Saturday, 17 November 2012

A positive case for unionism

Unionists are frequently asked to come up with positive reasons why they support the continued existence of the Union. For me the main reason to support the union is that I think that it is better for people who live contiguously and who speak the same language to live in one country rather than many.

When the United States has a presidential election something fairly extraordinary happens. Across a huge country, with a population originating from all over the world, essentially people do the same thing. They choose between either a Republican or a Democrat and they accept that the president who results from this choice is the president of all of them. No one much cares from which state that president comes. It is the fact that the United States is a union that makes this process possible. The common identity of the citizens of the United States keeps them together, even when they are in other respects diverse. Fundamental to the unity of the United States is the existence of a common language. There are differences between states and a good deal of power is devolved to the state level and even more locally. However, the common federal structure of law, the rule from Washington, creates an experience for citizens such that they feel that they are in the same country wherever they live. This means that it is easy for people to move. If there is a lack of jobs in Ohio, people can move to California and start seeking work immediately. Their qualifications and experience are immediately recognised, the work practices are familiar, the language is the same. This makes the United States one huge labour market, with enormous economies of scale. It is the fact that United States is a union that makes it prosperous.

Imagine if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Imagine if the the southern states had succeed in their attempt at secession. How would history have played out subsequently?  The two successor states would undoubtedly have been less powerful than the United States that came to dominate the twentieth century. Even if both the South and the North had chosen to join the world wars on the same side, the fact that there would have been two armies, two navies and two air forces, would have weakened the contribution from North America. Economically the United States would never have reached the level it did if it had given up its unity in the 1860s. There would have been no single market between Alabama and New York. It is undoubtedly the union of the United States, the unity of the people who live there, which has enabled them to be both wealthy and powerful.

The same, of course, is true of Britain. Imagine if Britain had not gradually come together to form a single country from the middle ages onwards. Imagine if there had been four separate sovereign states in the British isles in the 18th century. Would it have been possible under these circumstances to create the power that this country had, would it have been possible to create the wealth? The answer to this is obviously no. There is a single labour market in the UK and the economy in each part of the UK is closely related to the others. People from one part of the UK can easily work in any other part, our qualifications and experiences are recognised everywhere. Just like the United States, the United Kingdom is a successful union and this union is the source of both our wealth and strength. It is the fact that we did not have to worry about fighting amongst ourselves which enabled us to concentrate on developing strong armed forces, which faced outwards rather than faced inwards. If the UK had been four sovereign states, no doubt each squabbling with the other, who is to say that the Industrial revolution would have developed in these islands, who is to say that our success at innovation and invention would have happened at all?

Looking at the English speaking countries in the world, it is obvious that they are all better together. Imagine if the United States was made up of fifty sovereign nations. Imagine if Western Australia seceded along with New South Wales, if the South Island of New Zealand decided it could no longer bear to live with the North Island? Imagine if British Columbian nationalism rose, with the rallying cry “it’s our fish”, why should we share it with landlocked Alberta? Does anyone seriously think that the result for any of these countries would be anything other than that they would be less powerful and less wealthy? The strength of each of the English speaking countries of the world is that they are united, that they each form a union of parts. The benefit in terms of economics is that there is free movement of labour and a single market, the benefits in terms of power is that they each can fight a common enemy as one.

To suppose that a democratic union of people speaking the same language is undesirable, is to suppose that none of the English speaking nations are desirable and that it would be better if secession occurred in each of them. But this is exactly what the SNP are saying about the UK. This implies that they think that it would be sensible, if oil were discovered off the coast of Nova Scotia, that this province should decide to secede from Canada. They are saying that if Texas always votes Republican, but sometimes gets a Democratic president, that it would be better for Texas to secede in order to get a political regime closer to the wishes of its people. There are indeed some Texans at the moment striving to secede from the United States, but they are generally recognised as poor losers bordering on the ridiculous.  But these sort of people have a line of argument remarkably similar to the SNP.

What we have in the UK is actually quite unusual. Our common language culture and identity is exactly what makes the existence of a single market in this country possible. It is the source of our wealth and prosperity. The reason that the Scottish economy converges so beneficially with the English economy is that we have been living in the same country for over three hundred years.

Nationalists might  wonder if union is so beneficial, why are so many unionists also Eurosceptics?  A Scottish nationalist might suggest that a unionist who supports withdrawal from the EU is expressing his British nationalism and desire for British independence, while hypocritically denying a Scot the same right to express his own Scottish nationalism by seeking withdrawal from the UK and independence for Scotland. The answer is to realise that many unionists are not nationalists at all. We are unionists precisely because we do not see nationalism as the solution. Rather we see it as part of the problem. In principle, I have nothing whatever against the EU. I have at various times been a keen supporter of European integration. The ideal of countries coming together because they are willing to  give up their nationalism appeals to me. If it were possible to create a fully democratic United States of Europe I would wholeheartedly support it. Unfortunately, recent events have made clear that  it is not possible. The reason that the United States and the UK can succeed as countries is that we have a common identity, language and culture. The lack of a common language, the lack of a common culture and identity dooms the attempted union of the EU to failure. The attempt at monetary union fails because Germans don’t feel that they are at all the same as Greeks. Most ordinary Europeans struggle to seek work in another country owing to their lack of the necessary linguistic skills. Because the EU lacks the conditions for the possibility of creating a single country, the process by which they are attempting to create a United States of Europe is progressively becoming more and more undemocratic. People are being ruled by unelected officials and international organisations, the results of referendums are being ignored. It is for this reason that unionists are more and more frequently expressing opposition. Not because we are against union, but because we are in favour of democracy. If on the other hand, someone suggested creating a federation of the Anglosphere, with common elections, a single head of state and the right to live, work and travel anywhere where English is spoken, I for one would see this as a wonderful opportunity.

Unity is not easy to achieve. Britain has required centuries to create a fully functioning single market, a democratic and free society. It’s called the United Kingdom. The Union that we have is exactly what the European Union needs in order to prosper. Why would we give up something so precious the lack of which is condemning our European neighbours to poverty and increasing authoritarianism?

Sunday, 11 November 2012

On remembering what Scots fought for

In small Scottish towns there is usually a memorial with a kilted soldier listing the names of the people from that town who died fighting in the First World War. Often the names of those who died in the Second World War are added. We are supposed to remember these people, especially in early November, but also on important anniversaries. Indeed we are told to remember them twice a day, once at the going down of the sun and once in the morning. No doubt, in the years following World War One, friends and family of those who died did not need any memorials to remember their loved ones. No doubt, they remembered far more than twice a day. But what of us one hundred years later, when we are faced with names on a memorial? We did not know these people and commonly know nothing about them. How can we remember the Scots on the war memorials?

In trying to remember someone who lived a time long before I was born, I must rely on history. Why did these people fight? They would have given a number of reasons. They fought for their king. They fought for freedom. First and foremost they fought for their country. But which country? Obviously they fought for Britain as these soldiers all served in the British Army. They were not mercenaries fighting for a foreign power.

Naturally these Scottish soldiers were conscious of being Scottish. The fact that they were often kilted meant that everyone, including the enemy, knew that there was a distinction between these men in khaki kilts and those men in khaki trousers. But they all served together in the same part of the line. They were part of the same British Army, which at times was led by an Englishman, but in the end was led by Sir Douglas Haig, a Scot from Edinburgh. So their Scottishness, while very real, was a part of their Britishness, which was equally real. When they wondered if they might get a “Blighty one”, when they sang “Take me back to dear old Blighty” the home that they were longing to return to “Blighty” was a slang word for Britain. When we remember what these men fought for it is important to think from their perspective. When they died for their country, they were dying for Britain and to dishonour Britain today is to dishonour the memory of the Scots who died fighting for this country.

The Scots who voted in the elections of 1910 and 1918 overwhelmingly chose either Liberal or Conservative candidates. The only nationalism, which existed in these elections was in Ireland. Both the Conservative and Liberal parties were unionists with regard to England, Scotland and Wales, indeed no one even thought to doubt that these were all parts of one country. Scottish soldiers therefore who fought had no problem with their identity as both Scottish and British. It is important when we remember them, that we remember this, for otherwise we distort what they fought for and devalue their sacrifice.

There is an uninformed popular memory of the First World War, which sees every general as an upper class fool and the whole thing as pointless. But this is not how Scottish soldiers saw it at the time. They were pleased that Britain had emerged victorious and thought the sacrifice worthwhile. If Britain had not fought in 1914, there is little doubt that Germany would have emerged victorious. People at the time thought that it was right that Britain stood by France and defended the rights of Belgium. They thought that German aggression and militarism was worth fighting against. Looking at the names on the war memorial it is important to see the world from their point of view. What right do we have to say, “you all died for nothing”, when they who did the dying thought their deaths had purpose.

The world needed a Britain with a common purpose in 1914 and again in 1918 when for a brief moment in March, during the Kaiserschlacht, it looked as if we might be defeated. The unity of Great Britain and a people fighting together as one made the difference. Whereas the French Army after one too many sacrifices on the Chemin des Dames descended into mutiny, the British Army emerged stronger from its ordeals. Lessons were learned, unity in the face of adversity was maintained and the British Army by 1918 was the best army on the Western Front, performing feats of arms, which would have seemed impossible even a year earlier. History would be very different if Scottish soldiers had not played their part, if Britain had been divided and lacked a common purpose.
What were Scots fighting against in 1914? Primarily we were fighting the rise of German nationalism, which began in the 19th century  and came to an end in 1945. In two world wars the rest of the world had reason to be grateful that Scotland, England Wales and Northern Ireland formed one country which together could stand up against a nationalist bully. There were times in the first half of the twentieth century when disunity would have been fatal to us. It is this which we remember when we contemplate the names on the war memorial.

When we remember the fallen from the wars of the twentieth century, its important to realise how often nationalism, and proposed changes in international borders, played a part in causing war. Whenever politicians begin to play the nationalist card, they appeal to the selfishness of a people. They begin pointing out the differences between one group of people and another. They appeal to the basest emotions of a people rather than their reason. The people are reminded of past wrongs and injustices. Gradually the people are made to feel more and more indignant. In time this nationalist tinderbox needs only one spark to set it alight, which happened on 28th June 1914 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sararjevo . Looking at the memorial with the kilted Scottish soldier,  it is vital, when we read the names listed, that we realise that it was precisely nationalism that they were fighting against.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The SNP threatens unionism not only in Scotland

I realised recently how ignorant I was about the history of Northern Ireland, when 30,000 Ulstermen recently marched to commemorate the Ulster Covenant of 1912. I was barely aware that such a covenant even existed, let alone that it should be considered so important to unionists in Northern Ireland that they should gather in such numbers. It was natural to compare this turn out with the the meagre 5000 who turned out for the Scottish nationalist’s independence march in Edinburgh,  which happened a week earlier. But the apparent contrast between support for unionism and lack of support for nationalism masks what is a genuine threat to the continued existence of Northern Ireland in the Union.
Northern Ireland has fought hard to remain a part of Britain. It is interesting to speculate what might have been the result if Ulstermen had not opposed Irish Home Rule. Perhaps Ireland would then have considered that it had been given enough power and would not then have demanded full independence. It is possible that the Union of Great Britain and Ireland could have endured until today. This must be an ideal close to every unionist’s heart. On the other hand, perhaps the people of Ulster had the prescience to realise that giving in to nationalism, does not lead to a decrease of nationalism, but rather an increase. Just as Scottish devolution has fueled nationalism and given rise to a vote on independence, which was unimaginable before devolution, so Home Rule for Ireland inevitably would have led to an independent Ireland, which would have brought Ulster with it, against Ulster’s will. It was this which the unionists in Ulster were fighting against when they signed the covenant. But while 1912 is obviously an important date in the history of Northern Ireland, there are obviously more important dates to come. Northern Ireland came into being in 1921, but there must be a real question as to whether it will reach this anniversary and still remain a part of the UK.
During the troubles in Northern Ireland, there was always the threat that the rest of Britain would get sick of the bloodshed and decide to sell Ulster down the river. But in general most people in Scotland, England and Wales stood alongside our fellow Brits in Northern Ireland, and accepted the principle that so long as a majority of the population in Northern Ireland wished to remain part of Britain, they should have the right to do so. We all thought it worth fighting for that right, just as we considered that it was correct to fight armed aggression against the Falklanders’ wish to remain British. What worried me at this time most however, was the situation with regard to the demographics of Northern Ireland. If it should ever be the case that the majority of the population of Northern Ireland should not wish to be part of Britain, we could hardly thwart this will. The problem for Northern Irish unionists seemed to be the decline of Protestantism in the province and the rise of Catholicism. If Catholics wanted reunification with the Republic and if they ever became a majority in Northern Ireland, then it would appear as if a united Ireland could happen simply because of the higher Catholic birthrate.
From my relatively ignorant Scottish perspective I used to think that all Catholics were nationalists, or republicans, while all Protestants were unionists. Recent research however, suggests that an overwhelming 73% of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the UK. Most importantly a 52% majority of Catholics also want to remain in the Union. The future of Northern Ireland is not then at all threatened by demographics and the message to unionist parties would seem to be clear: reach out to Catholics for the majority of them are unionists too.
Strangely, the greatest threat to Northern Ireland’s future does not at all come from within, but from without. Many Ulstermen see themselves as Ulster Scots. But while these Ulster Scots almost to a man see themselves as British, this view is not shared by all of their compatriots across the Irish sea. The rejection of Britishness by a proportion of the Scottish population, which inevitably leads them to desire independence from the UK, turns out to be the greatest threat to Northern Ireland, for if Scotland were to leave the Union, it is entirely unclear that the Union could survive.
The problem with Scottish independence for Northern Ireland is that it would set a precedent. The people of Wales with their own parliament and with a significant minority speaking their own language, might well consider that they too could follow the example of Scotland. The biggest danger, however would be that the English might really discover their own nationalism. The English could well say to Northern Ireland, “we want to be independent from you.” If Scotland has the right to be independent, that right can hardly be denied to England. Northern Ireland could not force England or Wales to remain in the Union, no matter how many should march in Belfast. Could Northern Ireland survive as an independent country? Would it have to seek union with the Republic? Even to ask these questions is to see the prospect of renewed conflict.
It is vitally important therefore that unionists throughout Britain realise the danger that the Scottish Nationalists present to our country. Although people in Northern Ireland, Wales and England will not have a vote in the referendum, it is vital that they say with one voice that they want Scotland to stay. The good riddance mentality expressed by some people in England is profoundly short sighted as it is liable to increase support for independence in Scotland. It is natural to react to threats of divorce with antipathy. However, a heartfelt plea to stay and an expression of the mutual need to stay together from our fellow countrymen in all parts of Britain would make a major contribution to defeating the secessionists. All of us, wherever we live in the UK, would be profoundly affected by Scotland becoming independent. It would fling us all into constitutional and economic chaos and who knows what kind of nationalistic antagonism and conflict. It would do this moreover, at a time of economic crisis unprecedented since the thirties. Scots should think very carefully about inflicting this sort of disorder on our own countrymen for the sake of a supposed political and economic advantage which even if it turned out to be real, would be at the expense of others especially our fellow Scots in Ulster. This really is a case of brother turning against brother forgetting “how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”