Unionism is an old idea. So old, in fact, that in these islands it pre-dates the 1707 Anglo-Scottish Acts of Union by some hundreds of years. Over the centuries its meaning has evolved — Unionism being a fluid idea — just as the legal Unions that have made the United Kingdom what it is today have altered and developed over time.
Last week marked an important moment in the ongoing development of the idea of Unionism, as Alistair Darling delivered at the University of Glasgow a reflective and remarkably thoughtful lecture on 13 July, on what he called “the case for the United Kingdom”. As a short-term campaign tactic, the leader of Better Together was responding to calls (not always justified) that the pro-UK argument in the referendum campaign has been too negative, and too reliant on trying to scare people away from voting Yes rather than making the positive case as to why we should, with head and heart, vote No to independence. Accordingly, the speech set out in detail why both reason and passion for Scotland’s national interest should compel us to supporting the Union, in economic, political and social terms.
But to see Mr Darling’s speech only in short-term tactical perspective would be to miss what is in truth its deeper meaning and what deserves to be its enduring legacy. For the lecture tackled some big and sometimes difficult questions in ways that we have not seen enough of in the referendum campaign so far. Three such questions stand out: what is Unionism today? What is the Union for? And within the Union what is the role of devolution?
Of course, these questions are mirrored on the other side of the debate: what is Nationalism today? Why is independence seen by separatists to be the only means by which Nationalism can be expressed? And why should independence be preferred to the extensive devolution of power that Scotland already enjoys? We look forward to learning more about the answers to these questions later this year, when the SNP finally publishes its long-awaited Independence White Paper.
Even though in political terms we talk of the independence argument as being one between Nationalists and Unionists, this is in fact a misnomer. There is nothing incompatible about being a Unionist and a Nationalist at one and the same time. (This is why some Unionists prefer to describe political Nationalists as “separatists” – the opposite of union being separation, or divorce; to my mind it is both unfortunate and wrong that the term “separatist” has become so loaded in Scottish political life.) Scottish Nationalism is about seeing Scotland as a nation. Scotland isn’t a region of the United Kingdom, as Yorkshire is, for example. It is a nation within the United Kingdom: one of four such nations. Modern day Unionism not only accepts this, but is founded upon the recognition of Scotland as a nation. The marks of nationhood are everywhere to be seen in Scotland, from her distinctive legal system to her own (not very good) national football team; from her own bespoke media to her rich cultural life.
Some of these features of Scottish nationhood are enshrined in the Acts of Union: Scots law cannot be unilaterally replaced by the common law of England any more than the Church of Scotland can be overrun by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thus, our formal Union has always been founded upon a recognition that Britain is a joining of proud nations together and not the forced assimilation of two peoples into one.
Devolution merely extended the ways in which Scottish nationhood is institutionalised and made manifest. Now, in addition, to the Court of Session and the Kirk, we have our own Parliament, our own Government, and our own First Minister. These, like the preservation of Scots law three hundred years ago, are the ways in which modern-day Unionists recognise and celebrate the fact that Scotland is a nation. Devolution was the achievement not of Nationalists, but of Unionists who understood that the nation of Scotland needed legislative expression, to sit alongside the judicial and religious expression that had been protected since 1707. Thus, to be a modern-day Unionist is to be a devolutionist. The only way of getting rid of devolution now is to get rid of the Union – and a vote next year for independence would of course get rid of both.
This is the first great insight of this week’s lecture by Mr Darling: that Unionism is founded upon the recognition of Scotland’s identity as a nation. Unionists are, in this sense, Nationalists.
But the great difference between Unionists and their opponents is that the latter consider that Scotland’s nationhood can be realised only by her becoming an independent State. Nationalists should not really be called Nationalists: they should be called Statists. It’s not a Scottish nation they crave – Scotland already is a nation – it is Scottish statehood they want. For Unionists, Scotland’s nationhood flourishes amply within the Union; those who seek divorce from the Union do so because they think that Scotland’s current partnership with the other home nations somehow stymies her – humiliates her, even. On this view, Scotland cannot realise her full potential until she leaves the UK and heads off into the world alone.
What is remarkable in the present state of the independence argument is the vast extent to which those leading the Yes camp are deliberately playing down the very core idea of independence: namely, that Scotland would be going it alone, as her own new State. In a speech on 14 July that veered dangerously towards the absurd, the First Minister said that Scotland is currently a member of six unions and that of these it is just the one from which he wishes a divorce. This one is the political and economic union with the rest of the United Kingdom. An independent Scotland “will continue to participate fully in five unions”, said Mr Salmond: (1) the European Union, (2) NATO’s defence union, (3) a currency union, (4) the Union of the Crowns, and (5) the “social union between the people of these isles” (whatever that means).
Unlike the genuine Nationalism that has always animated Unionism, however, Mr Salmond’s new-found five-fold Unionism is both fake and opportunistic. While I have little doubt about his commitment to remaining in the EU, that doesn’t make him a Unionist. His NATO policy is new, hated by at least half his own party, and likely to be highly contentious within NATO given the SNP’s determination to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons. His unreliable assertions on the currency union were exposed months ago by a brilliant intervention from the Treasury as something which the rest of the UK would not be able to sign up to without imposing on Scotland the sorts of fiscal constraints that would make her more dependent on London, not more independent. His use of the seventeenth-century phrase, the Union of the Crowns, is anachronistic and inaccurate: what he proposes is that an independent Scotland would become a 17th realm within the Commonwealth (Her Majesty the Queen is currently Head of State in 16 countries around the world). And what this amorphous phrase the “social union” is supposed to mean is anyone’s guess. We watch a lot of US television in my house (my wife is American); in the USA they speak (a version of) the English language; there is an excellent trading relationship between our two countries; there are close relations between British and American political leaders; we are in a close defence partnership and an even closer intelligence and security partnership with the US. But we are two quite separate States in the world. While the media prattles on about the special relationship, no-one goes so far as to take seriously the proposition that there is a US-UK social union.
Properly understood, it is on this point that the independence referendum rests: what value is it that statehood would add to the Scottish nation? Why is it, for the separatists, that Scottish nationhood can be realised only by leaving one of the most enduring and successful political unions that the world has ever seen? Last week Alistair Darling offered his answers as to why we are better together: answers that are rooted deeply in Scotland’s economic reality, in the political power she derives from the UK and in the social good.
Those who disagree should focus on explaining why they believe we’d be better alone. To date they seem to prefer instead to muddy the waters by pretending that independence doesn’t really mean independence at all. The truth is that while Unionism is founded on the celebration that this United Kingdom is an alliance of four nations, political Nationalism is founded on a crusade to destroy that Union, by breaking it up and by separating Scotland from her nearest neighbours. Unionists have both the Scottish and English national interests at heart; but separatists can never honestly count themselves as Unionists — for it is precisely the Union they are out to destroy.