In the last few years the United Kingdom has more and more come to resemble the United States as a nation of immigrants. In the 19th century the US was seen by millions as a place of hope. People went there from all over the world looking for a better life. The United States as we know it today is to a large part the result of these people who chose to come and live there. So, too, more and more people from the EU and elsewhere are coming to the UK first to work and then to live. It is a huge complement to our country that so many people do want to come and live here. Why do people come here rather than seek to go elsewhere? The answer is obvious. We have a language the whole world speaks. We are successful economically and have a relatively open labour force. We have a good record of people getting along together. There’s a reason for this that many of us take for granted.
When I lived in Russia, I was struck by something. Russian identity was a more complex matter than I was used to in the UK. If you read Russian literature, you find people referred to as Germans who had emigrated to Russia centuries earlier. They spoke Russian, but because they had a German surname they were not considered to be Russian. Likewise, today someone born in Kazakhstan who is white and speaks Russian, will be considered a Russian, not a Kazakh. What I soon realised was that identity to an extent depended on ancestry. There are exceptions and complexities. Russia is a multicultural, multilingual country with as good a record of integration as anywhere else. But I found that ordinary people did think of the idea of being Russian differently to the way I thought of the idea of being British.
For me being British is simply a matter of citizenship. It matters not one jot whether someone can trace their ancestry back to the Norman conquest or whether they arrived more recently. Anyone with a British passport is British. We in Britain have a more open idea about Britishness than most European countries, precisely because we are similar to the United States. Anyone with US citizenship is equally an American. It doesn’t matter if you came over on the Mayflower or arrived last week.
The United States because it went through a very bloody civil war was changed in terms of identity. Prior to the Civil War, people thought of their state almost as if it were an independent country. Thus even though he initially opposed secession, Robert E. Lee thought that his first duty was to his state Virginia. Few Americans today, I suspect, feel the same way about their state. The reason is that the Civil War decided the question of secession by force of arms. Now, no-one in the United States thinks that there is a serious possibility of a state being allowed to leave the Union. If there were such an attempt today, it would once more be prevented by the United States Army.
Some years after the end of the Civil War a sentence was written which with variations has been repeated by millions of Americans.
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
It was only because the Civil War had taken place that such a sentence could have been written and could have been considered necessary. Later it was adapted so that it became clear that the flag referred to was the United States flag, just in case people from elsewhere retained the idea that their allegiance was to where they had come from. The important point, however, is that everyone who was a citizen of the United States was expected to accept that they lived in one nation that was indivisible.
This idea of living in one nation that is indivisible is common throughout the world. The primary goal of every government is to keep intact the territorial integrity of the nation state. More Americans died fighting to keep intact the territorial integrity of the United States between 1861 and 1865 than in all the other wars America has been involved in before and since. Moreover, the territorial integrity of the United States was never more threatened than in those years. Given ordinary luck and competence the Army of Northern Virginia ought to have destroyed the main Union Army in 1862.
Imagine if people arriving in the United States from elsewhere in the years after the Civil War had set about trying to break up the United States once more. Imagine if they refused to accept that they owed allegiance to the flag of the United States and if they considered that it was not one indivisible nation. How would people today in the United States view such attitudes? How would people in any country anywhere view people coming to live in their country only to campaign to break it up? The answer is obvious. Such behaviour may or may not be legal, but it’s clearly ungrateful and rude. If I have chosen to live in the United States and have been given the right to do so, I should feel some duty not to attack it from within.
When I lived in the USSR, I knew that there were faults in the society in which I lived. But I had been granted an extraordinary favour by the Government. I was given permission to live where foreigners were normally not allowed. I would no more have dreamt of campaigning to break up the Soviet Union than I would dream of campaigning to break up Russia today. I would have considered it a betrayal of the country that had granted me the right to live there. I didn’t want the country I came from, the UK, to break up, so what right would I have had to campaign to break up the USSR? It would have been grotesquely hypocritical for me to do this. I don’t deny the right of people from the former republics of the USSR the right to campaign to leave it. If Lithuanians or Georgians felt this desire strongly enough, that was their business. But I did not have this right. Moreover, the USSR was just as much as the United States, one nation, indivisible. They would have likewise had the right to prevent secession even by force of arms if they had so chosen. It’s only because Ukraine became an independent sovereign nation state that there is international outcry because of the conflict there. If the Red Army had prevented the Ukrainian SSR from seceding in 1991, it would have been perfectly legal for them to do so.
Scottish politics has become something of interest to people from all over the world. I’m naturally grateful when I come across people online who support the preservation of the UK as one nation, indivisible. But I am frankly annoyed by people from elsewhere who want to break up my country while keeping their own intact. If I went to live in Poland and campaigned for parts of Poland to be returned to Germany or for Poland to be partitioned once more, I imagine I would not exactly be welcomed by ordinary Poles. If you have been granted leave to remain in the UK, or if your right to live and work in the UK depends on the UK being a member of the EU, it is grotesquely ungrateful to attempt to break up the UK. The UK has been extraordinarily welcoming to citizens from the EU. We rightly granted people from Eastern Europe the right to live and work here long before most other EU countries. To repay that by attacking us from within is at best very rude, at worst treacherous.
We need to move on in the UK from our civil war and realise that the victory at last year’s referendum was just as much a defeat for secession as that which defeated the Confederacy in 1865. We are now one nation, indivisible and it's time politicians made this clear. We cannot continue forever to refight old battles. There is no right to secession in international law.
It was made clear prior to the referendum that this was a one off. Knowing what we do now about the failure of nationalists to accept the result, it would have been far better if David Cameron had simply said to Alex Salmond back in 2012 that there would be no referendum for the reason that the United Kingdom was one nation, indivisible. It should be made clear that this would be the answer from now on. There are not four nations in the UK. There is one. The others are nations in the sense that Fife is a “kingdom”. They are called “countries”, but they are not countries until and unless they become independent.
I am not in favour of pledging allegiance to a flag, but it should be made clear to everyone who comes to live in Britain that we are welcoming and grateful that you have chosen to live here, but that if you become a British citizen, you have an allegiance to the UK as one nation, indivisible. No doubt, after the Civil War had been lost, there were many in the southern states who resented the fact that they had lost and that the United States was one nation rather than two. These people wasted their lives refighting old battles rather than getting on with making their shared country better. No doubt, for a time 'lost cause' Confederates made up a significant portion of the population south of the Mason Dixon line, perhaps they even numbered more than 45%. But it didn’t matter. There wasn’t a rerun. There never will be a rerun. And now their battles seem as remote as Solway Moss and Pinkie Cleugh.
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