Chaos is a social condition that opportunists and nationalists are always quick to exploit. We’ve seen Boris Johnson seize the chance to fulfil his childhood dream, whilst his hard-right colleagues in the cabinet have always seen no-deal as the ideal opportunity to turn our country into a deregulated off-shore tax haven.
But every bit as cynical and opportunistic has been the renewed attempt by Nicola Sturgeon to break up the UK by holding a second Scottish independence referendum. The SNP may dress their nationalism up in progressive rhetoric, but the truth is that their ideology is ultimately as regressive and isolationist as are the politics of Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees Mogg.
All nationalists seek to pit one group against another. They all play identity politics, and there’s nothing progressive about that.
Leaving the UK would make Scotland poorer and profoundly vulnerable to the very same turbulence, polarisation and culture war that the UK has suffered over the past three years. The fact that senior UK Labour politicians and trade unionists are even entertaining the idea is deeply troubling, and Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard’s response to them was robust: “There is no economic case for independence, especially with the SNP’s new position of ditching the pound and new policy of turbo-charged austerity to bear down on the deficit.”
Moreover, the Scottish people were assured by politicians of all stripes that the result of their 2014 referendum would be respected ‘for a generation’. Trust in democracy would be fundamentally undermined if those assurances were now to be sacrificed on the altar of political opportunism.
The siren song of secession has also been heard more loudly in Wales lately. Whilst supporters of Welsh independence are still firmly in the minority, Caernarfon recently played host to a 5,000 strong march and an arrogant and hubristic Tory Westminster government is alienating large swathes of the Welsh people.
Fear of a no-deal Brexit is also fuelling separatist sentiment because membership of the EU’s single market is critical to the Welsh and Scottish economies. This is why I have long campaigned for ‘Common Market 2.0’ whereby the UK retains its close economic relationship with the EU whilst leaving the EU’s political institutions, thereby respecting the referendum result whilst protecting jobs and livelihoods.
But let’s be clear: the importance of the UK internal market dwarfs that of the EU. 60% of Scottish ‘exports’ remain in the UK, and for Wales, although there are no official statistics recorded, it is thought the figure exceeds the £17.2bn we make by selling to the rest of the world (only 64% of which is through trade with EU countries). Therefore, new tariffs on goods crossing the Severn Bridge would be far damaging than tariffs at Dover.
Then there is the harsh reality that Wales spends £15bn per year more than it raises in tax. This hole is plugged by the UK government’s redistribution programme. Of course the UK government have done far too little for the communities of Wales over the past 40 years – we desperately need a sector deal for steel, and a green energy industrial strategy which reverses the cowardly and short-sighted decision not to invest in the Swansea Bay Tidal lagoon – but to suggest that the solution is to take steps which make investment from the wider UK less likely is both intellectually absurd and economically dangerous.
The rising tide of anti-Westminster sentiment in Wales and Scotland is understandable. But the answer is not to play directly into the hands of the Brextremists and the nationalists by cutting and running. No, the answer is to make the case for our United Kingdom, with passion and conviction.
A pro-union campaign for Remain & Reform could be based on four key aims:
First, push hard for the devolution of new, specific powers. One obvious example is the desperate need to devolve tax raising powers, given that the UK is the most centralised country in Western Europe. To increase popular support for the union the UK government should also grant England a proper devolution settlement to addresses the structural asymmetry many English people have grown to resent.
Second, a written and fully codified constitution, generated through a series of citizens’ assemblies and a constitutional convention. Experts and lay people alike coming together to discuss where power should be held – participative democracy in action.
Third, reform the House of Lords. An elected senate with representatives from all of the UK’s nations and regions would be infinitely preferable to the current archaic system, and bridge the existing chasm between London and everywhere else.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, we must tell an inspiring, inclusive story of what it means to be British. Let’s celebrate the national, regional and cultural differences that make Britishness so unique, but let’s also remember that we have far more in common than that which divides us. Let’s recall the pride we felt when we watched the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, and let’s channel that progressive patriotism into our politics.
As Gordon Brown famously said, shortly before the 2014 Scottish referendum: “[The UK’s] achievements haven’t occurred in spite of the union, they’ve occurred because of the union. We fought two world wars together, and there is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh, and Irish lying side-by-side. When young men were injured in these wars, they didn’t look to each other and ask whether you were Scottish or English, they came to each other’s aid because we were part of a common cause.”
Fast-forward five years, and there can be no doubt that the world has become an even more dangerous and unpredictable place: from Washington to Beijing populists and nationalists are in power, and xenophobia is on the march.
Now, more than ever, our United Kingdom needs to stay united.