Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The confessions of an exasperated British federalist

Our future in our hands: which way is best?
If you had asked me four years ago what I thought of the idea of Scottish independence the scorn and incredulity on my face would have been apparent before you had finished the sentence. Of course I was against it. I saw it as parochial, superficial, divisive and really rather peculiar. I also, perhaps unlike most Scots, saw Britishness as an immutable characteristic of my identity. Why would I want to break up my country? What a ridiculous proposition! Moreover, insofar as Scottish independence was articulated, I heard it mostly from people of a distinctly left-wing disposition. Those who knew me then, or indeed now, would probably choke themselves in a fit of laughter at the notion that I would embrace a political movement with apparently socialist-leaning ideals. I can live with centre-right governments and aspects of my politics, particularly on economics, are specifically centre-right by most reasonable definitions.

And yet, on Sunday, and I found myself in a debate at the Glasgow University Union, sharing a platform with Tommy Sheridan, firebrand socialist of poll tax and perjury fame, arguing that Scotland should vote Yes on Thursday 18th September to Scottish independence. Though I argued vociferously for the benefit of the gallery (though not quite so much as Tommy did) my feelings ahead of this referendum are far from unequivocal. I confess whichever way Scotland votes I will feel uneasy about the implications of that decision.

Emotionally British, ideologically Unionist

Emotionally, I still consider myself to be British. If anything, this referendum campaign has given greater cause for introspection as to the nature of my Britishness than of my Scottishness. I empathise with people for whom this referendum feels like being made to choose between those two identities, especially given the inferences of some of the rhetoric of the Yes campaign. There is something seductive about the idea that a national identity, and I do think Britishness is a national identity, can grow and flourish out of overlapping, perhaps confused, incongruent and messy national and regional identities that are part of, but never wholly subsumed by, the nation they create.

For me, Britain, notwithstanding certain aspects of its past and the attitudes of a xenophobic minority in the present, has always been about the celebration and comfort of diversity, tolerance, and being an outward looking family who, though not always agreeing, can come together and understand one another in pursuit of a noble but humble purpose. Together we seek to do good by each other and to the rest of the world.

Further, I do not think that Britain oppresses Scotland or Scottishness. Scotland is a confident, vibrant and successful nation: one which stands tall in the world, through its culture, its sport, its far-reaching and ambitious diaspora, and its intellectual and political contributions to modern life. The nation of the Highland Clearances, received pronunciation and the Scotch cringe of which Scottish nationalists often speak is not the one I recognise as having lived in my whole life. Our eccentricities are not viciously suppressed by the British state. As Alex Salmond himself put it back in January 2012: "Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated". We do not need the crutch of statehood to achieve great things and to express ourselves as a nation or as a people. We are already doing it within the Union and would do so in almost any set of circumstances.

I do not accept, as many Nationalists tell us, that Scotland will be punished or made to suffer if it votes No. On the contrary, devolution has coincided with arguably the most optimistic and hopeful period in Scotland's history. For all the painful impact of certain welfare cuts in the last five years, it is easy to forget that child poverty across various measures is down by more than a third in Scotland over the course of the last decade, in no small part thanks to the flexibility of devolution and the unity of purpose behind a number of measures pursued at a UK-wide level. There is clearly an appetite for Scotland to be responsible for more of its domestic affairs, but in a world where even the Tories are offering some more powers for Holyrood, that is hardly incompatible with being a Unionist.

I do not even think it is necessarily true, as the First Minister never tires of telling us, that the people best equipped to make decisions that affect Scotland are necessarily the people north of Carlisle, in isolation, all of the time. Sometimes I think the people who should be making the decisions about how government affects our lives should be a lot closer to home than that, and other times, more remote. I do not think it is necessarily true that just because the Conservatives are unpopular in Scotland, our current Westminster Government is therefore "illegitimate" in Scotland, or at least not simply because the majority of Scottish MPs are Labour.

I do not think, with the complex and integrated history of the nations on these islands, that it necessarily follows there are clear lines we can draw when deciding who "we" are politically. This could scarcely be more obvious when, as a European, I think sometimes Scotland should be bound by decisions made predominantly by representatives elected by the citizens of other states. I cringed when Alan Bissett said on the floor of the GUU Chamber that you should vote Yes if you think Scotland is a country and No if you do not, while simultaneously claiming this debate was not about nationalism. That seemed to me to be an absurd characterisation of what this referendum was about.

By all rights I should be a Unionist, heart, body and soul, and an ideological one too. Yet I find myself on the brink of marking an 'X' in the Yes box on 18th September and very unlikely to vote No.

Britishness is in crisis

The thing is, I find myself increasingly compelled to take the reasons I reject much of the traditional Yes case to their logical conclusion. Just as Scottishness does not need statehood to flourish and be successful, neither too should the ties of Britishness, or Unionism, need the trappings of statehood to exist and to flourish. Just as voting No does not mean Scotland is just a region, neither too does voting Yes mean Britain is not a nation, or at least it should not do. Are the No side really suggesting that that bond of family, of culture, of togetherness is so weak that it cannot endure a separation of our existing political institutions? That is not the Britishness that is part of me.

If Britishness really is that weak in its current form, and has become so dependent upon the crutch of its political institutions for its endurance, then it really is in trouble. The Union does not need patching up, or loosened, through simply more promises of incremental devolution. It needs completely rebuilt from the bottom up. Britain's lack of clarity of purpose is being exposed by an ironically disparate and divided movement, in the form of the Yes campaign, which has managed to suppress its own incoherence in pursuit of what it perceives to be a common goal.

Whereas the independence movement can externalise its existential bipolarism onto visible, real, and material harms, the Unionist movement, if indeed it is just a single movement, has no such luxury. On the contrary, it has become bashful, lest it be associated with a nutter fringe that has stolen the territory of British nationalism from the tolerant, open-minded, previously self-confident majority.

Structural reform is needed

For Britishness to find its sense of self again, and to strive confidently and independently of its political institutions, it needs first to reform those institutions. It has to do so in a way which enables the different components of its identity to grow and to complement one another, as our compound society faces up to challenges of an increasingly global nature. This means asking ourselves not just what powers are exercised by which political bodies, but what we fundamentally see those political bodies as being, who and what they represent, and what their relationship is between one another.

The problem with devolution is that it has failed to re-imagine the nature of the Union and of Britishness at all. Instead of articulating a new, cohesive ideal for how the nations of Britain mesh together, it brought together two very awkward bedfellows indeed. The political environment, cultivated mostly by the Scottish Labour Party, was distinctly Scottish nationalist in its nature.

Whether it was the Scottish Constitutional Convention with "the sovereign will" of the Scottish people or the fostering of the idea of "illegitimate" governments at Westminster, the justification for Scotland being the "self" in self-government carried with it the inference that Britishness was not the self, or that insofar as it was, it was only so to the extent that it was acquiesced to by Scotland. Perversely, this Scottish nationalist political sentiment was welded to the structures of a unitary state. Whatever the political reality of divided powers, there was no attempt to re-invent a sense of the British constitution or the Westminster Parliament, and all its trappings and tradition of supremacy.

Devolution even took a legal form that varied little from the colonial relationships arrived at in places like Australia and Canada in the 20th century. Power devolved is at least notionally power retained. We should be clear that Scotland is no colony: it is a partner with democratic representation and influence on the British state. But devolution is a Frankenstein's monster that attempts to marry two existentially incompatible visions about the relationship between the four nations and Britain. It says that domestic governance in the Celtic nations should be conceived of as unrelated and tolerated anomalies to otherwise homogeneous Britishness.

The absence of a distinctively English voice or set of voices merely serves to accentuate the sense in which these are anomalies and re-enforces the idea that Britishness is really Englishness, and if not a threat to, then at least incompatible or ill-fitting with, Scottishness, Welshness or Northern Irishness. Yet the politics of those devolved institutions are distinctly Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, albeit to varying degrees. They are not British in a positive sense, and are defined by what they hollow-out from Britain as a political entity. We cannot have a coherent, confident and positive British identity for as long as England is so unsure of itself. It does not know who and what it is in clear contradistinction to Britain. It is this tension that makes those who consider themselves to be "Scottish not British" think that Britain and Britishness poses a threat to the idea of Scotland as a strong and confident political voice.

What we have needed for decades is a series of political and constitutional relations that clearly conceive of Britain as a partnership of nations and regions, rather than the slow and irreversible demerger that devolution represents. Even if Scotland votes No and more powers are given to the Scottish Parliament, they will not put this issue to an end. The fundamental structure remains in place. The conflict of a unitary British state still jars, arguably more so, with a Scottish people that increasingly see themselves not just as a primary, but ever more so an exclusive, political community.

Reinventing the Union

Put simply, only a form of federalism can save Britain as an idea and free it from a political system that satisfies few and exasperates many. To achieve such a structure, we need to rekindle the idea that the Union is in fact a relationship between nations and that Britain is a mutually supportive by-product of that interaction rather than the means by which one nation is seen, even if inadvertently, to dominate the others. We need to create a set of circumstances in which "Scottish not British" people see the Union as a partnership of equals, facilitative of Scottish (and English, Welsh and Northern Irish) self-confidence and influence in the wider world.

Such a partnership, I regret, will unlikely be achieved in my lifetime within the Union we have now. Notwithstanding the best intentions of Liberal Democrats, whistling in the wind about federalism for well over a century, there is no appetite for English devolution, either as a nation or into discrete regional Parliaments. The whole concept of the "West Lothian Question", where the votes of Scottish MPs determine policies that affect only England, is borne out of the idea that Westminster is really England's Parliament writ a little larger.

If the Scots wanted control over their domestic affairs, they are expected to achieve the acquiescence of Britain as a whole to set up their own Parliament. If the English want control over their domestic affairs, their only proposed solution is to find a way forcibly to remove the Celtic nations from certain decision-making at Westminster. This is, in effect, what the "English Grand Committee" or similar proposals like "English Votes for English Laws" would do.

To achieve federalism, we need a rapid and full-blooded awakening of an inclusive form of English nationalism or of English regionalism. We need a system in which the nations share and integrate resources and institutions not because of inertia, because it has always been that way, but because of affirmative consent: a sense in which they have deliberately come together in pursuit of a common goal. Those goals have to be defined by the nations as they are in the 21st century and not the increasingly irrelevant ideals of what held us together in the past. It is not enough simply to say that you are a Unionist: we need to know what Union it is of which you are a Unionist.

This was no more obvious than in what Drew Smith, Labour's constitutional spokesman, said at the debate on Sunday. He said the reason there was not a third option on the ballot paper for "enhanced devolution" or whatever was because "before we decide on the rules of the club we have to decide whether we want to be a part of the club." This psychology has the concept of a Union completely the wrong way around. The constitutional debate is not just about the minutiae of the rules of the club. It is about the fundamental terms on which the club can be said to exist at all. We cannot say whether we want to be part of the club unless we know the basic assumptions on which the rules are drawn up.

From Federation to Confederation

And so, this Unionist found himself increasingly coming to the conclusion that the only way to save Britain might yet be to break the state that sustains it. To save Britain from itself, it needs shocked into a type of constitutional reform that not even the mere threat of a Yes vote has initiated. With every panicked statement about further powers, whether Devo Max, Plus, Light, Full Fat, Turbo or Supercharged it becomes more and more obvious that the current crop of Unionist leaders do not know how to reinvent the Union. They are so wedded to making this Union work that they may already have lost the opportunity to preserve a Union of any meaningful description.

Perversely, Alex Salmond's vision for an independent Scotland or at the very least a UK-wide version of his devolution max alternative, if advocated by someone who had at heart the intention to save Britain, would come close to a kind of partnership of equals, or at least set it in motion. It would not be a federation, a state of states, as such, but it would be a kind of confederation.

The different communities of the United Kingdom, and potentially even the Crown Dependencies, could have entered into an international compact of mutual support, sharing a travel area, a currency, a titular Head of State, a codified constitution of sorts enunciating common fundamental freedoms and the terms of their co-operation. They could have drawn inspiration from the European Union and created a form of supplementary "British citizenship", conferring political and social rights on the members of the participant nations, islands and territories.

They could have an integrated approach to defence and diplomatic affairs, albeit one based on principles of consensual collective action rather than unilateral brow-beating. We could have developed a clear principle of subsidiarity, encouraging all four nations to recognise the special cultural, historical and political identities of our island communities and England's minority nations and regions like Cornwall and Yorkshire. This would give people throughout these islands real democratic control over the every-day decisions that affect their lives, with most of the advantages of pooling resources when it was in their mutual interests.

The dilemma is that Alex Salmond, most of his followers and most of the Yes movement, do not share, in their heart of hearts, that vision of a British Confederal Union. On the contrary, the reasons they have for wanting a currency union, to share the Head of State, and to be part of the Common Travel Area, are purely instrumental. They want to avoid scaring the horses by convincing those who are "Scottish not British" or "more Scottish than British" that not much of their day-to-day life will change. They know that, in the absence of a big idea for a new Union their opponents can passionately and wholeheartedly believe in, their primary obstacle to independence is fear of the practical consequences and not Scotland's sense of Britishness.

The gamble for me, and I suspect for a fair number of Scots, is whether to put faith in the political class that has systematically and repeatedly failed to articulate a vision for a new Britain in the 21st century just one more time to get it right, or to take this opportunity to put the Union as we know it out of its misery and try to build something new. I have tried throughout this campaign to find the confidence in Westminster to be radical and inventive, but I feel as though I have waited in vain. All that is left for me is either to vote Yes on Thursday or to spoil my ballot and declare a plague on all of their houses.


  1. Well argued. Pragmatically, I fear (yes, fear) that a yes vote will tear any unity of purpose Scotland imagines it has completely apart: it will break Scotland before it breaks the Union. It will take an awful lot of work and luck to piece something satisfactory, let alone better, out of the wreckage. Meanwhile, we will all pay for it with market uncertainty, capital flight and the failure of the Scottish Government to do what it was elected to do and steward our public services.

  2. > The absence of a distinctively English voice
    is filled by distinctive regional voices.

  3. This in an incredible article. Very well argued. I can relate to much of this being from Northern Ireland. I grew up watching people cling to one of two identities that they couldn't fully be, yet make heightened displays of their chosen identity to make up for their blatant insecurity for the little recognition of what identity they actually were: Northern Irish.
    I came to Scotland on the 18th September 2008 and for the first time ever, engaged in politics. It was simply a breath of fresh air. After having carefully evaluated the arguments, I've decided to vote yes. Westminster takes little interest in Northern Ireland- yet there are key things it should have a say in or a responsibility to partake in. Unlike Scotland, Northern Ireland is even less important to the UK as it lacks some fundamental ingredients that are necessary in order to make any real change- unity and confidence.
    The recent Haas talks should have been attended by the UK Gov as one of the key issues- dealing with the past, was crucial to UK cooperation. They were hardly a silent observer in that murky area.
    When London rioted, I watched the BBC coverage discuss the seemingly horrific and terribly embarrassing prospect of having to deploy water cannon. There appeared to be a few days of genuine soul-searching. Did the UK really want to be seen by the international community as a country that deployed water cannon on its own streets? Being from Northern Ireland, it was a turning moment for me as water cannon is of course deployed in home city every July. They don't think twice about bringing it out. The idea that doing that in London was so unimaginable yet perfectly acceptable to the feckless underclass in Belfast, made me question the patchy way in which this union is held together.
    I believe my yes vote will deliver a better form of federalism than could ever be achieved internally by voting no. It will provide a crucial rethink and I envisage it benefiting Northern Ireland as it will force those who are complicit in the seething passive aggressiveness between the nations on these islands to address the problems and fundamentally change our relationships, based on consensus and respect. This can surely only benefit everyone.

  4. Excellent article, Graeme. After years of debating this topic to insanity and beyond, followed by months of baseless speculation masquerading as rolling news, I thought I couldn't bring myself to read anything on the subject any more. Fantastic job.