The State of the (Other) Union

So Scotland voted to preserve the Union that has served us well since 1707. With 55% voting “no” to independence and 45% “yes” with almost 87% turnout, it has to count as a victory for democracy no matter what your views are on actual independence.

I’m pleased with the result, but I recognise that as an Englishman living in the USA I don’t precisely have any vested interest in the outcome. Still, I have English family that live in Scotland, so I am affected by it, even if only at one remove.

And now the question becomes “where do we go from here?”

The fact that almost half of Scotland’s population voted to separate from the United Kingdom doesn’t exactly speak well of the health of this Union of ours, though the results broken up by locality look more favourable, with only 3 of 32 local councils being carried by the Yes campaign. Personally I’m a little surprised that it wasn’t closer, though the last time I was actually living in Scotland was over a decade ago and close to Glasgow, which was one of the strongest supporters of the independence campaign last night. It’s possible that may be skewing my perceptions.

Watching the campaign from a distance has been quite odd, with most people around me barely even registering the event. Here’s my country possibly on the verge of tearing itself apart (in a wonderfully restrained, peaceable and thoroughly British manner – no violence and no real nastiness), and it barely makes the international segment of the news until there’s an actual result.

I’m pleased with the result, as I said. The Union Jack would look bizarre and unnatural without the St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland, and I honestly believe that the result is best for Scotland too.

But with the additional devolved powers promised to the subordinate Scottish Parliament if they would stay in the Union, the lid is off the pot of constitutional change.

What of the Welsh and the Northern Irish that have their own Assemblies with more limited powers than the Scottish Parliament? Devolution of greater powers to the Scots ought to take place in a context of wider devolution of powers to the Welsh and Irish, otherwise it’s hardly fair. And what of England, which has no national Assembly or Parliament beyond that of the entire UK, and thus has Scottish and Welsh and Irish MPs voting on matters English but with English MPs having no say in Scottish affairs (the so-called “West Lothian question”)?

I’ve wondered for a while whether Britain wouldn’t make more sense as a sort of federation, but it’s always seemed unthinkable. But then, for a long while the idea of a truly independent Scotland seemed unthinkable too, at least as far as Westminster was concerned.

These days, however, we seem to be thinking the unthinkable, with the very real possibility that the Scots could have decided against remaining in the United Kingdom, promised devolution of powers that would have been anathema a mere decade ago, a similar promise to resolve the West Lothian question and the real possibility of dramatic constitutional reform in the United Kingdom as a whole.

We are living in interesting times, though I hope not in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse. If the several main parties of the UK can’t agree on what should be done, it could turn into the worst political quagmire we’ve seen in Britain, but somehow I can’t quite believe that having so recently dodged the bullet of the dissolution of the United Kingdom that we will stumble at the gate.

I have to say that I think this whole referendum has been good for the United Kingdom as a whole. So much that we didn’t want to talk about in case it triggered something like a Scottish independence referendum has been brought into the open where we can actually talk about it. It’s made is really think about our identity as one nation and as four: as British, but also as Scots and Irish and Welsh and English.

As an Englishman, from the constituent country of the United Kingdom in which we were all carefully brought up to think and speak of ourselves as “British”, not “English” (because English was an exclusive term and we wanted to include the Scots and Welsh and Irish), engendering a manifest confusion over what we really meant by either, I see this as unmitigatedly positive. It took moving abroad for me to personally discover the difference; I’m glad it didn’t take the end of the United Kingdom to produce the same result in England as a whole.

I imagine the process has been a little bit like that in reverse for the Scots and Welsh and Irish. They’ve always seemed to have strong senses of their Scottishness and Welshness and Irishness, though with the exception of the Northern Irish, their sense of Britishness has sometimes been weaker.

Maybe now we can truly understand ourselves as a nation, and that can only be a good thing for us all.

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2 thoughts on “The State of the (Other) Union

  1. Having survived the last few weeks of the “Neverendum”, as Rory Bremner so succinctly described it, you are wrong Geoff when you say that it has been done peaceably and with restraint. There have been a lot of people with very strong opinions on both sides and it has naturally been the subject of so many discussions, but at the same time there are friendships and relationships that have broken down over it. It is my opinion that the YES campaigners have shouted the loudest, but there has been nastiness on both sides, with posters being mutilated, or destroyed and arguments aplenty, especially in city centers. I have surprised myself by feeling so passionately about it that I could have burst into tears at the thought of what the future might hold for us and I know many others were very fearful too. Now that a decision has been made, half the country is extremely disappointed, and many are accusing Scots who voted NO of not caring about Scotland, or social justice, or nuclear disarmament. There have been riots in George Square in Glasgow the last 2 nights, though nothing too serious I don t think. There have been many downright nasty comments put on Facebook and some have said that it was all rigged. There is much work to be done in uniting the people of Scotland, let alone the UK as a whole.

    • I’m not saying there have been no issues, no nastiness. But in the global context of other independence movements and referenda, which have so often spilled over into terrorism or come out of a context of terrorism as a final attempt to settle the issue, the Scottish referendum process has been peaceful.
      I’m sure there have been a lot of hurt feelings on both sides, and this sort of issue that is so polarising and capable of inciting such strong emotion is always going to cause disappointment for whoever doesn’t get what they want.
      However, I’m genuinely hopeful that we can move forward well, given time and honest effort to do so by both sides. So I suppose it still remains to be seen whether we’re capable of putting in the effort (either side), but really, what realistic choices do we have?

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