That would be me, apparently: “the definitive Unionist”. So says ex BBC journalist and Nationalist blogger Derek Bateman. He and I appear in the same (thankfully unreleased) film, a tedious documentary about how left-wing Scotland’s indyref campaigners are, entitled Scotland Yet. I could watch only about half an hour of it but I appear to be about the only Unionist in it. Rather to my surprise I was given the opening line. As Bateman has it, I get the film rolling with the words: “For me, Scottish independence means putting an international border across my country. My country is Britain”. (I haven’t been back to the dvd to check he’s right — once was enough — but it sounds like the sort of thing I’d say.)
Bateman describes this line as “the definitive statement of Unionism in this whole campaign”. To my mind it’s no more than a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. A No vote preserves Britain; a Yes vote divides us into two. A No vote maintains Scotland’s position in the United Kingdom; a Yes vote means that Scotland leaves the UK to become a separate state. Bateman likes the statement because, for him, “it cuts through the verbiage and the politicking and goes straight to the heart of the matter”. Well, thank you Derek.
I agree with him that this is the heart of the matter: what state do you want to live in? Yet you would not know this from the vast majority of the SNP’s and Yes Scotland’s campaign literature. So much of the campaign for independence has focused on issues other than independence that you really do sometimes wonder if Yes know what they are arguing for at all. On the campaign trail I’ve heard more about austerity, food banks, and the bedroom tax than I have about independence, as if an independent Scotland would not have to worry about balancing the budget, tackling welfare dependency, or making work pay. Many of the figures in the Scotland Yet film put arguments that have nothing to do with statehood and everything to do with how we would all live in a socialist utopia if only we lived in a place where only socialist utopians had the vote. As it is the case that not everyone voting in Britain is a socialist utopian, so it must follow that Britain is A Bad Place and we must leave it. What this has to do with Scottish independence is anyone’s guess, for we all know that not everyone voting in Scotland is a socialist utopian, either. From the far-left perspective of a Robin McAlpine, for example, an independent Scotland would quickly become A Very Bad Place Indeed.
Bateman says that I understand what he calls “the real meaning” of next month’s referendum question and describes it thus: “you vote Yes if you regard Scotland as your first choice nation and you vote No if you prefer the alternative — the UK”. Well, I wouldn’t put it like that (as I’ll explain in a moment) but I see the point he’s making. He then starts to veer away, however, into an altogether different argument. He says that the point of the referendum is to decide whether you want “decisions about your life made in Edinburgh or in London” and whether it is the “UK or Scotland” that represents you. This is quite wrong. The choice we face is not the UK or Scotland, London or Edinburgh. The choice we face is Scotland alone, or Scotland as part of the UK. The true question is whether we want to be ruled from Edinburgh alone or from Edinburgh and London together. The option of being governed only by the UK or only by London is not on the table. Devolution removed that option 15 years ago and all the Unionist parties are committed to deepening and enhancing devolution further, in the event of a No vote.
There are some good and welcome things in Derek Bateman’s post. He understands that those Scots who, like him, don’t feel allegiance to Britain do not hate it or wish it ill. They wish simply not to be part of it. This is perfectly fair enough and if there were a majority of such people in Scotland there would be nothing at all any Unionist could do or say to win next month’s vote (but there isn’t such a majority and there never has been). Likewise, I was pleased to note that Bateman recognises that Unionists like me are genuinely affectionate towards and committed to Scotland. Certainly I am. Many things divide me from Mr Bateman but love of Scotland is not one of them.
What is missing from Bateman’s analysis is that we do not in fact have to choose between the options which he presents. We can choose both. We can be both Scottish and British. We can have governments and Parliaments that represent us in both Edinburgh and London. But this is what he cannot see. For him you are either a Britnat or a Scotnat (these are his words). He chooses Scotland, he tells us. And, for him, it is clear that this necessarily means he cannot also choose Britain. For Bateman, this is a zero-sum game. You can choose Scotland. Or you can choose Britain. And you must choose between them: you cannot choose both. This is profoundly misguided.
Bateman tells his readers that “Tomkins is a Britnat”. I am no such thing. As I have explained before on these pages what I love about Britain is precisely that it is not a nation, but a Union of nations. I am a British Unionist, not a British Nationalist. I love my adopted city of Glasgow, too, but that does not make me a Glasgow Nationalist. In my worldview, unlike in Mr Bateman’s, you can love things other than nations.
The decision we will make next month will not resolve a tension between two competing nationalisms, Britnat’ism and Scotnat’ism. It will resolve a tension between two competing visions of Scotland’s future — a separatist one that wants Scotland to leave the UK and become a new state, and a Unionist one that wants Scotland to continue to thrive within the great Union of nations that is the United Kingdom. I say “separatist” rather than “Nationalist” in that sentence not to upset people but because it’s accurate. I am a Scottish Nationalist, in that I believe that Scotland is a nation. But I am also a Unionist, in that I believe that the best future for Scotland is one in which she maintains her uniquely privileged position within the UK. This future is best for Scottish trade, for Scottish jobs, for Scotland’s security and for Scotland’s prosperity: that is the core of the case for the Union now, as it has been for more than 300 years.
For Bateman, however, all of this is beside the point. The only thing that matters is nation and, for reasons never explained, Scottish nationhood can be realised and made manifest only in statehood. This is an impoverished and depleted view of the world — but it is a view of the world upon which all nationalism ultimately relies. What makes the British nations special is that they do not need statehood to live and breathe and flourish. Indeed, they understand that they can flourish all the more without it — by joining with one another in a Union state rather than by going it alone as separate nation-states. England is not a state either, and nor is Wales.
Bateman has unwittingly hit upon an elemental truth of the independence referendum campaign. For him and for what he calls “Scotnats”, country, nation and state must all be coterminous. But for Unionists this is a false equation. Our identity is not so fragile that it needs such concrete reinforcement. We can flourish in a Scottish nation, a British country and a United Kingdom state all at the same time, just as we can be proud Glaswegians and committed Europeans without having to choose between them.
Bateman exemplifies one of the Nationalists’ greatest deficiencies in the referendum campaign: so blinkered are they by the ferocity of their own nationalism that they cannot see that their opponents are not themselves nationalist in outlook. This is not “Scotnat v Britnat”, a battle of competing nationalisms. It is Nationalism v Unionism, a battle between those who say “a nation cannot fully exist until it is a state” and those who say “don’t be so daft”. The argument is not Scotland versus Britain — are you Scottish or British. The argument is Scotland separated from Britain or Scotland within a United Kingdom: Scotland alone or Scotland as part of a family of great British nations.