Since we know (because they tell us) that those using the phrase are not jingoistic nationalists – indeed, they reject nationalism in all its forms – then the phrase has to be based on some facts and truths, surely. I have two questions to ask in thinking about this.
The first is this: “how are they defining ‘success’?”.
They could, of course, be referring to the successes of the past; and in that context it’s worth noting that the same people seem to find it difficult not to mention the war. The military history of this island state seems to be a key part of their identity, along with the empire on which the sun never set. Less militaristically, they could of course be referring to the British rôle in the Industrial Revolution and the leading rôle of British scientists and inventors. But, as the warning to investors always says, ‘past performance is no guide to the future’, and to be an argument for carrying on as we are, ‘success’ has to be defined in terms of what’s happening now, and what is likely to happen in the future, not what happened in the past.
Present ‘success’ would look very different from different perspectives. I can certainly see how the top 1% would see the current state as being a huge success; they have after all done very well out of it. But the hard statistics show that the UK is an immensely unequal country in terms of income and wealth. And whilst there are all sorts of caveats to be placed around the definition of ‘poverty’, the government’s own figures suggest that up to 20% of the population are living below their own defined poverty line. It would be an oversimplification to argue that ‘the union’ is responsible for that (and it affects parts of England as much as it affects Wales and Scotland) but the point is that the current state hardly looks like a ‘success’ from the perspective of those affected.
Of course, it doesn’t need to for the phrase to be true, because the phrase is a relative one, not an absolute one. And that brings me to my second question: “In defining ‘most’ successful, with which other states is the comparison being made?”
Actually, I’m finding it difficult to find any direct comparators. There’s Spain, of course – another family of nations, including Basques and Catalans, coerced into a single state. Or France, with its Bretons and Basques, perhaps. I’m not sure that they’re direct comparators, but I suppose one could argue that Spain is less economically successful than the UK, even if it would be harder to argue the same in the case of France. Perhaps the former Yugoslavia is another example. The bloody and bitter nature of the breakup was a tragedy, but the states which emerged from the wreckage actually seem to be doing rather better than their former state. It’s a case where the sum of the parts really does look greater than the former whole – not a comparison which helps the unionist cause a great deal.
It’s possible that there simply are no fair and direct comparisons. That would mean that I’d have to accept that the phrase is true, and an accurate description. After all, the only entry in any category is bound to be the most successful. It’s equally true of course that the only entry in any category is also bound to be the least successful…