Thursday 17 September 2015

Let’s make September 18th the UK’s national day

If Scotland had voted for independence on September 18th 2014, it was proposed by the SNP that we would actually have become independent on 24th March 2016. In that case it is likely that this date would have been celebrated every year as Scotland’s national day. In nearly every country in the world there is such a day. In fact the only two countries in the world who appear to lack such a day are the UK and Denmark.

In the UK there are a variety of different holidays. Each part of the UK, for instance, has a saint’s day, but these are still normal working days and they are not particularly observed or even for that matter noticed.

There is something typical about the UK going it alone with regard to national holidays. Nearly everyone else has a written constitution, but we don’t. Nearly everyone else drives on the right, but we don’t. Britain is quirky, we don’t follow the crowd. There has always been something to be said for this, but there comes a time when we desperately need what others have.

The UK as a nation state is in some trouble. It is crucial that we recognise this. As I always say, we’ve been in tight spots before and, no doubt, we’ll muddle through well enough, but it’s time to face some facts. Just before the independence referendum, there were many people including senior politicians who thought there was a reasonable chance that Scotland would vote for independence. In all our history the UK was never under such an existential threat as we were last September. I will doubtless be accused of hyperbole for saying this, but it is in fact self-evidently true. France, for instance, in the past 300 years has suffered catastrophic military defeat on a number of occasions, but the existence of France per se has never been threatened, even when it was occupied. The threat of secession, even when achieved peacefully, is an existential threat to a nation state. The USA could hardly have called itself united if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, likewise the UK could hardly call itself united if we had lost Scotland.

It had been my hope prior to the referendum that a No vote would strengthen the UK. Most people do not have the good fortune to choose to remain in their nation state. Up until that point only the people in Northern Ireland had made such a choice. For people in Scotland, the origin of the UK was a matter of distant history. It had something to do with the Darien scheme, bankruptcy and other events of early 18th century history that were dimly remembered. But after 300 years of successful marriage we had chosen not to divorce, but rather to renew our vows. Yet it doesn’t feel like that in Scotland today. The SNP have surged in popularity. They threaten another vote on independence. Would they win if there were such a vote? Who can say? The arguments for independence are much worse now than they were a year ago. But Scotland has gone beyond argument. Many independence supporters simply have ceased to have any feeling for the UK. Even many people who voted No have little sentiment for Britain. Too many people in Scotland are Scottish first and British a very distant second if at all. This is our problem.

What is it that creates a sense of common identity? Why do people in the United States, for instance, feel a kinship with everyone who lives in the fifty other states? These people sometimes have only recently arrived from elsewhere, sometimes they can trace their ancestry back to the first settlers from Europe, sometimes still further to those settlers who in ancient times crossed the land-bridge from Asia. Some people were taken to the United States by force and made to work without pay. There was great injustice in the past, but these people too despite the trauma of their arrival and the conditions under which their ancestors lived, love the United States.

There is no threat of secession in the United States, not because it is a more pleasant place to live than the UK. Our countries are both prosperous and we both have points that can be raised in our favour and to our detriment. The reason that the United States is not threatened by secession is that as a matter of history the question was solved once and for all and forever. No part of the United States as a matter of  law could secede today even if it wanted to, but more important no state would want to.

Having been threatened with secession, the United States made quite sure that every citizen would have common identity. It didn’t matter where your ancestors came from, every citizen would love and feel loyalty to the United States. How did this happen? It happened in a number of ways. Every school child, every morning pledged allegiance to the flag and affirmed that the United States was “one nation, indivisible”. Every time there was a sporting event, people stood up, put their hands on their hearts and sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. Every year there was a huge national holiday on July 4th and throughout the year, other patriotic days were celebrated. It is the fact that nearly all Americans celebrate Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Labor Day and the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington that creates the common identity and the feeling of shared history.

We in the UK must work very hard on creating a shared identity. Far too many people across the UK are feeling less and less British and more and more English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish. This was all very well when our country was not threated with secession. But the bonds that join us together are becoming weaker. If Scotland left the UK, how long would it be before England chose to leave, or Wales or Northern Ireland?

There needs to be much more of a celebration of our shared history. The SNP would like Scottish children to only learn about what Scots did. They don’t want those children to feel anything in common with English people. Naturally if you don’t feel anything in common, it is far more likely that you will vote for separation. But even if the SNP control education, the UK controls broadcasting and much else besides. We can make films that celebrate what we have achieved together over the past centuries. We can publish books and organise shared events that focus on what we have in common rather than on what divides us. Let us do more of this, even if it requires central government funding.

We need to work on creating a common identity through sport. For this reason the UK Government should do all in its power to create UK sporting teams and other UK organisations. Why should there always have to be a Scottish version of every charity? Why should nearly everything in Scotland be prefixed by the word Scottish? It is this that underpins nationalism and undermines our shared British identity.

We should create a series of shared holidays in the UK all connected with our shared history. At present in much of the UK there are Bank holidays, but no-one knows why they are when they are. The problem also is that these Bank holidays for the most part are not celebrated in Scotland at all. We in Scotland have local holidays. For reasons that are entirely obscure one small town has a local holiday while everyone else works. Many people don’t even know when such days occur. While the rest of the UK has Good Friday as a holiday and Easter Monday too, most people in Scotland work as normal.

This has all gone well enough up until now, but as I have been arguing the UK is in danger if we don’t begin to feel that we all have something in common and that we share the same identity. A national holiday like July 4th could gradually become a tradition that brought about unity. If in addition throughout the year there were days that celebrated important shared historical events, we might gradually turn the tide against nationalism.

Naturally the parties that support the break-up of Britain would oppose these holidays. They will always oppose anything that serves to bring people in the UK closer together. But there are far more people in the UK who love our country and feel kinship with everyone who lives here. We must begin to do what every other country in the world does as a matter of course. We must begin to celebrate our unity.

In time through shared celebration of a shared day we will all gain the confidence to fly our shared flag everywhere and cease to wish to do things separately. This long term is the key. We must begin to think of our identity as primarily British just as people in the United States think of themselves as primarily Americans rather than, for instance, Californians. We will keep our Scottish identity, just as Germans keep their identity as Saxons or Bavarians, but it can all be mixed together such as to think of the one is to think of the other. A shared national day will not in itself be enough to bring about the unity that Britain needs, but it is one more step to defeating division and turning talk of secession into a distant historical memory.

What could be the date of our UK national day? Why not September 18th? Let us always remind ourselves of the day when we defeated the greatest threat to the UK in all our shared history. Let us always celebrate that decisive victory and remind everyone in the UK that we are one nation, indivisible.