Don’t fret about Scotland booing the National Anthem; instead let’s embrace our diversity
If you want to illustrate what academics recently described as “the ambivalent union”, you should have been at Hampden earlier this week.
I was in the stands for the big game; my son and I got tickets earlier in the year. He (born in Glasgow) supports Scotland. I (born in Lancashire) support England.
Seated among the Scotland support, we watched on as the England fans in the tier below us belted out the British national anthem (one Scotland and England share) while among us, everyone roundly booed. It was yet another example of how, in this country, words like ‘national’ and ‘country’ are mixed up and contested. Me and my son decided silence was the better part of valour.
There’s been some grumbling about that booing in the days since and even claims it was all the SNP’s fault. I prefer to take the view that, unless actual fists are flying, absolutely nothing at the football should be taken seriously. Scotland and England have always enjoyed absolutely loathing each other for 90 minutes, and I think we should all be perfectly relaxed about that. There is plenty to worry about without also tormenting ourselves with the booing of God Save the King at Hampden.
Nonetheless, the weird complex nature of our Union, highlighted by Tuesday’s night’s odd state of affairs, does merit attention.
“An ambivalent union” isn’t my phrase. It’s the title of a new piece of research by Aisla Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones for the IPPR think-tank, published last week. It’s a constitutional analysis of great nuance, subtlety and texture. Perhaps this is the reason why nobody in our polarised political culture seems to have paid it the slightest bit of attention. We should; it’s fascinating.
The research by Henderson and Wyn contains a lot of new polling on the constitution. They didn’t poll the usual questions about whether people would vote Yes or No in a referendum or whether they think a referendum should happen. Instead (as OSF has also done) they sought to dig deeper with what they describe as a “360 degree” view; posing questions about each nation of the UK to each nation of the UK.
To sum up…..it’s complex. We live in a Union of grievance, they note: everyone thinks their part of the UK is getting a uniquely raw deal, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland particularly grumpy. Majorities in all the three non-English parts of the UK think the elephant in the British bed gets too many resources. The English as usual, aren’t that bothered.
For it is also, the researchers note, a Union of ignorance. “Quite simply, significant swathes of the populations of each of the four parts of the UK seem to know little about what is happening in other parts of the state,” the authors declare. That’s particularly the case in England where – bless my fellow countrymen and women – they continue to remain mostly oblivious to those of us living in the Celtic fringes. As ever, the storm of English resentment continues to be smashed on the rocks of Anglo indifference.
The report shows that we, the British, are hilariously inconsistent. In the abstract, we support the idea of policy uniformity; of doing things the same across the UK. There’s still a sense that “we are all in this together” and of social solidarity. Yet when the researchers then asked about specific politics, that support drops off (and especially in Scotland). In short, people in the nations of the UK appear to be happy to do things the same but only on condition that their own individual unit gets to decide. It’s like one of those awkward relationships where the two partners will only consent to doing what they both want to do so if it was their idea in the first place.
Support for the Union is extremely conditional and, in one sense, non-existent: in a remarkable finding, the researchers found that in every part of the Union apart from Northern Ireland there is support for Irish unity. As the authors put it starkly: “We find not so much ambivalence about but opposition to the territorial integrity of the state as currently constructed.” Meanwhile, as to the priority people place on the Union – well, not so much. Put Brexit and the Union side by side, and lots of people believe Brexit is a “price worth paying” for the collapse of the latter.
And then there are the gaping differences in the priorities we place on the Union itself. In another knock-out finding, asked whether the union’s interests should be prioritised, the report finds a 30 point gap between Scottish and English Tories: 57% to 28%. Scottish Conservative Unionists who have had to listen to their English colleagues prattle away about the “precious union” over the last few years will raise a weary eyebrow at that one.
The authors make some conclusions. Given this chaotic ambivalent Britishness, the policy of “muscular unionism”, they conclude, is a dud, for seeking to enforce a rigid sense of national identity in among all this mushy ambivalence is – to reverse the popular analogy – like bashing a nail into custard. Instead, they argue, leaders need to lean into Britain’s inherent diversity. “Any party which seeks to govern in pursuit of a thriving rather than divided union, must do so by encompassing and responding to the diverse views held across the UK,” they conclude.
This is, without question in my mind, correct. Muscular Unionism is an act of desperate nostalgia, not a realistic strategy, and even Boris Johnson came to understand that when he was in No10. Indeed, the authors conclusion is backed up by the man who advised Mr Johnson during that time, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning. In a recent article for Fortnight magazine, McInnes concluded: “For the Union to build on its current structural stability it needs to culturally change its attitudes from fighting inevitability to embracing diversity, and returning to the roots of a successful dynamic United Kingdom where (national) identity is not subsumed but celebrated.”
In short, a Union which fights national identities is one doomed to failure. A Union which sees these diverse identities as intrinsic to its very nature is one that’s more rooted in experience.
Our Scottish Future has been banging this drum for some time. The IPPR research is similar to our own work which informed Gordon Brown’s Commission on the Future of the UK last year. We argue, as is implied in the IPPR paper, that Whitehall and Westminster need to be reformed so they both recognise and reflect this more diverse union. It is entirely understandable that lots of people in England don’t think much about the three other smaller nations that occupy the British Isles. It really isn’t for the people in England who are supposed to be in charge of the place.
Forget Muscular Unionism. Pluralist Unionism is the way to go, one which celebrates our diversity, complexity and our peculiar state. A State whose component parts contain the Scotland and England fans who gathered at Hampden last Tuesday evening can do no other.