A Country, Indeed

  Individual British coins coming together to make the Royal shield of the United Kingdom. Image Credit:  DaveKentUK  via  Flickr   cc

Individual British coins coming together to make the Royal shield of the United Kingdom. Image Credit: DaveKentUK via Flickr cc

     Last week, SNP MEP Alyn Smith went before the EU parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Affairs to assert that the “UK is not a country” and called on the committee to view the UK as merely a “state made up of four countries” and to see that two of those countries (including Scotland) voted for the UK to keep its membership of the European Union in the referendum which was held on June 23rd.

     The aim of Mr. Smith was to convince his colleagues in Brussels to put aside the UK-wide vote to terminate membership of the EU and instead focus on the result of each of the home nations as if there was a separate vote held in each of them with the ballot papers asking if they wanted their individual part of the UK to stay in or leave the EU, and to therefore treat Scotland as a special case with regard to remaining in the EU as the overall UK prepares to leave.

     He pleaded with the committee members to not “turn your back on all of us now” and that under First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a panel of expert advisors has been assembled to look at all options for Holyrood to pursue following the Brexit vote, and promised that this panel would before long come to the committee with “solutions” for Scottish participation in the EU. Pending such solutions, he said that the committee ought to wait before making any “precipitous move” to shut down attempts for an easy transition to Scotland being an EU member in its own right – perhaps with some of the UK’s opt-outs.

     However, despite the pleasantries exchanged between Sturgeon and some leaders of the EU in her charm offensive to win support for her position on Scotland and the EU, as well as the standing ovation Smith received for his impassioned speech to the EU Parliament, it appears that there is little appetite to deal with Scotland as a separate case from the UK with regard to Brexit since the UK is the sovereign entity which holds EU membership. That, and the fact that there are other EU countries which have separatist issues within their borders, and will not wish to have a special deal for Scotland being used as precedent for those wishing to break them up. The Spanish are almost certain to use their veto to prevent such a precedent from being established, and their legal position (as stated by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy) is that the UK as a whole must leave the EU and then Scotland – if it became independent – would have to put in an application to become a new EU member.

     This is the position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Europe Minister, David Lidington, as well as Sir David Edward, a former European Court judge who is a member of the First Minster’s special panel. He warned a Holyrood committee and also told the BBC that obtaining Scottish membership would be impossible to negotiate while the UK leaves the EU during the two year period following the invocation of Article 50 to start the real process of Brexit and raised concerns about “complications” such as customs duties on goods and services going between Scotland and the rest of the UK, as well as the real possibility that an independent Scotland may have to start life outside the EU.

     Nevertheless, Smith, Sturgeon, and others in the SNP can be counted on to keep pressing forward with whatever morsel of an argument they can find, because what they are really after is a second referendum to break up the UK. An affirmative result in their favor is made easier by getting assurances that Scotland will have a smooth transition to independent EU membership, and this is made easier by convincing the powers that be on the Continent to view EU referendum results as those of four separate countries voting separately, rather than as one country voting as one. Hence, Smith’s assertion that the “UK is not a country.”

     This claim is one of the things which has been a source of irritation during the independence referendum and since. The purpose is to delegitimize the United Kingdom as a country – as something with a heart and soul – and instead characterize it as just a state – as a made-up construct with no soul or value beyond that of a few monetary exchanges. It’s about making people feel no sense of purpose or belonging within the UK, and with the hope that they will see it as something with little or no meaning to them to the point that they will be willing to break it up.

     The reality is that the United Kingdom is a country, with all of the attributes of a country; it has its own head of state, parliament, citizenship, armed forces, passport, currency, anthem, flag, internationally-recognized borders, membership of international institutions, and international presence via a global network of embassies.

     However, aside from these legal and bare essentials for being a country, there’s much more to the United Kingdom; the listed attributes are merely the bones which hold up the meat of what makes the UK a country.

     Indeed, it is fair to say that the UK is a state, but it is more than that, for it is a multinational nation-state; both a union of nations (just as the US is a union of 50 states) and a nation of unions built over hundreds of years which celebrates the cultures of its constituent parts, which in turn contributes to the overall culture and society of the United Kingdom as a whole and the concept of being British. What we think of today as Britishness has been brought about by the full and joint political, economic, and social union of the home nations into a single country, known as the United Kingdom. Each part has greatly contributed to that, and to remove any part would mean removing something essential about the UK.

     For my part, I have never thought of the United Kingdom as being divided according to the English, Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish. For me, it has been one country made of different peoples with much in common, and with the borders between them virtually meaningless.

     For this reason, the UK belongs to everyone within its borders, and it is indeed not only a country, but one which has meaning and a soul embedded within it. I look at the vast expanse of Britain – from the Welsh valleys, to the green and pleasant land of England, to the Scottish Highlands, and Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and take wonder in the beauty of this one land – indivisible. I look at the radiance of the UK’s great cities – from Glasgow to Manchester, Belfast to Inverness, from Aberdeen to Cardiff, Liverpool to Southampton, and from Birmingham to Edinburgh to London, and remain in awe of these places that are the engines of Britain’s prosperity.

     When I hear songs like I Vow to Thee My Country, I think of the nation by which we have stood beside through decades of peace and war. When I listen to Heart of Oak, I think of great British ships that exported Britain around the world and helped to connect it. With Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope of Glory, I also think about the country that did so well at the 2012 Olympic Games by being united and which also celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of its storied Queen.

     Yet for all of these great things, I am not at all blinded by visions of the United Kingdom as perfect country.

     There is poverty and economic suffering currently going on throughout the entire United Kingdom, for the downturn of recent years has caused pain for many people, and now there is Brexit with which to contend. I know that it is not entirely a land of hope and glory, but that does not mean that it cannot be or strive toward it.

     Britain has been – and is – a great country, and much of that greatness stems from the fact that it once governed the largest empire in human history. The British Empire is long gone, but positive influences from Britain around the world live on to the present day, and the UK is still a leader in world affairs. This is something in which the people ought to take some pride.

     It should also take pride in its cultural exports, such as James Bond, the Beatles, and Harry Potter – all of which hail from the land of Shakespeare and Burns. There are other contributions, like developing democracy and social welfare and leading the world in the industrial revolution, and still more, its venerable institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy, the BBC, Parliament, and the Armed Forces, all of which – in spite of their shortcomings – provide the glue that underpin British society and bind the British people together.

     I see all of these things, and I think to myself: what a wonderful country, this sceptered isle, or rather isles – these Isles of Wonder, which were so beautifully portrayed by Danny Boyle at the Olympics nearly four years ago.

     I cannot help but to have admiration for what Britain has done in the past, and – as the Games themselves displayed – have hope for what Britain can do in the future, both at home and abroad.

     Over the last weekend, the country united around Andy Murray as he won his second Wimbledon title, as well as Gordon Reid winning the inaugural wheelchair singles event at the storied and prestigious tournament – providing a ray of sunshine and excitement to a country deeply divided over the Brexit vote and still reeling from the fallout. Earlier, the country united around Wales as it became the last Home Nation standing in the Euro football tournament, and in a few weeks, it will again unite around Team GB for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

     All of this is a real-life display to show that while the UK is made up of different parts and its people have multiple identities, they also come together as Britons to fuse their individual talents into a national synergy which paves the way for the achievement of great things like athletic victories. It certainly shows that Britain is hardly a clapped-out and washed-up former imperial power; her old Empire has been successfully transformed into the Commonwealth, and the country itself had carried on in modern times. It still has much going for it when the people believe in themselves and are willing to join together in common efforts to advance the country and themselves.

     When taken altogether, with the bonds linking the UK as tight as they are in the course of over 300 years as a country, a break-up of the UK will likely be far more tragic, regrettable, and painful than that of the UK leaving the European Union on several levels, not least where the economy and trade is concerned. Therefore, it is in the best interest of Scotland to have representatives at the table of the UK negotiating team to help create a deal that is beneficial for everyone (especially when considering that more Scots on a higher turnout voted to keep the UK together two years ago and the EU referendum was a UK-wide vote, which Sturgeon acknowledged by campaigning and taking part in debates throughout the country).

     Indeed, without Scotland, there can be no Britain, and the UK is not just about England, or London, or [big, bad] Westminster, or the [evil] Tories. There is a social, cultural, and perhaps even, a spiritual element to the UK that I believe gets lost in the debates about the constitution, the EU, devolution, oil, the Barnett Formula, and etc. It was that element of the UK that is truly in danger, and continues to be at risk – that element which helps to bind the people together into one as they join into a common culture with shared values and beliefs, and participate in many of the same things, while also maintaining the elements that make them distinct from each other.

     But even then, the distinctions all contribute to the social and cultural fabric of the United Kingdom, for Scottish culture contributes as much to British culture as English culture, and when you break it down further, there a varying cultures within England and Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales which enrich their respective home nation and the UK as a whole. The Glaswegian accent is as British as the Cockney and Scouser accents; Ynys Môn (Anglesey) is as British as Orkney; Yorkshire pudding is as British as haggis. When one thinks of Britain, they must – without fail – think of the country in its entirety from Shetland to Land’s End.

     There are many people, both at home and abroad (including yours truly) who value and appreciate the UK because of its diversity and because of the overlapping identities shared amongst its people. We believe that there is something special about the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish being part of the same country – with all those languages and dialects, foods, landmarks, landscapes, and towns and cities – a modern country that values its storied past and heritage, but also embraces modernity and the future, especially now in these times.

     If Sturgeon and the SNP wish to be constructive with regard to Brexit, then according to Stephen Daisley of STV, she can either “be an equal partner in a grown-up political process” and stop with the “constitutional game-playing” and indyref2 threats, or she can “pander to her excitable grassroots”, but cannot do both. A similar choice must be made by the new prime minister, Theresa May, with regard to her own hard-line Brexit caucus within the Conservative Party.

     The time is fast approaching to come together and do what’s good for the United Kingdom as a country and for all of its people, so as to ensure that it is better off and stronger going forward.