Chris Deerin writes: “Scots have a moral duty to stay British. Our union embodies values that are unmatched anywhere, standing as a beacon to those struggling towards modernity. When, after 10 years as prime minister, Tony Blair gave his resignation speech at Trimdon Labour Club in 2007, he described Britain as “the greatest nation on earth”. This was met with a horrified gasp from the country’s opinion formers. What was this guy on? What was this flag-in-the-front-yard boosterism? Ugh.
Last September David Cameron stumbled into the same trap. At a G20 meeting in St Petersburg, after a Russian official described Britain as “just a small island” to which “no one pays any attention”, the prime minister went off on one. Few nations have “a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience”, he said. We led the way in abolishing the slave trade and defeating fascism; our small island “has the sixth-largest economy, the fourth best-funded military, some of the most effective diplomats, the proudest history, one of the best records for art and literature and contribution to philosophy and world civilisation”. Britain had invented “many of the things that are most worthwhile … from the industrial revolution to the world wide web”.
To me this appeared a straightforward recitation of basic fact. But the reaction of many within the metropolitan political bubble was, again, one of embarrassment. Cameron’s robust assertion of national worth and achievement was seen as, well, a bit cheesy – as one friend said to me at the time: “It’s crass to think of ourselves like that; even if we did, we certainly wouldn’t say it out loud. Who does he think we are?”
All this speaks to a bigger truth. There is one place in the 21st century where it is particularly unfashionable to be British. That place is, of course, Britain. If, down the local or at a dinner party, the conversation turns to matters of politics and identity and you dare proclaim yourself a British patriot, brows wrinkle, looks are exchanged and seats scrape back a few inches. Persist – explain that you look on this country with pride, respect and deep affection – and you risk the kind of heated argument that will ruin an evening.
This isn’t to say that we live unhappily on our chilly little collection of northern rocks. Life for most people is, relatively speaking, good. And it certainly isn’t to say that we are an unattractive prospect to the rest of the world – the mass immigration of the past half-century and the modern-day Babel that is London suggest otherwise.
None the less, the very idea of Britain and Britishness has fallen out of favour. Too many of us no longer have a sense of ourselves as a confident country with a rich history and a bright future. We do not regard ourselves as a “Great” nation. This is in part a consequence of the humiliation of Suez, the economic failures and broken social contract of the 1970s, the divisive battles of the 1980s. In the past decade alone we have struggled through Iraq, Afghanistan and a colossal economic crisis. There is little talk these days of the British character. Many, especially on the left, view our imperial past and more recent military engagements as a mark of shame or, worse, an unbroken chain of war crimes. They cringe at our continued support for those in overseas territories such as the Falklands and Gibraltar. As the Americans pivot towards Asia and the developing economies of the east and south grow ever more powerful, the question is posed: how long we can keep our seat at the UN security council, or play such a prominent role in Nato, or rightfully claim a place in the G8?
For we Scots, there is an additional layer of complexity. In September we will choose whether we wish to continue as Britons or leave to set up a separate country. This is the kind of decision that concentrates the mind wonderfully: is there a point to the United Kingdom in the 21st century? Should we stay or should we go? For better or worse, or is it time to call in the divorce lawyers?
So far the polls suggest that support for the union v independence remains static, at around two-thirds to one-third. The yes campaign is struggling to convert the greater mass of Scots into kilted bum-barers who bellow “freedom” whenever an English person hoves into view. The gap between the two sides is so great that it will be difficult for the nationalists to win without some kind of game-changing event.
However, not even the most devoted unionist would claim this is down to any tearful, emotional attachment to Britain and Britishness. There is a reason that Better Together has based more of its campaign on identifying and publicising the risks associated with independence than on eulogising a partnership that has endured for more than 300 years. And looking at the polls, who is to say this is wrong? Come September, job done.
But even if this approach is electorally successful, it is surely spiritually, existentially unsatisfying. It speaks to an unromantic union based on cold economic calculation, a harsh tale told by lawyers and accountants. Doesn’t Britain deserve better? Doesn’t it deserve a little love?
As a Scot who has lived in London for most of the past decade, I have tracked the independence debate obsessively, but at a slight remove. I have watched both sides throw statistics and assertions – some credible, many not – back and forth. I have followed the increasingly vitriolic exchanges between the footsoldiers on Twitter. I have listened to friends who don’t usually take an interest in politics rehearse the arguments in fine detail.
And then, at Christmas, my family and I moved back north, to my childhood home of Stirling. My own children are attending the local state schools. Our health is in the hands of the local NHS. I am earning my living north of the border. I will have my say in the referendum. Now it’s personal.
I know how I’ll vote. I have always found it easy and natural to think of myself as both Scottish and British. In London I would wake up to James Naughtie on the Today programme and end the day with Kirsty Wark on Newsnight. Some 850,000 of us Scots live south of the border. I encountered Scots – clever, tough, funny, sweary Scots – in senior positions everywhere in England: in national and local politics, the City, the media and football; in the trade unions and the professional associations; in the churches, schools and universities. Lord Robertson, the former defence secretary, recounts how, having been appointed secretary-general of Nato, he was asked by an official why he didn’t support Scottish independence, as “surely then you could run the whole show”. Before he could answer, another colleague butted in: “The Scots run the big show anyway.”
This is pretty much true, and has been ever since James I. Britain allows us to plug ourselves into a vast network, to be citizens of a globally minded country that has always based much of its military, intellectual and economic success on Scots and their genius. The idea that it is rational or desirable to erect barriers between our nations seems both impractical and unpleasant to me. I find the suggestion that we’re anything other than one people utterly bizarre.
But when my daughters are grown and ask me how I voted in the great referendum of 2014, and to explain my choice, I won’t say all this. I’ll tell them something else.
I will tell them that I think the argument for the continued existence of our United Kingdom is first and foremost a moral one: that our country embodies values that are unmatched anywhere else in the world; that it stands as a beacon to those who are struggling their way towards modernity, through civil wars and ethnic tensions, through tyranny towards democracy, through poverty and corruption and the oppression of the spirit; that it spends blood and treasure on protecting the world’s most vulnerable people – on stepping in – because it is the right thing to do. I will tell them that Britain is beautiful.
And it is. I sometimes think we are a victim of our own success, that we have grown complacent about our extraordinary achievements. There is a sort of British reserve or self-deprecation in our refusal to make a fuss over ourselves, our history, our relentless self-invention and adaptability. We should appreciate all of it. Scotland and England buried centuries of enmity to form a union that has been the most enduring, peaceful and prosperous political project in human history. We built institutions that ensured stability as other nations lost themselves in civil war. We ran much of the world – and it is impossible to imagine the British empire without Scots, who accounted for about half the East India Company and a striking number of colonial governors. And, yes, we made grave mistakes. We make them still – but we are our own worst critics, and account for error through a process of public self-examination that is not often found even among our fellow western democracies. It is no accident that we have maintained good and productive relations with many former colonies through the Commonwealth.
We have built a welfare state to care for the poorest and most vulnerable among us, and worry constantly about whether we are doing enough or getting it right. The key policies of this Conservative-led government are reforms to welfare and education, and even those who disagree with them should concede that the intention is to improve the lot of those who have the least. Our civic space is a place of furious arguments, terrible temper tantrums, expressions of disgust and awful accusations – and then we resolve our differences peacefully, make a decision and move on.
All this means that, out there in the world, Britain matters. We are listened to seriously. As a new multilateral international settlement comes into being – as China, India and the rest rise, as America is forced to the table, as Russia chucks stones from the sidelines and the Iranians play their games – Britain’s existence stands as a rebuke to those who say that prosperity cannot go with human rights, that tolerance cannot co-exist with robust debate, that the rule of law and personal freedom must be mutually exclusive.
Scotland may only represent around a tenth of the UK’s population and a third of its land mass, but if we walked out, we would leave behind a much-diminished state, and one that would be heavily compromised in its international dealings. How could it urge the Chinese towards democracy, if that very system had led to its own collapse? The Spanish and Belgian governments would quickly face their own traumas as the Catalans, Basques and Flemish moved to replicate the SNP’s success. A fragile global system would rock on its axis – after all, if even dear old Britain can’t keep it together, where is solidarity to be found?
So, when my girls put the question to me, I hope to be in a position to tell them that when the moment arrived, Scots – Scots, of all people! – did not opt to go small, to lay down the moral role conferred on them by history, to turn their back on the difficult and painful decisions – and inevitable mistakes – that come with a position in the front rank of world powers: that it never really seemed like a very Scottish thing to do.
We have a big choice to make this year. Undoubtedly, Britain will be traduced in every way possible by those who wish to destroy it. But perhaps it is also an opportunity to rediscover what we have, what we have done, and what we might still do. Because, for me, a world without Britain is almost unthinkable. And I’m clear: it would not be a better world.
• This is an edited extract of an article that first appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/13/scots-moral-duty-stay-british-referendum)