Independence essay: Blair McDougall on the union

Blair McDougall of Better Together writes this week’s essay exploring ideas related to the Scottish independence referendum

Blair McDougall prefers to focus on our nations common goals, a feat celebrated at the London Olympics. Picture: Ian Rutherford

‘In minor ways we differ, in major we’re the same. I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

These words from the American poet Maya Angelou have been in my mind this week as the referendum debate turns, momentarily, from the big economic issues to the real meat of the nationalist question: are our friends in the rest of the United Kingdom so different from us? So different that we should leave?

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I have been lucky enough to have lived or worked in almost all of the great cities of the UK. When I think of the people I lived beside in London, or worked alongside in Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff or Hull, I don’t think of people with alien values. I see friends and family with the same hopes and fears as people in Aberdeen, Edinburgh or Glasgow.

I recognise the things that make the different parts of our Union unique, but this diversity is a reason to come together, not to split apart. The jumble of talents, identities, cultures and creativity strengthens us all for being part of it.

There are some who will characterise this as naive internationalism, or as nostalgia for a long-lost age of solidarity.

However, the solidarity that underpins the incredible project that is the United Kingdom is very real. The sentiment can and has been measured. The annual social attitudes surveys of voters north and south of the Border shows near-identical belief in the pooling and sharing of resources in order to ensure a basic level of fairness for everyone in the UK.

Even on the use of oil revenues, just 44 per cent of Scots believe that the proceeds from the North Sea should be used solely for Scotland’s benefit. Some 61 per cent of Scots believe that we should pool and share our resources across the whole of the UK to pay for pensions.

This moral belief in sharing risks and resources is aligned with our own self-interest. When, according to the latest SNP government statistics, oil revenues fell by almost £4.5 billion in one year (the equivalent of our entire schools budget in Scotland), it was taxpayers in Durham and Aberystwyth who made sure budgets weren’t cut in Dundee and Aberdeen.

Our hopes for a better future are shared, but so too are our fears. The rise of Ukip both north and south was depressing evidence of that. Again, in the social attitudes survey we can see similar views in Scotland and England towards immigration or those on benefits. For those of us on the progressive left, this may be a disheartening truth, but we cannot pretend such attitudes don’t exist and that they do not need to be tackled. To dismiss such views, as the First Minister did, is dangerous and complacent.

Clearly, Alex Salmond didn’t get the headlines he was cynically hoping for. Scotland elected one Ukip MEP. So did London, so did the north-east of England, so did Wales. In the absence of a major difference, the SNP is left with one option: to focus on the minor differences and make them major.

We are proud of what makes us distinctive from the rest of the UK. That doesn’t mean we are not also very much the same. We don’t need to make a choice between the things that make us proud and the things that make us strong.

The historian Simon Schama has written eloquently of how the strength of the UK was never an imagined sense of “tribal singularity”.

Rather, what makes us great is the messy diversity of nations and cultures. From the multi-nation-state of three centuries ago to the multicultural, tolerant UK of today, it is our diversity that makes this such an exhilarating place to live.

If dancing NHS nurses and Emeli Sandé expressed this in the London Olympics of two years ago, just imagine the Hampden roar that will greet Somali-English-British Mo Farah at our own Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in a few weeks’ time.

Yet at the same time we have a shared culture and common history with the whole of the UK. We pool our sovereignty to form a shared political system. We come together to achieve great things in sport and create some of the world’s finest television programmes.

That’s the great thing about our United Kingdom: we can retain our unique identity and all the things that mark us out as distinctly Scottish, while at the same time cherishing the solidarity we have in working together as part of the larger UK.

Working together across the UK to make our country a better place to live is something worth fighting for. The ideal that people with unique identities but a shared vision of creating a fairer and more just society shouldn’t be given up lightly.

We are unique in the world in that four distinct countries have entered into a genuine social, economic and political union that has stood the test of time in good days and bad.

There are big economic reasons for Scotland staying in the UK. Being part an economy of more than 60 million people, rather than just five million people in Scotland, means that we can better face the economic challenges ahead, such as the decline in oil revenue and the rapid rise in our pensioner population.

This referendum will undoubtedly be decided on economics – whether or not people believe walking away from the UK would increase their standard of living or help Scottish families better make ends meet.

But our case has never been solely about economics. We offer people far more than that. The desire for independence is strong in our lives, but so too is the yearning for friendship and support. Only a No vote offers Scots both goals – the independence to flourish in the things we are best at and the solidarity and strength that comes from being part of a diverse community.

To create borders where none have existed for more than 300 years is to swim against the tide of history. Separation is a thoroughly antiquated concept. In an era when the whole world is working to break down barriers to work together ever more closely, keeping our United Kingdom together is the modern choice.

Last week’s European elections remind us that the four nations of our isles share common problems. It is depressing that so many of my fellow Scots felt so frustrated by our political elites in Holyrood or Westminster that they gave their vote to Ukip.

The way to tackle this problem – and make no mistake, the growth of Ukip is a problem for Scotland – is to understand the fears and frustrations of Ukip voters and address them together.

The way to tackle division and grievance isn’t a different form of division and grievance. The answer to Ukip’s deceptively alluring cry that it is all somebody else’s fault isn’t to fall into the nationalist trap of also claiming that it is all somebody else’s fault.

The answer to division is what it ever was, to work to bring people together and to recognise that, as friends, we are all far more alike than we are unalike.

• Blair McDougall is chief executive of Better Together