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Why sentiment, not statistics, will sway the next Scottish referendum

Millions of Scots still refuse to make the divisive choice between being Scottish and being British. Are they enough to save the Union?

This week, we discovered that Nicola Sturgeon’s answer to new divisions, grievances and borders is . . . more divisions, grievances and borders. Since the vote on 23 June last year, it has become fashionable for some on the “liberal left” south of the border to cope with their Brexit grief by supporting, for Scotland, more nationalism as the answer to nationalism. According to this perspective, the rise of nationalism across Europe is negative, except on this island.

I understand and share the widespread disdain for David Cameron’s misjudgement in trying to solve an internal party management problem by means of a referendum, which has created a much, much bigger national problem. But to put it bluntly, two wrongs don’t make a right. Millions of Scots are squeezed between nationalist narratives north and south of the border – and we identify with neither.

There’s really only one statement by Sturgeon that you need to read to understand the judgement she has reached. It’s the First Minister’s admission last September that, for her, independence “ultimately transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends”. That single sentence reveals that this latest referendum call owes more to old nationalist orthodoxies than to new circumstances.

Let’s remember that it has been less than three years since, as Scots, we voted in unprecedented numbers (the turnout was 85 per cent) and chose to remain within the United Kingdom by a clear 10-point margin.

The “official” narrative of the two-year-long campaign which preceded that vote was that it was a festival of civic democracy. For many of us, our experience was somewhat different. Certainly, the 2014 referendum energised Scotland, but it also divided Scotland deeply: it divided families, neighbours, communities and workplaces.

At a time when Scotland is falling down the international education league tables, when hospital waiting lists are lengthening and when powers to redistribute wealth and opportunity more equitably remain unused, most Scots feel that there are better ways for the Scottish government to spend its time.

The SNP’s latest argument is that another divisive referendum is now justified because Brexit has changed everything. The party claims that leaving the EU single market is so disastrous for Scotland that . . . it must now leave the UK single market (a market to which our exports are worth four times as much).

If the tumultuous weeks and months following the vote on 23 June 2016 taught us anything, it should be to ask the difficult economic questions before deciding to disdain experts and simply walk away from our neighbours.

There is little serious disagreement that one of the reasons why the nationalists lost in 2014 was their failure to provide credible answers to sensible economic questions, whether on the reliability of the oil price, the currency of a post-independence Scotland or the significant financial advantage that Scotland gains from the operation of the Barnett formula.

The public expenditure backdrop in Scotland currently includes a fiscal transfer from the UK of £1,700 per person, which amounts to £9bn per year – allowing us to spend more on essential public services. Far from ending austerity, separation would extend and deepen it in Scotland. Having just witnessed one form of nationalism take us out of Europe with little thought for the consequences, we should be wary of another form of nationalism repeating a similar mistake in Scotland.

Why choose to add greater insecurity and uncertainty to the insecurity and uncertainty already created by Brexit? Why choose an approach that guarantees division and rancour rather than an approach that could build consensus by consent?

And what could that consensus involve? We could repatriate powers on devolved issues directly from Brussels to Edinburgh. We could also consider new constitutional arrangements within the UK to ensure effective engagement between the Scottish government and the EU on devolved issues. A new approach could retain the strengths of the British partnership and allow Scotland to make different choices, including over relationships with Europe.

However, the clear lesson of the EU referendum is that while policy matters, economic evidence is not enough. To win a referendum, economics must be matched by emotion, and statistics must be matched by sentiment.

This is doubly important in a post-trust environment – of facts and “alternative facts”. The nationalists’ cry this time will be less “devo max” and more “grievo max”: seeking to entrench a sense of “us and them”, to amplify difference and to use the Brexit vote to conflate the people of England with the politics of the Tories and Ukip.

My sense of Britishness is no more defined by Nigel Farage and Ukip than my sense of Scottishness is defined by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

I am proud to be Scottish and proud to be British – and to share what we have with our neighbours on these islands.

My Scotland embraces the idea of solidarity and the inspiration of John Smith – and stretches from Gregory’s Girl to the work of J K Rowling.

My Britain is the country of the BBC and the NHS – and stretches from Robert Burns’s “A Man’s a Man” to William Blake’s “Jerusalem”.

There are millions of Scots who still refuse to make the divisive choice between being Scottish and being British, who still believe in solidarity, in sharing and in interdependence. They made their voices heard on 18 September 2014 and – not in denial of the Brexit vote but in defiance of further grievance, division and borders – must now make that case anew.

Douglas Alexander is a senior fellow at Harvard University and Labour’s former secretary of state for Scotland

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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