I had a good job running the Conservative Student organisation from my office in Smith Square, London. Not only did we oppose communists like Jeanne Freeman in the National Union of Students, we organised successfully against the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that would go on to recruit Nicola Sturgeon. These organisations had a tendency to support the world view of the Soviet Union or its proxies like the Cuban and East German governments. I preferred to help run couriers to Moscow and Leningrad distributing samizdat material to opponents of Brezhnev’s regime – or work with Solidarnosc in Poland.
The five years I spent in London were formative. Although like so many Scots, I would return to raise my family in Edinburgh, I would often return to our world-level capital that offers limitless opportunities. I worked and holidayed widely in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, discovering many nooks and crannies, seeing surprising and shocking poverty as well as much beauty and meeting people of great character, fortitude and soul.
Sense of optimism
No matter how bad the economy might look, no matter what government ineptitude might be revealed, no matter the injustices arising from people, corporations or institutions on the make – I believed that given the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of association and reliable rule of law, British people – who enjoy those liberties and are innocent until proven otherwise – could tackle all the problems we face.
It is that sense of optimism, that belief in Britain and a Britishness which has, in my lifetime, through reform put right many wrongs – and embraced many new peoples who wish to drape with pride our flag around their shoulders for what it has given them and their families – that led me to believe Scotland in 2014 and the UK in 2016 made the correct choices.
I often said in the Scottish referendum campaign of 2013/14 that Scotland was not "too wee, too poor or too stupid" to secede from Britain, on the contrary I would ask why should Scots settle for running Scotland when we could run Britain? In politics, commerce, the military, science, culture and media Scots regularly dominated in a Britain replete with opportunity.
It was right for various politicians to point out the economic weaknesses of the separatists’ campaign but there was also a requirement to explain why remaining part of a warm and welcoming family – with its interdependency and mutual solidarity balanced by competitive rivalry inspiring us to do better for ourselves and each other – made far more sense. The SNP could not answer the economic realities but, thanks to a campaign dominated by Labour politicians who could not bring themselves to say too many nice things about a UK governed by a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, a huge void was allowed to develop where positive and emotional messaging should have been centre stage.
In a sense both campaigns lost the referendum. The SNP did not win, but Britain lost ground by not making the emotional case for itself.
I often said during the European referendum of 2015/16 that the UK could only make a success of leaving the EU if it had a Global Britain attitude, shifting its orientation towards wider international development and growing economies far beyond Europe. It needed to exploit its leading soft power advantages of English language in culture and media, commercial law, higher education, science and research. The scare-mongers were essentially saying Britain was "too wee, too poor and too stupid" to make its way in the world.
Reports from HM Treasury, OECD, IMF, CBI and the LSE – were all part of that barrage of supposedly unchallengeable invective raining down on Brexiteers. These reports, together with warnings ranging from a shortage of lettuce to the mass exodus of car manufacturers cut no ice – not least when Sunderland, the British home of Nissan, voted overwhelmingly to say we can rise to the challenge. The critics were all wrong and Nissan has re-committed to investing in its Sunderland plant
Now the LSE has published another report, this time explaining why Scotland leaving the UK would be such an economic disaster. Strangely, it could have gone farther, for it only considers the downsides of creating trade frictions – not the other consequences of introducing a new currency, central bank or pension costs.
As before such reports are built on specific assumptions and were those to be altered – as Britain must following Brexit – then the economic outcomes can actually be better. The real problem is the SNP only wants economic collectivism and over regulation as well as being in the EU – rather than liberating us from such limitations.
Those supporting Britain should be careful to not rely solely on economic realities – for maybe one day a positive sounding, low tax, small state Scottish party might advocate leaving an over-regulated Britain – just as Brexiteers argued against the EU. Then what?
Thirty-eight years ago I was 25. I went to a Scotland rugby match at Twickenham and have never forgotten the experience of that day. It did not make me a nationalist, it simply confirmed to me our friendly rivalry on a green patch of land, under the close embrace of family comradeship, especially when facing real threats from beyond our shores, is much preferable to squabbling, separating – and succumbing to narrow and ever-embittering Balkanisation.
Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively.