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The Dissolution of the U.K. Would Be a Bad Omen for the Rest of the World

With a new Cold War and the Middle East in flames, Britain must stay together.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Early on the morning of September 5, two days before a poll put Yes Scotland ahead for the first time in the referendum campaign, Gordon Brown was reacquainted with Westminster when he delivered an impassioned speech to a small gathering of admirers in the Attlee Suite at Portcullis House. He was among friends and he seemed relaxed, even if he looked ashen and deeply tired. There was something monumental about him, with his big, bulging head, his large rugby player’s hands and narrowed eyes, a modern-day Gulliver back in the land of the little people. As he returned reluctantly to front-line politics, the former Labor prime minister’s mission was nothing less than to save the United Kingdom, and in the days that followed, it seemed at times as if he was dictating policy to the Conservative-led government.

For nearly an hour, Brown spoke with a Gladstonian fervor, without notes and in complete sentences, about why the U.K. was unique in the world, a model of multinational interdependence in an age of globalization. “No nationalist should be allowed to split it asunder.” He cited John F. Kennedy’s celebrated 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”), mentioned the fallen of the First World War, the English, Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish soldiers who fought and died together and who were buried side by side, and made the familiar economic case against independence and for British social justice. It was a bravura, even romantic performance, imbued with deeper historical resonances and a sense of moral purpose of a kind entirely absent from the vocabulary of Alistair Darling, the leader of the struggling cross-party Better Together campaign.

This was a Brown seldom glimpsed during his premiership, and perhaps most strikingly only late in the general election campaign of 2010 when, knowing he was beaten, he gave a fiery speech at a London Citizens interfaith event, as if impending defeat had liberated him into being the politician he knew in his heart he was or could have been.

Darling, for all his good intentions, is a technocrat; he shrinks when he ought to expand. He uses arid management speak when poetry and passion are called for—compare his low-toned closing statement to Alex Salmond’s inflated rhetoric in the second televized referendum debate on August 25, a debate that marked a turning point in the campaign and a narrowing in the polls. Darling warns continuously about the macroeconomic risks of independence but never rouses himself to speak about what the United Kingdom has represented through its long history—its purpose, its achievements—and why it must change if it is to survive. Nor does Darling, as Brown did in his Westminster speech, call for a new “statement of national purpose.” Of course, issues such as the currency, pensions and North Sea oil revenues are fundamental—but much more than relentless questioning was required from the Yes campaign, because nationalism ultimately is as much about the heart as the head. It’s about identity and codes of cultural belonging; about self-perception, self-determination and the feelings a nation has about itself—something approaching a sense of enraptured togetherness. It’s about what the novelist Irvine Welsh has called the “metaphysical hope that the world could be made into a better place,” hence all the discussion about Scotland being remade as a Nordic-style social democracy, however fanciful it might be.

There seems to have been too little understanding of the deeper trends and long-term structural forces cleaving the United Kingdom: the end of empire, de-industrialization, the decline of cross-border working-class solidarity, the weakening of Protestantism and of the trade unions, as well as a general anti-politics, “stuff them” attitude.

In his speech, Brown said that “Britishness” had lacked a central, driving purpose, something comparable to the American belief in freedom and opportunity for all or France’s revolutionary commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. There is something in that. For the profoundly Scottish Brown what really unites the people of these islands is a “shared British com­mitment to values of liberty, fairness, and social responsibility.”

What attracts me about Britishness is its very plurality and ambiguity; it’s an inclusive, civic, non-racial identity as welcoming now (though it once wasn’t so) to a black Londoner as it is to a Glaswegian Muslim Asian. Indeed, part of what it is to be modern and British is to have and be relaxed about compound identities, to share sovereignties in supranational institutions (the U.K., the EU) and to pool resources.

I grew up in a house in a quiet cul-de-sac in an Essex new town. Among my immediate neighbors were three Sicilian families from a poor rural community. They had come to England after the Second World War in search of security and opportunity. Their children, my friends, were born in England but they struggled to call themselves English. They supported the Italian national football team and rampaged delightedly through the street when Italy won the 1982 World Cup in Spain. And yet, they were confidently, unapologetically British. I once tried to convince one of my friends that he was Sicilian, English, and British. He almost agreed; I say almost because the word “English” seemed to stick amen-like in his throat as he attempted to define himself as such in response to my prompting. He just couldn’t say the word or describe himself as English. “I’m British,” he said.

Scotland has experienced nothing comparable to the levels of immigration of England—one sees few black or mixed-race faces there, though you hear many eastern European accents—and so many Scots do not quite understand why Britishness means so much to so many people from minority backgrounds and why they fear it being ripped away from them. Britishness is a wide umbrella under which so many of us can shelter happily in spite of our differences. We would be bereft without it, drenched in uncertainty and confusion.

What of the London question? The capital city of the imperilled state is much maligned—it is Alex Salmond’s “dark star, inexorably sucking in resources, people, and energy”; it is Vince Cable’s “giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country.” The dominance of financial turbocapitalism has certainly unbalanced and distorted the British economy, resulting in grotesque inequalities and an insanely inflated property market in the south-east. But that is only one version of London, the city of the financiers, rentiers and tax-avoiding, deracinated plutocrats. There is also the gritty, creative city I know well, with its admirable diversity and thrilling possibilities, a city of interconnecting urban villages and of resilient people trying to make their way even when the system seems rigged against them. This London is liberal and open and votes Labor in defiance of much of the rest of the English south. It overwhelmingly rejected the small-minded nationalism of Ukip.

London remains the ultimate global city, Europe’s only megacity, a teeming, vibrant, amorphous, polyglot metropolis that is still recognizably the place that H.G. Wells described, at the height of empire, as “the center of civilization, the heart of the world.” I agree with Danny Dorling, the NS contributor and author of All That Is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster, that London too much dominates the national life. However, that’s an argument not for breaking up the United Kingdom but for decentralization, radical economic reform, and a plan for national reconstruction. That’s an argument for harnessing the wealth-generating potential of London for the good of all.

A week before the 2011 Scottish general election the New Statesman published a leader in which we warned of the consequences of a victory for the Scottish National Party, which seemed to us highly likely. A few days later, Ed Miliband said to one of my colleagues: “Why is Jason writing about Scotland?” He got his answer when Labor, the last truly national British party, was deservedly routed, a result that set us on the road to Thursday’s referendum.

If ever one needed an illustration of Labor failure this was it: the party had grown so complacent in its Scottish heartlands that it couldn’t see the ground was shifting beneath it and that it was about to be swallowed up in an earthquake.

The referendum campaign has reinvigorated the non-Labor left—Gerry Hassan, the author of The Strange Death of Labour in Scotland, calls the new pro-independence groupings “third Scotland,” because they occupy their own space and are affiliated to no party—just as the Yes campaign has engaged much of the wider population. There has been a ceaseless flow of energized debate on social media and elsewhere online, led by websites such as Bella Caledonia and the anti-neoliberal Common Weal project, which has published its own manifesto for economic and social transformation.

“The more politically engaged people are in Scotland, the more inclined they are to vote Yes,” Hassan told me. “I still feel culturally British; I just don’t feel any loyalty to the British state. Nor am I attracted to the SNP machine view of Scotland—it’s too technocratic, too optimistic, and there’s a lot of people out for preferment after the referendum. Then there are the myths about Scotland—that it’s more egalitarian, more civic. Of course all nationalisms aren’t completely civic.

“This is an existential moment for the British state ... And you know, Labor could have told a story about Scotland and Britain that would have outflanked the SNP on the left. They could have had a classic Labor message in a modern setting.” He paused. “There’s just a chance that a high Yes vote might [yet help] redraw the nature of the United Kingdom. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful and unique British compromise? Scots don’t want to give up on being British unless they really have to.”

Even the center right, for so long embattled and embarrassed in Scotland, has perked up. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, who recently made the case for full fiscal devolution for Holyrood, is considered to have had a far more convincing campaign than her Labor counterpart, Johann Lamont, who is presiding over a calamitous loss of faith in Scottish Labor.

The debate, for and against, is being carried out in town squares, in village halls, in offices, clubs, and pubs, on the doorstep. There are divisions within families, even between husbands and wives. Tens of thousands of voters have returned to the register, including many who “disappeared” from it at the time of the poll tax, the memory of which continues to motivate the nationalists in their hatred of the Tories. The Yes campaign, driven by the zeal of the true believer, and with its vastly superior ground operation, has been particularly active in the old working-class Labor strongholds of Glasgow and the central belt. Alex Salmond is tremendously popular among the poorest Scots, who understandably feel they have little to lose by voting Yes. They are hardly being well served by the status quo.

What we have been witnessing over the past year or so is a nation’s democracy renewing itself, and all of us who live in these islands should be grateful, because the complacent and smug London elites—political, financial, media, bureaucratic—are finally being forced to take notice. But it could already be too late.

During the referendum campaign, more than any other London publication, the New Statesman has reached out to the nationalists. We collaborated with Alex Salmond on a special issue of the magazine, Scotland: in or out (28 February 2014), and in March the First Minister came at our invitation to Westminster to deliver the New Statesman lecture “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands”; it was then he popularized the metaphor of London as the dark star. I had also visited him in June last year at Bute House, his official residence in Edinburgh’s magnificent New Town. That afternoon the First Minister explained to me how he intended to approach the referendum. Back then he was physically much heavier—he began a crash diet last Christmas—and he seemed a little breathless as we spoke, as if he’d just hurried up some stairs. There was much speculation then at Holyrood about his health. Not that he seemed bothered.

He told me we were merely passing through the “phony war” stage of the campaign. He was relaxed that Yes was a long way behind in the polls—and he remained so when he came to London in March, with the polls largely unchanged. He repeatedly referred to the 2011 Scottish election, when the SNP came from behind in the final two weeks to win an astounding landslide victory. “Part of [being positive] is getting your party into the attitude in a campaign that, if it applies itself properly, it can win,” he told me. “Since 2007, that’s what I’ve done and since 2007 I haven’t lost a national election.

“We’ll approach the referendum in the same way we approached these two Scottish elections. And that is, we will set a vision for the people. I’ll certainly hypothesize on the future and I shall do so on the basis of success, not failure.”

Salmond has been true to his word and yet his “optimism strategy”—his brand of “Borgen nationalism”—has often seemed ludicrous. He admits no doubt. In spite of Scotland’s entrenched social problems, lack of intergenerational social mobility and dependence on high state spending, he promises only success for his country. The newly independent nation would be as wealthy as Norway, which chooses to remain outside the EU and produces almost twice as much oil as Scotland does with an almost identical population. (Child poverty in Scotland is also more than double that in Norway.) And Salmond wants to wrestle sovereignty from Westminster while being entirely relaxed about surrendering it to the EU.

The First Minister is a Celtic Dr. Pangloss, forever proclaiming that all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The No campaign and the Westminster parties have attempted to call his bluff and to call him out—but still the polls are narrowing in his favor.

“My view is that the Union can be saved once,” Adam Tomkins, John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow and an adviser to the No campaign, told me. “If No win narrowly, as they did in Quebec [by 51 percent to 49 percent in the second of two independence referendums] in 1995, the British state must reinvigorate itself—and that means more devolution. If circumstances require us to have a second referendum in a parliament or two’s time, Yes will win by a country mile.”

With less than a week to go to polling day, Alex Salmond is just where he would wish to be, on the shoulder of his opponent with the final bend fast approaching. He remains slightly the underdog and yet seems increasingly confident that he can win, having seized the momentum after a sustained late surge. And even if he loses, he would still have won a kind of victory: the independence movement is stronger than it has ever been and the anti-Westminster forces it has unleashed cannot be contained.

It’s just possible that they could be re-channelled for the ultimate good of a reconfigured, federal or neo-federal United Kingdom—but only if Westminster is properly serious about creating a new constitutional settlement that attempts also to address long-held English grievances. (There is, too, somewhere in the near future, a final reckoning to be had on the EU.)

If the Westminster establishment is serious about far-reaching reform of the kind being proposed in a blind panic and about addressing the decline of parliament, then Alex Salmond, whose political mission from the outset was to break the Union, might end up creating the conditions in which it could be remade and thus saved. For now, as we enter the last days of the referendum campaign—perhaps the last days of Great Britain—those of us who do not have a vote, who loathe neoliberalism but who feel culturally British and believe in the multinational ideal of the United Kingdom, for all its flaws and incongruities, can only watch and hope that pragmatism will hold sway so that Scotland is not lost as Ireland was before it.

These are dangerous and unstable times, with the beginnings of a new cold war and the Middle East in flames. As John Gray has written, we are witnessing the return of classical geopolitics—“a struggle for resources between contending empires not unlike that in the late nineteenth century.” If Britain cannot work out how to stay together when so much unites us—language, culture, shared sacrifice, blood—the portents for the twenty-first century are dark indeed.

If the vote is Yes on September 18, the 307-year-old Union will have been shattered, the British state will have been broken, and we will be plunged into a constitutional crisis with devastating consequences for David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

This piece originally appeared in the New Statesman.