“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present” – President Abraham Lincoln, Annual message to Congress, December 1862
Nobody should be surprised that the Scottish independence referendum campaign has tightened so much in the closing days, and that we now face the very real prospect of our country breaking in two.
Though it is immensely painful for unionists to see the “Yes” camp boast even a viable chance of success, and the events of the past week seem like an unforeseen emergency, the roots of this crisis have in fact been sowed over many years.
The uncomfortable truth is that the Scottish independence referendum campaign became so close because it was allowed to generate into a mere political argument – left wing pipe dreams versus conservative continuity – rather than being built into a real debate about nationhood, nationality and belonging.
What little talk there was of national identity was ceded entirely to the pro-independence campaign. Within the SNP are a die-hard contingent of Braveheart-style zealots who would vote for independence come hell or high water, ruinous economic consequences be damned. But a far greater number, the ranks currently giving the “Yes” campaign a marginal lead, are formed of naturally left-leaning Scottish voters who do not know – because they have not been told – that this campaign is about anything other than advancing a left-wing political agenda to which they are sympathetic.
There has been almost no talk from the “Better Together” campaign of what would be thrown away and lost forever if the Scottish people vote to leave the United Kingdom. This is partly because it was felt that a campaign in which voters were forced to choose between their Scottish and British identities could only ever end one way, with Scottishness winning hands-down. This may or may not be the case. But it is also because the inhabitants of the British isles have gradually become unaccustomed to talking about our nationality, our shared sense of identity and purpose, at all.
When Britain is mentioned in political debates, it has been in the false context of how small and ineffectual a country we are, buffeted by economic and geopolitical forces beyond our ability to control or influence alone. Witness, for example, the debate about Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, where the political consensus among all main parties (save UKIP) is that Britain cannot possibly survive in the world without surrendering a huge portion of her sovereignty to the EU’s supra-national institutions.
This air of national decline and inferiority has been peddled so successfully and for so long that it is accepted unquestioningly as a universal truth by many of us, despite overwhelming facts to the contrary. The truth is that Britain remains one of the few truly consequential and influential nations on Earth – culturally, economically, politically and militarily. It has become fashionable to be blasé about this fact, or to deny it altogether, but pride in this fact is justifiable, indeed essential if we are to maintain the importance of a strong nation state as the best guarantor of individual freedom and prosperity.
And yet the importance of the nation state has been continually played down in Britain. Decisive action in the national interest is viewed as arrogant and unseemly, with undue reverence given instead to the nebulous notion of “international co-operation” which sounds wonderful on paper but inevitably means closed-door meetings and undemocratic decisions taken by ministers and heads of government with no real accountability. On some level the leftists realise this truth, as their growing opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) reveals.
The concept of British nationality has been further undermined by well-intentioned but misguided dogmas which insist that all cultural behaviours within Britain’s wonderfully multiracial patchwork are valid and acceptable, even when they conflict strongly with traditional British values of tolerance, democracy, patriotism, fairness and equality before the law. Thus problems that manifest within non-assimilated minority communities go unaddressed for fear of violating the unwritten rules of political correctness, leading (in part) to scandals such as the Birmingham Trojan Horse schools scandal or the appalling, endemic sexual abuse scandal in Rotherham.
When politicians have raised concern about the lack of British values being taught in schools and promoted more generally in the culture, the petulant response from many quarters (mostly but not exclusively from the left) has been to negate British accomplishments and virtues, talking up the rest of the world while disparaging Britain at every turn.
Michael Rosen, writing in The Guardian, attacked then-education secretary Michael Gove’s call for schools to teach British values with all the smug superiority of a brainy sixth-former, and inevitably tinged with the usual list of left-wing resentments – some of which are fair, but none of which should be sufficient to negate his love of country to the extent that they clearly do:
I see you’re going to require all your schools to teach British values. If you think you’re going to have the support of all parents in this project, you’ll have to count me out.
Your checklist of British values is: “Democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs.” I can’t attach the adjective “British” to these. In fact, I find it parochial, patronising and arrogant that you think it’s appropriate or right to do so.
So let’s go through it. I like democracy. I don’t think you do. You’ve replaced the democracy of local government control over schools with the marketplace.A tiny number of speculators, debt-sellers, rate-fixers and gamblers have altered the lives of millions of people. No one voted them in. No one can vote them out. We have an unelected head of state and an unelected second chamber…
And so it goes on, ad nauseam.
But the problem is not confined to the likes of Rosen, or to the many Scottish nationalists who see independence only as a useful stepping stone to achieving the kind of far-left political settlement that they so desperately want.
The problem is that even many patriotic Brits from all corners of the United Kingdom are struggling to articulate the reasons why they desperately want to keep our Union together. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, tried in his own unique way, but the result was nothing special. Various elder statesmen of British politics have tried, but none of them have managed to make the heart beat faster for love of Britain, either. And God knows that the people running the “Better Together” campaign have failed, focusing almost entirely on the risks of Scottish independence rather than the great benefits of continued union.
One of the few voices to really succeed in speaking up in favour of the United Kingdom, and arguing that Scottishness and Britishness need not be mutually exclusive, is Alex Massie. In a long piece in The Spectator – worth reading in its entirety – he writes:
The other day the historian Tom Devine remarked that all the Union has going for it is sentiment, family and history. Like that’s not enough? Those aren’twee things, they’re the things that make us who we are. The blood and guts, the bone and marrow of our lives. The tissue that connects us to our fellow citizens, the stuff that makes us more than an individual. The things from which you build a society. You can have that in Scotland, alone and independent, too of course. But we also have it in Britain, right now, and we will lose some of that if we vote Yes. Or some of us will, anyway.
So I think of E Pluribus Unum and I think that’s a motto that applies to the United Kingdom too. And so does its opposite: within one, many. There’s ample room for many types of Britain. Not just Scots and Welsh and Irish and English but Pakistani-Scots, Jamaican-Welsh and Nigerian-English too. I think it’s the tensions and ambiguities inherent in all of this that makes Britain interesting; that makes Scotland interesting too.
The conclusion also offers a much-needed hint of British exceptionalism, and makes one see Britain as really being a country quite like no other:
Most of all, I like that when you get the train to Scotland from London or Peterborough or Newcastle north and you cross the border in the gloaming you feel your heart soar and you cry hurrah and yippee because you know you’re home now without having been abroad. I like that and think it matters. I don’t know if I know why it does or why it suddenly seems so valuable but I know I do. But that’s the Britain I know and like; a place in which I’m always Scottish but also, when it suits, British too. A country where you travel to very different places and still always come home without having been abroad.
Sadly, these kind of sentiments – though possibly quite common among British citizens from both north and south of the border – have been heard far too rarely in the debate, until the referendum is almost upon us and it may be too late to prevent a calamitous outcome. And there is no justification for the outraged surprise now pouring forth from unionist pundits and politicians. Britain is now reaping what her political and intellectual leaders sowed over the course of an entire generation.
This is what happens when an extreme, uncompromising brand of enforced multiculturalism is allowed to triumph over multiracialism.
This is what happens when we allow the perception to take hold that patriotism and pride in one’s own country is a dirty, shameful thing.
This is what happens when years of appalling education policies create a generation who do not possess a narrative history of their own country or have the faintest clue how it came into being, what it has stood for and how its institutions function.
This much is no exaggeration – your blogger took compulsory history classes at school until the age of 14 (at which point the subject was dropped thanks to the awful way it was taught), during which time the topics studied included the Tudors, the Vikings, the First and Second World Wars, and coal mining in Wales. Contrast this woeful failure to provide a comprehensive narrative history of Britain with the history education that an American student might expect to receive, and it makes a painful comparison.
Britain has been slowly waking up to these problems, but in a lazy, leisurely manner that is wholly inadequate to the urgency of the threat. Until now, our failure to nurture a common sense of shared national identity (something that the Americans do so well, and from whom we have much to learn) has led to unfortunate blips and political scandals such as the Birmingham schools Trojan Horse scandal or the repeated flying of a black, ISIS-style flag from the gates of a public housing estate in London. But these symptoms pale in comparison to the very real existential threat which seems to have crept up on so many politicians and pundits almost unnoticed.
Sure, failing to ensure that newly arrived immigrants integrate into the British way of life or allowing proponents of extremist Islam to gain a foothold in schools poses a medium-term threat to the security of the United Kingdom due to the possibility of future acts of terrorism. But the fallout from these failures does not have the potential to destroy our country overnight. On the other hand, our collective failure over at least the past thirty years to inculcate any sense of Britishness even among our own indigenous population could see our country effectively destroyed at the ballot box as soon as next week.
There is blame enough to go around for allowing this slow-motion calamity to come so close to fruition, but now is not the time. Right now, it must be all hands to the pumps in a final effort to save the United Kingdom from Alex Salmond’s chimerical fantasy of an independent Scotland serving as a socialist, egalitarian beacon for the world.
If we avoid disaster and are still fellow countrymen the morning after next Thursday’s referendum, we can then finally get to work shoring up our battered and frayed sense of nationhood, and by every means at our disposal. Educational reform, constitutional reform and government policy at the Westminster and devolved assembly levels will all have an important part to play, as well as a new constitutional settlement to iron out the unfairness of the many perks now being showered on Scotland as a desperate bribe for them to stay in the Union.
But even if the United Kingdom survives the referendum and its aftermath, it will still be for nothing if all 64 million of us British citizens cannot find a way to unlearn years of relentless teaching that there is nothing great about Britain.