Monday 3 November 2014

A majority of what?

Scotland’s next First Minister called last week for a decision on withdrawal from the EU to be valid only if all 4 nations of the UK individually supported that result.  The call was immediately rejected – I’m sure that she had no other expectation; but she’s made the point, and made it well, that Scotland shouldn’t be dragged out of the EU against the wishes of the people.
So far, so predictable.  I was more interested in the response of some of those rejecting the call, who claimed that it was hypocritical for her to make that call, when the rest of the UK hadn’t been given a vote in the independence referendum.  It’s completely the wrong comparison to make – arguing that the rest of the UK should have a vote on Scottish independence would be more akin to arguing that the whole of the EU should take the decision on whether the UK leaves or not.  Somehow, I don’t expect many unionists to be making that demand!
A better comparison – and a far more damaging one at first sight – would be to argue that a vote on Scottish independence should not be valid unless a majority in each and every local council area voted in favour.  But as far as I have seen, none of Nicola Sturgeon’s opponents have latched on to that one.
I suspect the reason may well be down to something from which we all suffer to a greater or lesser extent, which is a belief that some of the units created by lines drawn on a map are more ‘natural’ than others, and should thus form the basis on which decisions are mad.  So, from a Scottish nationalist perspective, Scotland is the natural unit, and an all-Scotland vote is valid; but from the perspective of the UK unionists, the UK is a natural unit and an all-UK vote is definitive.
I’ll admit that I suffer a similar tendency to feel that Wales is a natural unit which should be treated as a whole, even if I try and take a more objective view at least part of the time.  It’s inevitably, at least in part, about identity – something which is inherently subjective rather than objective.  But even as a subjective feeling it has a power – people feel themselves to belong to a nation in a way that they don’t feel themselves to be part of an artificial region.  And that’s no small part of the reason why ‘regional devolution’ in England has never taken off.  People feel more attachment to their locality or city than to the regions drawn on a map somewhere in Whitehall.
The point about subjective loyalties or identities is, of course, that they can and do change over time.  The transition from a feeling of Britishness to a feeling of Scottishness (and the same thing has happened, although not so strongly, in Wales) has happened slowly, over many decades.  Looking back, the change is obvious, but I can’t remember feeling it happening at any specific point.  I suspect that part of the problem which Cameron, Miliband et al suffer from is that they haven’t really seen or understood that it’s happened at all.
Some have claimed that it’s a result of devolution; although I see the issue of cause and effect here as being more of a chicken and egg question.  But it’s all a bit academic by now; the fact of growing confidence and identity in two nations which are currently tied to England with different degrees of constitutional bonds is one which the unionists need to come to terms with.  (I leave the six counties of Northern Ireland out of this analysis deliberately – whilst there are parallels, there are also a range of other issues).
Maybe, at some point, the idea of identity at an even more local level will gain traction, and the question as to whether an all-Scotland (or all-Wales) majority is enough will take on more pertinence than it has today.  But whatever happens in the future, we’ve already reached the point where a simple all-UK majority on a matter such as leaving the EU is just not good enough in either Wales or Scotland.  And simply dismissing the call out of hand in the way Cameron did last week is likely in the long run to do unionism more harm than good.

1 comment:

G Horton-Jones said...

I remember as a student at Aber in the early sixties going regularly to the cinema In the space of three weeks the audience stood en mass to sing God save the Queen as usual -- the next week half walked out and half remained not sure what to do -- the next week all walked out