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What is United about our Kingdom?

A professor, a pollster and a journalist hashed out the question at Chatham House last week.

What is united about our kingdom? Is it the economy, governance or identity?
What is united about our kingdom? Is it the economy, governance or identity?

As the debate on Scottish independence centres on the alleged differences between the Scots and the English, the New Statesman headed to Chatham House last Thursday, where the question at hand was what is united about our fair kingdom.

Journalist and author Sir Simon Jenkins kicked off with a history lesson, pinpointing the end of the British Empire as the beginning of profound changes to our “confederacy, which is the proper way of describing the British Isles.”

A stickler for precision, he pointed out that when discussing the Union at all, we must acknowledge that the “United Kingdom”, in its original formation, ceased to exist following the Partition of Ireland in 1921; since then we have been but the isle of “Great Britain plus Northern Ireland”.

Turning his attention to the referendum on 18 September, he slammed the Better Together campaign for its “ham-fisted” strategy, which centres on promoting the economic argument for Scotland remaining in the Union.

“Secession is not about money,” he barked. “It’s about emotion, tribalism... It's about the way people feel about identity in a changing world.”

Localism is the dominating trend in identity politics, he argued: “In a globalised world, people want a local identity.” The smaller the unit of locality, the stronger the affinity people feel with it (though it was pointed out that London remains the exception, where the city resonates more with residents than their specific borough).

Another complication of British identity is its variation throughout the Union. Most damagingly: “To the English, it means England and little bits on the outside."

If that were not galling enough for the Scots, Jenkins argued that their nation should be as rich as Denmark now, but alas, “it has been ruled badly from London for 50 years if not 200 years”.

No wonder some Scots hate the English, you would be forgiven for thinking. Indeed, they do, said Ipsos MORI chief executive Ben Page.

The pollster pointed out that among football Scottish fans, 15 per cent would always support a national team playing against England than plump for their southern cousins.

Channel 4 news broadcaster Jon Snow described those hard-line nationalists as “angry, entitled, resentful, alienated”, who have come to the conclusion on independence: “Let's just do it ourselves because nobody's done it very well for us yet.”

Still, “devo max” will “cure” the antipathy of these Scots towards Westminster, he maintained.

Page argued that there is more that unites the Scots, the English and the Welsh than divides them, pointing out that the greatest gulf in culture and identity is between London and the rest of the UK.

He said: “London is becoming something other than the countries of which it is in charge; it's almost becoming a separate city-state in its own right.” He added: “That’s a problem”.

Jenkins stood up for the city: “I’m a London nationalist”, he declared.

Princeton-based Professor Linda Colley argued that Westminster and the physical set up of Parliament turned many voters off, but particularly the Scots living hundreds of miles away.

Westminster should emulate the Welsh Assembly, she said. Unlike the rectangular House of Commons, with facing benches designed for rhetorical combat, the Welsh Assembly, she eulogised, is a "light, airy, circular building, where people can do their emails while listening to talks. And you get translations of debates into Welsh, not just English. People can gather outside and look at what their representatives are doing.”

Jenkins snorted. "It’s a citadel of total incompetence", he said.

The growing need for a written constitution to codify the nature of the Union was also discussed. Colley said that the complexity of Parliament today meant a constitution was required for the aid of MPs, a viewpoint shared by a parliamentary clerk – not usually the type to eschew tradition and embrace change – with whom she had spoken.

She issued a warning, however. “It can’t just be a car manual, it can’t be like the cabinet guide recently created. There has to be an inspiration element to it, that’s the trick.” she said. 

So a written code would spark further questions about who we are as a nation and what kind of people we want to be. 

 

As to the central question of what unites our kingdom, the panel was passionately divided.

Page surmised: “Ultimately, it’s still the economy stupid. Essentially people are pragmatic - most polls show that people want to vote to stay in for pragmatic reasons”. Colley agreed, but only in part. She added: “It’s governance stupid”. With a grin and delighting in his own contrarianism, Jenkins had the last word: “I’m going to say: it’s identity stupid.”