to be unfounded.
The aim of the event was to reflect and contribute to the case for the union – with Kevin Hague commenting after the event: ‘We wanted to host an event that would bring together a variety of perspectives on the future of the UK, within the broad theme of narrative: for those of us who believe more unites the people of the UK than divides them, what is our story and how do we best tell it?’
Ayesha Hazarika, ‘Evening Standard’ columnist who also went along, said post-weekend: ‘There’s clearly an appetite for wanting a thoughtful, honest discussion the union and what it means to be British. But I was struck by how complex these issues are and how elusive the answers were, especially around identity politics.’
The event was opened by Gordon Brown who gave us a tour of the five pillars of nationalism he is comfortable talking about – Brexit, Scottish, Welsh, Ulster and Irish – deliberately omitting any references to British or English nationalism.
The main core of his argument was the need for ‘a circle of empathy’ in politics and the dangers of centralisation. This was made without addressing how he did politics when in office – often brutally, centralising power, and with little obvious empathy. Brown did concede, when taking questions, the following mea culpa that: ‘I misunderstood the degree of change needed to deal with the four faultlines’ running through the UK; by these he meant a multi-national country run as an unitary state, the dominance of England, over-centralism, and deep-seated regional inequalities.
Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, referenced one of his big achievements – free bus travel in the region for 16 and 17 year olds – a topical subject in Scotland this week. He made the case for public spending in England to have what he called ‘a Barnett formula for England’ alongside Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But this seemed rhetoric, with Burnham having no supportive evidence on how this might work.
Several political figures misread the tone and stuck to being partisan. Lib Dem Willie Rennie talked only about the SNP’s failures in office and little else in what seemed an updated 2014 speech; former Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson laid into the SNP as ‘bombastic’, while Labour’s Douglas Alexander showed that he has made little effort to try to comprehend the SNP or independence – despite being against them all his life.
Trying to understand the past in the present was a major theme. Historian Tom Holland made the point that there is a widespread assumption that ‘nationalisms tell better stories’ – meaning the nationalisms of these isles apart from British.
Journalist John Lloyd lamented the decline of the Scottish press, reflecting that ‘he was a bit disappointed about the way the Scottish press treated the indyref’ and then made the prediction that: ‘If Scotland goes independent others will follow’ – with it unclear whether that was a UK-wide observation or broader. He continued: ‘The sheer challenge of Scottish nationalism to the British state has been underplayed.’
In this discussion the legacy of Empire came up. Rather surprisingly the panel in this – Tom Holland, John Lloyd and others – all gave short shift to the continued influence of Empire, with Lloyd stating that he found it ‘difficult to find the imperial urge’ in Brexit debates.
Similarly in a session ‘What the UK is good for’ there was a palpable vacuum when someone from the floor asked for examples of modern positive stories of the UK today – beyond the NHS. This drew a series of evasive answers which revealed the scale of the task, with participants referencing back to 1940, 1945 and the Second World War.
Historian Nigel Biggar commented that the UK had been and was ‘a fighting nation’ and should be proud of this and stated that if Scotland became independent ‘English sentiment would rise to levels not seen since the 18th century’, while outdoing this writer Ruth Dudley Edwards declared that ‘Irish nationalism has infected Scotland’, making this seem like a contagious disease which is never a good viewpoint.
One of the most erudite perspectives came from Katy Shaw of Northumbria University who talked about the ‘narrative battles’ going on across the UK. She reflected upon a student asking: ‘Why is it called the United Kingdom? No one gets on. It is Bullshit Britain’, leading her to comment that ‘We have stopped telling stories about Britain’ in the present and of the future, addressing innovation, change and imagination.
The language of debate in Scotland and the UK was the focus of one session. This brought together the thoughts of Blair MacDougall, ex-head of Better Together, Eddie Barnes and Alan Roden, respectively, former heads of comms of the Scottish Tories and Labour, Pamela Nash, of Scotland in Union, and Fiona Hill, previously Theresa May’s Chief of Staff in No. 10.
Hill said that ‘we were forced into Project Fear’ from a position of weakness and that the argument about Scottish independence that ‘we weren’t going to have any security and there would be a greater chance of getting blown up’ was the politics of desperation.
Alan Roden commented about attempts to reframe the debate as ‘Scexit’ – the Scottish equivalent of Brexit that: ‘We are not going to persuade the BBC or STV to stop calling it independence’. Pamela Nash acknowledged that ‘the SNP’s right to choose campaign’ was ‘very carefully pitched and reaching out’, meaning that they ‘come across as very calm and reasonable’.
There were sessions on multi-cultural Britain, the economics of independence and Brexit and the Scottish debate. Blair MacDougall stressed that: ‘Facts are important but they need to be in support of feeling’. Strategist James Kanagasooriam observed of Scotland and the UK after 2014 and 2016 that ‘the dualism of referendums can shatter hyphenated identities’ and reduce politics to ‘binary choices and a singularity’.
There was an examination of Britain and its role on the world age. This had as one strand a sort of retro déjà vu feel as if we were talking of Britain 1997 and all its high hopes before the Blair project went sour. Lib Dem peer Jeremy Purvis waxed lyrically about the explosion of wealth and democracies globally since the 1970s without acknowledging the storm clouds in both, and the hollowing out and retreat of democracy in the past decade.
Colin Kidd of St. Andrews University gave a deliberately mischievous presentation, highlighting the problems the pro-union case will face in a future referendum. These include who will lead it – with Kidd suggesting not entirely seriously Neil Oliver and J.K. Rowling – and that it may have to fall back on a ‘Project Fear 2’. Kidd made the point that independence supporters ‘were not separatists’, with unionism a form of nationalism – and nationalism aware that it would exist in a context of several unions.
Two days in Newcastle on the state of the union, a dozen sessions and 55 speakers in front of a packed audience many more curious and concerned than uber-partisan. What if anything can one surmise from all this and does it have any wider consequences for the ongoing debate on our future?
First, this was mostly a reflective, thoughtful gathering in its tone and exchanges. Any partisan party and petty point scoring was kept to a minimum with the exception only coming from the occasional politician.
Second, the ethos and feel started from admitting the shortcomings and weaknesses in the pro-union case, the limits of the 2014 appeal and victory, and the need to regroup to find the arguments for a better case. Ayesha Hazarika looking back on the weekend states: ‘The biggest challenge is mounting a persuasive emotional case for the union when independence undoubtedly has the better tunes. Unionists need more than economic threats, they need to articulate a bigger sense of belonging.’
Third, connected to this was a widespread awareness of the lack of positive stories and ideas about the nature of the union in the present – beyond referencing the NHS, BBC and from the past, World War Two.
Fourth, nearly all discussions had a respect towards the SNP and independence. Kevin Hague noted at one point that next to no one used the words ‘separatism’ and ‘separatists’. A corollary of this was a strand running through the weekend that the rationale for independence was ‘Scottish nationalism’ with other perspectives – of democracy and self-government mostly ignored.
Fifth, for all the citations of the economic imbalances and inequalities which scar the UK the scale of crises and challenges which define the UK face was understated. There was little engagement with notions that UK politics had been transformed by the right, state and statecraft dramatically changed, or the UK’s geo-political influence under increasing pressure. It was assumed that the UK was a force for good in the world – which is what you would expect.
Sixth, apart from Scotland and a discussion on English regions the other component parts of the UK barely got a look in. Ireland was relegated to one contribution, Wales mostly ignored, but the biggest missing discussion was that of England as a nation – and how England finds its democratic voice.
Finally, there was an awareness that Scotland’s debate is ongoing . Several participants stated that the next independence referendum campaign had already begun and that it was a near-inevitability that there would be a future vote.
There was something positive in this gathering – as well as a challenge. It was a reflection of the traction and appeal of independence that pro-union opinion felt they had to hold this event.
But it also comes as a warning. Independence has not yet won; it has yet to achieve a sustainable, enduring majority in the polls; and this is not an argument which can be won by default or feeling complacent.
The case for the union won’t remain the same forever. It may adapt, evolve and find a better rationale. That didn’t come out of these two days, as Hague reflected afterwards saying that this event was ‘witness to a building site – this conference was about erecting the intellectual scaffolding within which we can build a case’ and that for now ‘there was no finished product on show.’
So here is a challenge for independence opinion. There is still work to be done. It was always thus. History is only made by those who understand their opponents accurately, confront their own myths, don’t remain static and face inconvenient facts.