What’s in a Name?

This is a big year for the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. After the preceding 306 years of union, 2014 presents the most serious challenge to the constitutional arrangements of the four nations which make up the UK, with the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 18th.

For some, it’s time to give up on what they see as an anachronistic quirk of the modern world, a hangover more suited to 1914 than 2014.

But in the UK I still see the possibility of something unique, exciting and worthwhile: in short, something I want to keep. Here’s why:

Unity brings Strength: As someone who regards himself as being on the ideological left, I’m firmly aware of the immediate impression that the word ‘Strength’ can give. Citing the UK’s membership of the United Nations Security Council or our position as an influential member within the European Union as reasons to maintain the Union, let alone the fact that we have the world’s eighth largest economy and fourth largest military spending, are derided by many as exactly the kind of 20th Century hubris that an independent Scotland could well do without.

It’s true that power politics is a too-common norm in our world and that there’s not enough empowerment downwards. If the consequence of the UK holding the power that we do is more decisions like the invasion of Iraq, then you can count me out too.

But the truth is also that power has always made the world go round. In all nations and in all eras, from the Phoenician Empire, to the Roman Empire, to the Khmer Empire, to the Spanish and British Empires, from American hegemony to the future Chinese dominance, the possession of power seems to be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to shaping the world that we live in. The question for us is not whether strong countries dominate the way the world works – we can see from the Crimea to the South China Sea that they obviously do.

There is only really one important question relating to our power and that is, how shall we use it? Because the potential of the UK’s combined economic, military, diplomatic and cultural power to be a positive force in the world is just phenomenal. The invasion of Iraq was a mistake; but what about the job our military did to stop a brutal war criminal and his militia raping and pillaging Sierra Leone? Tied-Aid was a mistake; but what about us having the second-largest international development budget in the world? 19th Century cultural imperialism was a mistake; but what about the way we hosted the Olympics in 2012?

It’s only with the collective strength that we achieve in the UK that we can make this positive difference in the world. The strength that we have in the United Kingdom can be a massive benefit not only to us, but to the rest of the world. All that matters are the choices that we make about how to use it.

Unity brings Solidarity: I am a great admirer of Co-operatives, Trade Unions and Credit Unions. These voluntary movements have for well over one hundred years sought to strengthen communities and individuals through the power of the collective. Each of them enable the pooling of resources in order to provide increased security to particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in society through using collective bargaining power in the areas of trading, employment and financial services. When part of the community falls on hard times, or faces the injustice of inequality, the rest of the collective can step in to ease their difficulties.

These institutions are all manifestations of a unity and solidarity that have been and can be reflected in the United Kingdom. Whatever stance you take on the economic viability of an independent Scotland, one thing that’s clear is that pooling our resources on this island makes it possible that areas of greater deprivation – wherever they are – can be supported by areas of greater affluence. Of course, the aim of a socially just United Kingdom should be to level out such inequality in the first place. And it’s clear that we have a long way to go in this regard.

However our ability to do so in the future comes exactly from the possibility of re-directing resources from one part of a larger pot to another. This may be possible to some degree within an independent Scotland, but not to the same degree that it’s possible within the world’s eighth largest economy. As I write, I can hear the howls of the Yes Campaign, pointing out the growing inequality that we’ve seen in the UK over the last 30 years. And they are right – we have to some degree squandered the opportunity for social justice that we have in the UK. But the solution to this missed opportunity is simply political will. Again, it’s not the resources – our wealth – we have that are the problem; it’s how we use it to make our country more equal that matters. And the economy of scale that the UK gives us makes the possibilities much more exciting, offering a solidarity that I believe we should aspire to.

Unity brings Hope: As a fundamental principle, union is always a better aspiration than disunity. Yes, the type of union that is created matters. The United States of America contains some gross economic inequalities. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had at its heart an ideology which flattened individual conscience and social freedoms. The European Union can at times have a tendency to require conformity and suppress diversity by seeking to engender a not-always-apparent common European story.

Yet there is something wonderful that happens when human beings overcome our natural inclinations to reject difference or even fear the other, and pursue connectedness. We’ve not got everything right in the United Kingdom; very far from it. But I truly love the fact that, in our difference – national, ethnic, linguistic, religious, regional, ideological – we have stuck with each other on this island, even when it would have been easier to give up and retrench into the familiar.

We live in in the most exciting country on earth: a truly multi-national state which has a respect for the other that, having travelled to about 40 countries of the world to date, I’ve yet to see bettered. This is not to say you can’t find bigotry or racism on these islands. But in truth we are a very tolerant nation. That comes from over 300 years of practice.

It’s this idea of hope in the possibilities of unity on this island that, above all else, makes me want to fight to keep the UK, rather than press the eject button.

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6 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Hello, and thanks for pointing me to this site. You put the No argument very cogently. I just feel – especially in the light of our recent wars, the cross-party decision to renew Trident, and the pressure that I see the poor under in daily life living in Govan (contrasted with the affluence of rich friends and colleagues) that the rest of the UK has moved so far away from the direction that Scotland, with only 1 Tory MP has moved, that we need respectfully and cooperatively to go our different ways. Difference is important to respect, Failure to do so is hegemonic.

    1. Hi Alastair, thanks for your comment. It may be here that we get to the point where, as you say, we respectfully and cooperatively go our different ways. I certainly wish that there was more of that attitude within the implacably opposed… One thing that I do see repeatedly in this IndyRef debate is a critique from the Yes side which in a nutshell says: the policies of the governments of the last thirty years show that the UK is irrevocably broken, we must separate ourselves from them. In response to that I would say a few things:
      1. It’s not the preserve of any side to recognise that there are some deep problems with both our current constitutional settlement and the right-ward drift of politics in the UK
      2. These challenges can be addressed however in a range of different ways, not only by the nuclear option of separation
      3. Is there a bit of Scottish Exceptionalism going on here? I think there is. As much as I love my nation, I really don’t think that it is inevitable that an independent Scotland would in any way automatically be more likely to create a more just and equitable country than the current set up. Power corrupts. I can only imagine the potential backroom dealings in an independent Scotland if the claims about Shetland Oil turn out to be true.
      4. We’re really not being offered a truly independent nation anyway. What’s on the table is indylite: same currency, same head of state, same embassies, same central bank, same passports, the list goes on. The idea seems ludicrous to me. It’s a bit like a flatmate declaring that he’s moving out of the shared apartment, only to move into the laundry cupboard.
      5. Once our part in the UK is gone, it’s gone forever. Think carefully.
      6. I believe that the possibilities for what we might achieve in a multi-national, collegiate set-up of the UK, far outstrip the potentiality of what an independent Scotland can achieve, if for the only reason that transcendence and unity are always better than retrenchment and unilateralism.

      So, I guess on both pragmatic and philosophical grounds, I can’t see how the Yes option is better than working to create a better UK.

  2. A nicely written peace and I respect your view even though I disagree with it 🙂 I do not believe that an independent Scotland would be any less secure as a result of independence, it is highly likely that Scotland would be part of NATO, The EU etc etc.

    I don’t believe that unity brings solidarity in the UK. The Country is increasingly londoncentric with the regions increasingly neglected.
    I don’t believe that unity brings hope. The poor are increasingly disenfranchised in the UK.

    1. Thanks for your comment Alan. My point on strength though was really the opposite of the issue of security (as much as that is important). It is about being in a position to genuinely make a positive difference to the world in which we live, at a scale that can be game-changing. For instance, the fact of having the world’s second largest overseas aid budget. That is, the issue is not about whether strength is a good thing in itself: it’s about how we use it.

      As for solidarity, that is something which we need to actively fight for. It’s a choice. I agree that we have a system that has become Londoncentric. But that’s a choice; one which can be undone. We can increase subsidiarity by devolving more power to the Regions and cities (something that Labour proposed last year by the way). We can create a more devolved or even Federal UK. But the bottom line is that I have more in common with and more solidarity towards a Scouser or Ulsterman who believes in the Common Good, than I necessarily do with a fellow Scotsman just because he is Scottish.

      Finally, on Unity: the Union that we currently have needs to be much improved. However I deeply believe that a State which is founded upon the principle of separatism and the lowest common denominator of national identity is fundamentally impoverished. In many parts of the world, this has been the only option on the cards, and so I understand why many nations have chosen it – especially when they have been emerging from a colonial system.

      But that is not the case for us. We already live in perhaps the only truly multi-national state on earth. One that is designed to be such. That’s an ideal that I want to fight for, even when it will be difficult – it’s an ideal which is much more hopeful.

  3. David, there is so much on which we agree. I guess that the main difference between our positions is that you have some faith left in the current political establishment. Faith that they will make the changes needed to create a more fair society. Faith that they will carry through on promises of a greater devolution of power to the regions faith that the UK will become the truly multi-cultural nation that I think we would both love to see.

    Sadly since I became old enough to vote (1979) I have seen the entire political establishment in the UK move massively to the right, we see UKIP, BNP etc gaining a political foothold and we see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. We see the UK dragged into (illegal) foreign wars as we kowtow to the USA I shudder to think where this will take us next. Presumably back into Iraq!

    In short I have absolutely no faith in the political establishment. I believe the only thing that will improve ‘our lot’ is to pull down the current system and start again. This something that Scotland will have an opportunity to do next week. I have faith that Scotland can take a lead, forge a new beginning and set an example to the rest of the UK and indeed to the rest of the world.

    It is nice to be able to debate the subject with someone who disagree’s with your view but is prepared to put a counter argument in a well considered, well reasoned and calm way. I wish our politicians would do the same.

    All the best, whatever the outcome next week.
    Yours Aye
    Alan

    1. Yes, it’s a pleasure to be able to have a reasoned discussion about the future of this wee island for a change! You’re right, we agree on a whole lot to be honest. I agree that the political establishment has moved to the right in the last thirty years. That’s what we need to change. But the irony with Scottish independence is that it may well end up escalating that rightwards drift. 400,000 Scots voted for the Tories in the last Scottish elections. Will they have a bigger or a smaller say in Scottish politics post-Indy? In the short term, the rUK will certainly have a more consolidated political right. And that’s not to mention the highly suspect left-leaning credentials of the SNP themselves. We all know that they are virtual shoe-ins to form a first government of an independent Scotland if the result is Yes. My feeling is that the SNP masquerade as a party of the left, because they know that is what they need to do in Scotland to win. But this is the party who have defined themselves historically by Nation. This is the party who are promising 3% cuts in corporation tax, and that Scotland is open for business. They have a leader who has been schmoozing Rupert Murdoch and who, at the end of the day, served as WESTMINSTER MP for about 20 years.

      Finally, I fully expect the SNP to use Trident and Faslane as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the rUK, and for the Scottish Govt to sign a deal by which it becomes the equivalent of Guantanamo bay military base, in exchange for some kind of deal on the currency or on the debt.

      Anyway, in either case, I wish you well!

      David

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