In the darkest days of our nation’s history, when Britain confronted the Nazi menace alone and the United Kingdom was all that stood between the free world and fascism, a series of daily concerts were held at the mothballed National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square. These concerts, organised by the pianist Myra Hess, served to lift the spirits of war-weary Brits and demonstrate a positive public response in the face of the most trying circumstances.
Trafalgar Square has played host to many rallies, concerts and protests since those bleak days in the 1940s. But there have been none so important as the rally which is scheduled to take place later today, on Monday 15 September in support of the United Kingdom, and in opposition to a “Yes” vote in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence.
The circumstances of the new existential threat we face may be quite different, but make no mistake: the survival of our country in its current form has not been at such great a risk since Hitler’s Luftwaffe threatened to clear the way for a German invasion.
A democratic, peacetime split may is clearly not the same as invasion by a foreign power, but it would be traumatic in its own way. No, there will not be an occupying army or columns of tanks on the street if the Scottish people decide to secede from the United Kingdom when they go to the polls on the 18th of September. As following a bereavement or divorce, life at its most banal will continue largely as usual. But something precious will have been lost, something irretrievable. The greatest, most successful country in modern history will have ceased to exist, fractured into a small, euro-centric social democracy to the north and a bewildered, diminished rump to the south.
One might expect that the public debate over whether or not to take such a momentous step would be fought on the great issues of national heritage and identity, our place in the world, our global aspirations and our shared values. But the depressing reality could not be more different. The United Kingdom (or at least those of us to the north of the border – no others have a say in the matter) is debating whether or not to tear itself in half not over momentous questions but over petty, relatively inconsequential differences over welfare spending, healthcare policy, tax rates and a disgust with “the establishment” that is felt no less keenly south of Hadrian’s Wall as it is to the north.
Worse still, the public debate has been led by small people, forgettably familiar but unnameable faces from the news channels and those ambitious, trifling personalities that pass for statesmen and women in our age. The smarmy salesman Alex Salmond peddling his false promise of a cost and risk-free independence on one side, and failed prime minister Gordon Brown defending the union on the other, with both teams claiming their share of largely worthless celebrity endorsements.
The British people have been let down at every turn. Not just in the conduct of this referendum campaign, but in the thirty or more years of public policy that led us to this dismal and threatening place, this ill-fitting patchwork of a constitutional settlement that sees powers handed out not fairly and equally between the home nations under an equitable and explainable federal system, but through a series of bribes and concessions intended to mollify whichever interest group was causing the most trouble at any given time. This was no way to run a country, but few people complained or warned of the danger until now the crisis point has been reached.
It is the patriotic British people, not their feckless leaders, who have made the only contributions worth listening to throughout the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The Spectator magazine has done a fine job of curating many of these impassioned calls to preserve our United Kingdom, and it is startling to note the ease with which national pride and love of country pours from the mouths, pens and keyboards of ordinary Britons compared to the way that such sentiments stick in the throats of our elected politicians.
That is why this rally matters. At a time when our elected politicians are proving themselves more ineffectual by the day – whether confronting new threats from the Middle East or holding the country together in the face of nationalist agitation – a Unity Rally reminds us that the power, the heritage and the wisdom resides in all of us, not just them.
As Fraser Nelson writes in The Spectator:
This is not about celebrities: it’s about ordinary Britons, the type who wrote so eloquently in this week’s Spectator about their love for the UK and why they think it’s worth keeping. Bring flags, bring your friends, lobby your friends to turn up – if you don’t have a vote, and you care about the survival of your country, this may be the only thing you can do.
The Unity Rally is being organised by historians Dan Snow and Tom Holland, the force behind the LetsStayTogether petition, and consciously seeks to emulate the 1995 rally held in Montreal before Quebec held a referendum to secede from Canada and become an independent, self-governing nation.
Canada is a fine country, a Commonwealth partner and a close ally, and no offence is meant by this observation – but it is truly shaming and an indictment of our own national character that Canadians were able to mobilise and organise such a huge rally in support of their country, while a similar rally in support of far more consequential, storied Britain was only mooted a few days ago, and is likely to pale in size and significance compared to its Montreal template.
Fraser Nelson alludes to our collective failure, too:
A lot of Canadians said [the Montreal rally] was one of the most moving moments of their lives as citizens. We Brits tend not to do this very much, but that’s the problem. Failure to say how much we value this country, and cherish its diversity, has allowed Alex Salmond to tell Scots that – in effect- the rest of the UK doesn’t care about them.
Yes, but our failure is far greater than a mere omission to soothe Scottish egos, as this blog has already noted:
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.
How sorely the United Kingdom – facing restless nationalists, certain communities who stubbornly refuse to integrate and various other threats to our cohesiveness – needs a unifying rally such as the one held for Canada in Montreal. How urgently we need a new public holiday that celebrates our collective identity as UK citizens and our many accomplishments and points of pride as a nation.
But this rally is a promising, if small, start. First we must save the Union, and then if we are successful in preventing Scotland from drifting away we can look to bind up the nation’s wounds, make order out of our constitutional chaos and find ways to re-instil an appreciation for our shared Britishness.
Hopefully, patriotic Londoners and those from further afield will flock to Trafalgar Square today in defiance of Alex Salmond’s message of nationalist victimhood, and the naysayers who would sooner apologise for Britain than take pride in its goodness.
Hopefully it is not too little, too late.
The Unity Rally in support of the United Kingdom and a “No” vote in Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence will take place at 6PM on Monday 15 September in Trafalgar Square, London. This blog strongly urges all those who are able to attend the rally to show their support for the continuance and survival of our country in its current, unbalkanised form.
Cover Image: Chalk renderings of the United Kingdom and Scottish flags, produced by a street artist in Trafalgar Square, London.