British identity is key to debate on independence

WITHIN weeks of being elected to the new Scottish Parliament in 1999 I learned the hard way how fraught issues of identity politics could be. I found myself on the front pages of most newspapers twice in one week for a stance on opposite sides of the same identity coin and managed to irk nationalists and unionists in equal measure. Nice.

'So far, the Better Together side has only made brief forays into emotional argument for Scotland staying in the UK' Picture: Phil Wilkinson
'So far, the Better Together side has only made brief forays into emotional argument for Scotland staying in the UK' Picture: Phil Wilkinson

I gave a lecture at the SNP conference in the late summer making the case for the SNP to embrace the idea that Britishness and feelings of British identity could, should and would survive independence and should be no barrier to voting for it. My judgment was that a host of people I knew (including my own family) retained an enduring sense of common cause with the rest of Britain, having shared so much in life, especially in wartime and its aftermath.

These same people respected shared institutions such as the monarchy but were also, in my experience, completely persuadable of the merits of self-government, as I had been.

I argued that the SNP had to actively embrace the idea and be more than intensely relaxed about British identity. They had to carve a route-map for people to retain it while voting for independence.

So far so good. My error came when asked about pictures in a Sunday paper appearing to show me embracing the Union Flag, which had been mocked up against my expressed refusal to allow it. The paper apologised but in the heat of the controversy I made less than judicious remarks about the flag itself which unleashed hell on the other side of the argument and undid much of the good work my lecture intended to do. Lessons learned.

It taught me what all politicians should know: so deep do the symbolic rivers of identity run that real care is needed when engaging them in public and political debate. The prism of the media will often simplify and obscure the deeper, complex realities about how people feel and what drives them. Using them to divide and motivate a minority is simple and low politics. Finding a way to use them to unify is much, much harder. I am pleased that in recent years the SNP has embraced the idea wholeheartedly as it has learned, by winning, what it takes to unify people behind progress.

However, as the research from Professor John Curtice and the Scottish Centre for Social Research demonstrated last week, much more work needs to be done: “So far as identity is concerned, it is the degree to which people in Scotland still share some sense of fellow feeling with those living elsewhere in the UK that seems to be central to the choice they are inclined to make.” Fewer than one in ten Scots with a “strong sense of British identity” back independence, with a particular skew explaining the relatively weak support in older people who share the folk memory of war, the rebuild and the construction of social support that went with it. This positive glue has fixed over decades and must not be underestimated by progressives.

It is one thing to hold a position, it is quite another to ensure everyone else in the country knows about it and buys in. The SNP and the Yes Campaign have just over a year to communicate cleverly that Britishness is about much, much more than the functions of state government. Indeed, who the government is and what it does is the least important aspect of Britishness and most urgent to reform.

The familial, cultural, social and economic ties that bind will endure and strengthen when the politics is taken out of the equation. Talk of the “Social Union” is fine for the already converted but it does not translate for the majority of the population who don’t think in such political terms. Cleverer articulation must be found.

This tranche of the independence referendum debate can be the transformational one for “Yes” if handled correctly. But as my experience in 1999 showed, navigating these waters is a tricky business. Unless and until it becomes a central campaigning plank of the SNP and “Yes” case in a convincing way my fear is that the polling numbers will remain sticky on their current plane. “Yes” has to separate Britishness from Westminster and Whitehall. As one leading Scots Tory once told me, privately, “if you can do that, the case for the Union is gone”. Telling view, when you ponder it.

Also published last week was an excellent and positive article by former “Secret Millionaire” Tony Banks. He is a Dundee-born, highly-successful entrepreneur and also a Falklands veteran who spent a lot of his life in England. What was most important in his piece was his conclusion: “I remain proud of my roots, north and south of the Border, and of my British identity. I believe that independence is in the interests of not only Scotland – but also the rest of the UK. I support an independent Scotland because I am British.” I feel the same way.

Whether that sort of voice can be heard could go a long way to determining whether we can reach a positive outcome from the question we all face. Politicians don’t determine our identity, we are far too sophisticated for that these days. But we should determine who our politicians are, and that, in essence, is the democratic point we will be voting on. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW