Why UK Government's push for young people to back Union is baffling - Euan McColm

As I write this on Friday, my 13-year-old daughter in ensconced in her bedroom, her attention focused entirely on her phone screen. From the arrhythmic pounding coming from the living room, I deduce that her 11-year-old brother is leaping up and down in front of the TV, playing Fortnite.

They are both, I think, happy enough despite missing out on the great celebrations currently taking place in schools across the UK.

Perhaps you missed the announcement earlier in the week from the Department at Education in London. “We're encouraging schools across the UK to celebrate One Britain One Nation Day on 25 June,” went the statement, “when children can learn about our shared values of tolerance, kindness, pride and respect.”

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Unfortunately, the department’s respect didn’t run so far as checking whether Scottish children might still actually be in class on Friday. In fact, a large number of Scottish schools broke for summer on Thursday.

A group of Year 7 students, singing the One Britain One Nation Day song in the school hall at Carlton Bolling College in West Yorkshire
A group of Year 7 students, singing the One Britain One Nation Day song in the school hall at Carlton Bolling College in West Yorkshire

There is something gloriously ham-fisted about this latest bid by the UK Government to bring together the nations of the Union. Ministers never tire of declaring their unwavering support for the United Kingdom but their attempts to make the transition from sentiment to action are, invariably, awful.

It was hardly surprising when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon mocked this latest UK Government initiative, which also includes a song featuring the refrain “strong Britain, great nation” which children are encouraged to sing in class. “I’m trying to imagine,” she said, “the outrage there would be if the Scottish Government was insisting or even encouraging Scottish school kids to sing some song about how great Scotland is.”

Now, you may think this rather rich from the leader of a party with a fondness for holding press conference at Bannockburn, which once celebrated Easter with photos of “SNP kids” rolling eggs, and which - let’s be honest - is built on a foundation of Scottish exceptionalism but Sturgeon can’t be blamed for swinging her banjo whenever the UK Government places a cow’s arse in front of her.

When he became Prime Minister, Johnson declared himself minister for the Union. Every decision he made would be informed by his desire to strengthen the ties that bind the four nations.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

How the hearts of sensible Scottish Tories sank when Johnson spoke. Conservatives north of the border would prefer that the Prime Minister limited his efforts to saving the Union to staying away.

The spin at the time of Johnson’s elevation to the top of government went that Scots-born Cabinet minister Michael Gove would be a more thoughtful influence on the creation of a pro-Union message.

Inviting kids to sing a song about how marvellous Great Britain is doesn’t seem especially thoughtful to me. In fact, it appears that the UK Government’s pro-Union messaging is directed towards those Scots who do not need to be persuaded. Just as there are Scottish nationalists who will never be disabused of the notion that only independence will do, there are Scottish unionists who will never contemplate voting Yes in a future referendum.

But in between these two tribes of flag-waving zealots is a substantial constituency of moderate voters who will - should a second referendum process - be open to persuasion by both sides.

I have long thought that nationalist marchers who clog up our city streets with their ostentatious and exhausting displays of Scottishness harm their cause by turning off those moderate voters and I reckon the UK Government’s current approach is just as self-defeating.

All of the main Unionist parties have struggled in recent years to articulate an appealing, clear and thoughtful vision of the Union, to tell a story that resonates with Middle Scotland. It would appear the Conservatives continue to struggle.

The best the Tories can currently come up with is the point-blank refusal to permit a second referendum. Last week, Gove reiterated the Prime Minister's opposition to their being another constitutional vote for the remainder of this Westminster parliamentary term. This doesn’t amount to much of a strategy.

Sure, there may still be a majority against independence but the Tories’ current position gives ammunition to the SNP. Why, they ask Scots, should Boris Johnson get to prevent you from exercising your democratic rights? There is mileage in this message.

Right now, the Tories’ approach is the poor man’s approach to a red bill: hide it in a drawer and hope the problem goes away. This is not a serious response.

And nor is co-opting children into some slightly creepy classroom celebration of Britishness.

Perhaps the most baffling thing about the UK Government’s current effort to push British identity is that it gives some relief to the SNP which is currently dealing with its own constitution-related woes.

Despite the nationalists’ best efforts, a majority of Scots remain in favour of the maintenance of the Union. Frustration over this state-of-affairs has created division within Scottish nationalist ranks, with some SNP members believing Sturgeon remains too cautious on the issue.

Across the wider Yes movement, there are those - including former SNP leader Alex Salmond who now heads up the Alba Party - who think the First Minister should be, even now, preparing for a referendum regardless of whether the UK wants one or not.

Surely the sensible move for Unionists right now would be to let the nationalists get on with some good old-fashioned in-fighting?

If they must pick up arms and escalate the conflict with the other side, it would be preferable for them not to involve kids.

There will be time enough for these young people to grown into angry members of one or other of the tribes battling over the future of the UK. But, for now, can’t we leave them out of it?

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