Comment: Westminster doesn’t own ‘Britishness’

Home Secretary Theresa May in front of a Union flag. Picture: PA
Home Secretary Theresa May in front of a Union flag. Picture: PA
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AN UNEXPECTED twist in the referendum debate has emerged with the No campaign appearing keen to reduce “Britishness” to little more than a formal legal status.

And we’ve even been threatened with the removal of that, should we have the audacity to vote Yes.

This week it was Home Secretary Theresa May talking up the possibility that the government of the rest of the UK (rUK) would single out Scottish citizens as the only ones on Earth excluded from the possibility of dual British nationality.

Last week it was Rory Stewart, the former diplomat and Tory MP for Penrith and the Border – in what must surely be a contender for the most bizarre contribution to the independence debate thus far – earnestly arguing that the loss of the imperial parliament was the reason Britain had “grown apart” from Commonwealth countries with which it was close 50 or 60 years ago. Mr Stewart, a former Army officer, argued that Scotland might similarly drift away – with Westminster not so much the source of many of our problems, but the rock on which our close relationship was founded.

At best, coming just a day after Foreign Secretary William Hague was agreeing compensation with Kenyan Mau Mau for torture inflicted upon them by the British colonial administration in the 1950s, the sense of timing could be described as unfortunate. It’s an argument one suspects many in the Commonwealth countries might find odd – if not downright offensive.

At least Mr Stewart had the decency to acknowledge that “there is nothing to stop Scotland being just as friendly to England, or England to Scotland, in the absence of a joint parliament’”and that neither Scotland nor the rest of the UK would be a failed state, or go to war with each other.

It was an unorthodox but certainly not unique attempt by the No campaign to link the independence referendum to questions of identity and friendships. Like Mr Stewart, Labour leader Ed Miliband seems to think the foundation stone of a British identity is the Westminster Parliament. In his “mustn’t grumble” speech last June, Mr Miliband sought to argue that the referendum forced people to choose between Scottishness and Britishness.

But if British-ness rests solely on the Union of Parliaments, then it’s a pretty paper-thin identity. And if the close ties on these islands centre upon Westminster, we’re in a bad place indeed.

Yet that seems to be what Better Together actually believes. When Yes Scotland put up a simple graphic on Facebook making the point that you could still be British in an independent Scotland, their Director of Communications responded by asking: “Where do you even start with that?!”. Well, I’d start by asking if that means he shares the controversial views of Theresa May on dual citizenship?

But more fundamentally, he could explain what’s going to stop me describing myself as British after independence. Isn’t Britishness more than a formal legal status?

Unlike Mr Miliband and Better Together, for most people, Britishness does indeed have far stronger roots and connotations than that, and while Britain represents a very uncomfortable political union, it represents a strong and vibrant social union. Put simply, British identity and Britain will exist long after the British state – just like a Scottish identity and Scotland have existed for more than 300 years without a Scottish state.

Another recent and very explicit attempt to play an emotional “foreign” card was made by Labour’s shadow scottish secretary Margaret Curran in a radio interview with Good Morning Scotland on the BBC. Yet it was not exactly clear what her point was. It appeared to be that the fact we would no longer send MPs to London would mean our relationship had “changed”. Her fellow interviewee, Professor Tom Devine, gave her short shrift: “…the foreigner argument is badly misplaced…” failing as it did to take into account the reality of life in the British Isles.

Both Ms Curran and Professor Devine spoke passionately of their Irish roots, and neighbouring Ireland perhaps provides some insight into our post-independence relationship with the other countries that make up the UK. As well as geographic proximity, the 2011 census showed 407,000 Irish-born people living in England and Wales – alongside the 733,000 people born in Scotland that Ms Curran referred to.

The size of the Irish population in the UK was one key reason why Irish citizens have a unique status in UK law, with particular rights to free movement, to vote, and to permanent residence. Indeed, the Ireland Act 1949 made explicit provision that Ireland would not be treated as “foreign” at all (in absolute contradiction to part of Ms Curran’s argument).

In a speech at Strathclyde University last December, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out a vision of Scotland “that enjoys excellent relations with its friends across these islands”.

Concluding her speech, she asked the audience to: “Imagine a post-independence declaration between the Scottish and UK governments. It might go something like this:

“ ‘The relationship between our two countries has never been stronger or more settled, as complex or as important as it is today.

“ ‘Our citizens, uniquely linked by geography and history, are connected today as never before through business, politics, culture and sport, travel and technology and, of course, family ties.

“ ‘Our two economies benefit from a flow of people, goods, investment, capital and ideas on a scale that is rare even in this era of global economic integration’.

“That is not an imagined declaration. It is an actual one. These are the opening paragraphs of the joint statement made by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in March this year on the state of British-Irish relations – a powerful illustration of the fact that political independence is not about separation. It is about a relationship of equals based on shared interests.”

Whether you regard yourself as Scottish and not British, Scottish and British (like me), British not Scottish, English, Welsh, Italian, Polish or Pakistani matters not a jot.

The ties between Scotland and rUK will remain strong and settled, and we’ll be as connected as before.

Mr Stewart could not be more wrong in arguing that our relationship is based on political union.

The referendum question is about what will deliver the best government for Scotland, and a more prosperous and fairer country. In a week in which the main UK opposition party bound itself to the government’s dreadful austerity agenda, it is clearer than ever that far from being the rock on which our relationship should be based, Westminster is the political road block to Scotland achieving these things.

• Stuart McDonald is lead researcher for Yes Scotland.