One Britain One Nation: UK minister's call for schools to sing patriotic song is a sign of a government in the grip of schoolboy nostalgia – Joyce McMillan

Slumped in front of the television during lockdown, it was impossible not to notice it; the steady advance into television advertising – that profound cultural indicator – of what can only be called “Brexity” language, a general assumption that things have become more “British” since 2016, and that everyone is celebrating the change.

“You’re in the driving seat now, Britain,” chirrups the man on the second-hand car website advert; while Union Jacks spread everywhere from ministerial briefing rooms to supermarket aisles, steadily obliterating the once-promising “Scotland The Brand”.

And now, like the British-grown cherry on the cake, here comes One Britain One Nation, a celebrity-backed campaign designed to encourage schoolchildren in particular – on this day, 25 June – to sing a song about how Britain is one nation, a great nation, a strong nation, with values that make it very special indeed.

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One Britain One Nation is, in itself, an interesting campaign. Founded by Kash Singh, a former senior West Yorkshire policeman, OBON uses the “more in common” language of the left to celebrate Britain’s multicultural character, and the values that can unite a diverse nation; in terms worthy of the Scottish Government’s own citizenship policy, it says that One Britain offers “a clear message that embraces all of us, irrespective of race, nationality, faith, colour or creed, whether we were born in Britain, or have chosen to live here”.

The problems start, though, when it begins to designate those values – kindness, pride, respect – as peculiarly British, to swathe them in Union flags, and to associate them with profound expressions of loyalty to the British monarch and state.

This is the type of patriotism that seeks to deny the substantial traditions of republican, socialist and internationalist thought in all parts of the UK; and of course, it shows a complete indifference to the UK’s actual constitutional history, as a union of not one nation but four.

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Government encourages children to sing this 'One Britain One Nation' song on Jun...

One Britain One Nation, though, is one man’s campaign, with some high-profile support; schools are not obliged to join it, and the rest of us are free to ignore it.

The One Britain One Nation campaign has produced a patriotic anthem that UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is encouraging children to sing

The difficulty comes when – with an amateurism all too typical of the present government’s handling of constitutional and cultural matters – the Westminster Government’s Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, weighs in in support of the campaign, urging schools across the UK to take part.

Like most Westminster Tories of his generation, Gavin Williamson is of course as ill-informed about the other three nations of the Union as he is uninterested in them; he fails to note that on the designated day, most Scottish and Northern Irish schools will be in the process of breaking up for the summer, or will already have done so.

So it is perhaps not surprising that he also sees nothing wrong in endorsing the erroneous idea of Britain as One Nation wrapped in red, white and blue, despite the currently heightened sensitivity of the political situation in Northern Ireland and the continuing tensions over a second independence referendum in Scotland.

And it’s perhaps because of this pervasive amateurism when it comes to the multinational character of the UK – including a complete lack of interest in the changes that led to the UK’s 1998 devolution settlement, and beyond – that Britain’s Conservative establishment cannot restrain itself from occasionally re-floating its giant red herring of a proposal about allowing all Scots in the UK to vote in any future independence referendum, which resurfaced again in last weekend.

Now as every veteran of Scotland’s constitutional debate has known for decades, this proposal is, to mix metaphors, not only a red herring but a veritable dead parrot of a notion. In terms of practical politics, a referendum result in which people resident in Scotland voted for independence, but were kept in the Union by the votes of people who don’t even live here, would of course be unsustainable, a recipe for endless conflict and ill-feeling.

Beyond that, though, it has to be said that a proposal for voting on this kind of nativist or ethnic basis is astonishingly regressive, in terms of most modern thought about citizenship and democracy.

In general, geographic definitions of citizenship, like the one embraced by the Scottish Government, tend to be progressive, focusing on the realities of people's day-to-day lives, and on their hopes for the future; whereas ethnic and nativist ones tend to be reactionary, placing an emphasis on historic identities which people are powerless to change, and which tend to divide communities that should be building a future together.

The mere idea of dividing Scotland’s community in that way is frightening and repellent. Yet that is where talk of a franchise defined by birth inevitably leads; and if politicians at Westminster were not so formidably ill-educated about the politics of the nation they govern, and indeed about the politics of nationhood in general, they would be ashamed even to raise the suggestion.

This, though, is where we currently stand, five years on from the EU referendum; in the grip of a government of nostalgic schoolboys hell-bent on celebrating their new “global Britain” project by striking environmentally illiterate trade deals with countries ten thousand miles away, severing links with our nearest neighbours, and trampling on the identity and sensitivities of the UK’s three minority nations.

In the long term, of course, reactionary political projects aimed at suppressing difference and homogenising cultures tend to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions, unleashing new waves of progressive politics in the process.

Under 21st century conditions, though, all bets may be off; and for now, the idea of One Britain One Nation is in the ascendant, while the UK’s dissenting millions can only fume on the sidelines, waiting for the leadership – and the vision – that may finally bring better times within our grasp.

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