Comment: Nationalism can flourish without a new state

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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UNIONISM is an old idea. So old, in fact, that in these islands it pre-dates the 1707 Anglo-Scottish Acts of Union by some hundreds of years.

Over the centuries its meaning has evolved, just as the legal unions that have made the United Kingdom what it is today have altered over time.

This month marked an important moment in the ongoing development of unionism, as Alistair Darling delivered at the University of Glasgow a thoughtful lecture on “the case for the United Kingdom”. As a short-term campaign tactic, the leader of Better Together was responding to calls (not always justified) that the pro-UK argument in the referendum campaign has been too negative, and too reliant on trying to scare people away from voting Yes rather than making the positive case as to why we should, with head and heart, vote No to independence.

But to see Darling’s speech only in short-term tactical perspective would be to miss its more enduring legacy. For the lecture tackled some big questions in ways that we have not seen enough of in the referendum campaign so far. Three stand out: what is unionism today? What is the Union for? And within the Union what is the role of devolution?

Even though we talk of the independence debate as being between nationalists and unionists, this is a misnomer. There is nothing incompatible about being a unionist and a nationalist at once. (This is why some unionists prefer to describe political Nationalists as “separatists” – the opposite of union being separation, or divorce; to my mind it is unfortunate that the term “separatist” has become so loaded in Scottish political life.) Nationalism is about seeing Scotland as a nation. Scotland isn’t a region of the UK, as Yorkshire is: it is a nation within the United Kingdom. Unionism not only accepts this, but is founded upon the recognition of Scotland as a nation. The marks of nationhood are everywhere to be seen in Scotland, from her distinctive legal system to her own football team; from her own bespoke media to her rich cultural life.

Some of these features are enshrined in the Acts of Union: Scots law cannot be unilaterally replaced by the common law of England any more than the Church of Scotland can be overrun by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thus, our formal Union has always been founded upon a recognition that Britain is a joining of proud nations together and not the forced assimilation of two peoples into one.

Devolution extended the ways in which Scottish nationhood is made manifest. Now, in addition to the Court of Session and the Kirk, we have our own Parliament, our own government, and our own First Minister. Devolution was the achievement not of nationalists, but of unionists who understood that the nation of Scotland needed legislative expression, to sit alongside the judicial and religious expression that had been protected since 1707. Thus, to be a modern-day unionist is to be a devolutionist. The only way of getting rid of devolution now is to get rid of the Union – and a vote next year for independence would of course get rid of both.

The great difference between unionists and their opponents is that the latter consider that Scotland’s nationhood can be realised only by becoming an independent state. Nationalists should not really be called Nationalists: they should be called Statists. It’s not a Scottish nation they crave, but Scottish statehood. For unionists, Scotland’s nationhood flourishes amply within the Union; those who seek divorce from the Union do so because they think that Scotland’s current partnership with the other home nations somehow stymies her – humiliates her, even. On this view, Scotland cannot realise her full potential until she leaves the UK and heads off into the world alone. (Well, almost alone: we’ll still be in the European Union, apparently, as well as in Nato’s defence union: it’s just our closest friends and neighbours with whom we no longer wish to be associated.)

Properly understood, it is on this point that the independence referendum rests: what value is it that statehood would add to the Scottish nation? Why is it, for the separatists, that Scottish nationhood can be realised only by leaving one of the most enduring and successful political unions the world has ever seen? This month Alistair Darling has offered his answers as to why we are better together. It’s now up to those who disagree to show why they believe we’d be better apart. «

• Adam Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow