Tag Archives: Scotland

The future is open. A farewell to the United Kingdom.

It was a strange defence of the Union. Over-scripted and wooden, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, chastised Scotland’s nationalists for “playing politics with the future of our country.” Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had just announced plans for a fresh independence referendum. London was apparently caught off-guard. But if the best that May can muster is that “politics is not a game”, then Scotland will soon be the world’s newest sovereign state.

Across the North Channel, talks are underway to form a new government in Northern Ireland. They are unlikely to be fruitful. The previous executive collapsed amid a major financial scandal, at one time lauded for being the result of ‘normal’ politics. Even before actual voting in the March 2nd election, politics had returned to tribal normality. Yet, in a shock result, Unionism lost its majority status in Northern Ireland for the first time.

Scotland and Northern Ireland share a deep cultural heritage. Ulster-Scots identity has forged much of what is recognisably ‘Northern Irish’. These bonds were cemented by Union. But the most prescient bond at present, that they are the two nations of the United Kingdom which voted to remain in the European Union, may mean the end of the Union.

Brexit has upended political calculations. Unionists and Brexiteers bat away any talk of danger for the Union. But they ignore three issues driving change.

First is the arrogance of a nativist nationalism which is condescending in its smugness. Second, negative divides abound: whether between people with different viewpoints or between regions, difference is framed in how bad the ‘other’ is. Third, and perhaps the most potent long-term force, is that young people want to live in an open, plural, outward looking society. The UK is no longer that.

In British terms, Melanie Philips gave the most recent example of national arrogance. She is but one in a long line of national chauvinists from Farage to Fox to Foster. Populist nationalists are now household names across Europe. Their success is built upon stressing a national strength which revels in turning away Syrian child refugees and ignores the irony of free trade as the answer to closing borders. It is an inhuman approach that puts greater value on native lives than human lives.

This world view, complimented by the left’s obsession with identity politics, is driving people further apart. People increasingly see the nationality or the ideology, not the person. Civil debate barely exists. As the Economist points out, Owen Jones’s decision to leave social media because of the abuse received is a depressing symptom of our inability to agree to disagree.

Furthermore, regionalism has driven a wedge into a British identity. Scotland is different from Lincolnshire, which is different from London. Past unity is no indicator of future prosperity. Without a positive vision for what the UK is, division will become ever more normal.

Which brings us to the ultimate divide of our times: that of open versus closed societies. Perhaps the greatest driver for the changes which are happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland is that, in the main, people under 40 want to live in places where people don’t care about skin colour or with whom you sleep.

Two decades ago it was easy to identify the UK as an open and progressive place. In a Northern Irish context, the Union worked. Irish society was defined by a national claustrophobia. That has changed fundamentally. Two years ago Irish people voted overwhelmingly to support same sex marriage. Thousands of people under the age of 40 returned home just to vote in an uncoordinated and hugely emotional expression of making sure that Ireland was on the right side of history. The cathartic impact of this cannot be properly expressed. And what was simply a moment in time has, with hindsight, become one of the defining moments of Ireland as a socially progressive, creative, and open society.

Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU speaks to the embrace of being part of a bigger whole. The results of the Dutch elections, with a massive rise in support for liberal parties amongst educated millennial voters, is further evidence that the issue goes beyond the UK’s borders. But, it also highlights the divides between people who want to embrace the world and those who want to shut borders.

Chris Deering, writing before Sturgeon’s announcement, concluded in the Financial Times that “The UK may not see out the decade”. Writing about Northern Ireland’s election results, Fintan O’Toole declared in the Guardian that “a wide crack has opened in the foundations of the UK.” To survive, the Union needs a radical but realistically positive vision. People in Scotland and Northern Ireland need to have an emotional attachment to it. Otherwise, the crack won’t be papered over.

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Values and destiny: why Scotland should say no to independence

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Two years ago, when the campaigns for Scotland’s independence referendum began, conventional wisdom held that support for independence would plateau at 40%. Someone miscalculated. Over the past ten days, polls have consistently shown that the end of the United Kingdom is now within the realms of the possible, not just the imagination. By Friday morning, Scotland might just have voted to become an independent country.

Three issues have converged to get us to this place. First, the Better Together campaign has failed to articulate a positive vision of the UK or of Scotland’s place in it. ‘No’ is an intrinsically negative position, but the Better Together campaign has taken that to an extreme. Surely no country decides its future based on what currency it will use. And yet, the No campaign has been obsessed with currency arrangements in an independent Scotland. Technicalities are important but vision beats detail.

Second, Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign have been disingenuous. They ignore reality. They seem confused about what independence really is. They promise a rosy future of a wealthy, confident, just, and fair Scotland. Oil money will keep the country afloat. Scottish culture will make the country punch above its weight. And Scottish society will be based on social justice once those nasty Tories and/or English are out of the equation. But the Nationalists’ economics are “flawed”: oil will run out, the banks will clear out, and demographics are not in favour of long-term social spending such as that promised by the SNP.

Never mind that the process of separating over 300 years of Union will be messy and complicated. Much of the Nationalist campaign’s predictions of a glossy future are premised on having the wind behind their backs in negotiations for a post-referendum settlement. Yet, as Martin Wolf writes, “A Yes vote will launch Scotland…into years of uncertainty.” The longed for Nordic-like future is undoubtedly possible for an independent Scotland, but it is folly to suggest that independence is a panacea.

Third, but most critically, few people see Scottish nationalism as a negative. But nationalism is inherently divisive. It is about separating people, about erecting borders, about saying that people would rather look inwards than be part of a cosmopolitan, open, and multi-national society. It matters not how innocuous and fluffy Scottish nationalism might appear: the argument of Scottish nationalists is that Scotland is only for the Scottish.

Nationalism says that organising and governing a particular area is best done by people who share a similar ethnicity, similar attitudes and a similar culture. Nativism and otherness are essential. Nationalism in Scotland is just as ugly as nationalism in the Balkans. Mark Blyth writes that “Nationalism, like most forms of identity politics, thrives only in the face of a foreign other.” Yes campaigners have used the politics of identity to blame the Tories, Westminster, and the English in general for what ails Scotland. It is ugly and narrow-minded.

The most successful societies and states in history have been those that champion cosmopolitanism and openness. Scotland is on the verge of saying that insularity, smallness, and national identity is of more importance in a globalised world than being part of a multinational society. Yet, as Philip Stephens’ writes, “prosperity and security in an age of great power competition belongs to those comfortable with multiple identities – the ones who bind themselves together in shared endeavour.”

Cultural confidence is to be celebrated. That Scots have a distinct identity from other parts of the United Kingdom is a good and positive thing. Where it becomes a negative is when that cultural and national identity becomes the definition of statehood. Common identities transcend borders; an accident of birth should be less important than the identity that we choose and build for ourselves.

Alex Salmond is a bully, but he has won the emotional argument regarding Scottish independence by building a vision of a hopeful and different future. Yes, an independent Scotland could undoubtedly be successful in the long-term. It would, provided the right decisions were taken, be able to build an economy, provide for its citizens, educate its young people, and care for its sick. But it is deluded to think that this can be done better in a state defined by its Scottishness.

The world is not binary. Why seek to divide yet further? A vote for Scottish independence merely solidifies the desire of some to divide based on culture and identity. It is saddening to think that, after the horrors that nationalism has wrought, people can still build a positive vision for the future around so insular an idea. Scots face a decision on what kind of values and principles they place more faith in: those of openness and diversity or those of narrow cultural identity.

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