On Friday morning, Scotland’s children will stumble through the school gates for the last day of term. The summer holidays are about to begin, but first they must attend to a solemn and patriotic duty.
When the bell sounds, they gather at the playground flagpole and, as the Union Jack is raised by a beaming janny, loudly belt out the One Britain One Nation song. The grammarians among them might fret about that missing comma, but grateful tears roll down plump young cheeks as they reach the stirring phrase “united forever, never apart”. To one side, teachers watch for any troublemakers who silently mouth the words to “Flower of Scotland” instead – this will go into the official report to Whitehall, with the names of the troublemakers’ parents, their father’s employment, and any known family political associations.
All voices rise in crescendo until they hit the fourth and final repetition of the concluding line: “Strong Britain! Great Nation!” As the Red Arrows fly past, fireworks are let off and in the sky forms the giant, handsome-but-stern face of Gavin Williamson.
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In London, amid his spider and whip collections, Williamson suddenly wakes from this sweaty but satisfying dream. How clever he has been. How grateful the people will be. Reaching for his bedside copy of Politics for Dummies, he begins to plot the application of his rare strategic genius to the rest of the day.
Nightmare. Among the many reasons Boris Johnson’s government has given Scottish unionists to bite their fists in frustration, the Great British singalong is the tin-eared, culture-shredding, borderline-insulting nadir. The minor fact that some Scottish schools will already have broken up for the summer by Friday is almost beside the point. Muscular unionism in the hands of this collection of – let’s be honest – Tory weirdos is veering ever closer to Maoist parody.
It also seems to be infectious. Michael Gove is usually a politician of intellectual seriousness and substance several times the magnitude of Williamson. He is also Scottish. And yet the Cabinet Office guru and leader of the “Save the Union” campaign is showing distinct signs of cultural blindness.
In an interview this week, Gove was asked whether there was any circumstance in which Johnson would grant a second independence referendum before the next election. “I don’t think so,” was his response. This has the benefit of probably being true. If the UK government repeals the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which mandates a five-year gap between general elections, the country might well go to the polls in 2023. That is only two years away and the SNP shows no sign of being in a position to hold a referendum before then. Even if this parliament runs its full course until 2024, the possibility of a second referendum seems unlikelier with each passing month. Sturgeon’s failure to win an outright majority in May’s devolved election has had a greater impact than her supporters are willing to admit. The pro-independence spirit feels somewhat becalmed.
But Gove should be careful to maintain his credibility north of the border. Too many of his and his government’s utterances and actions in relation to Scotland are targeted at the relatively small, angry group of ultra-unionists. As with the flaky independence obsessives on the other side of the argument, these people are a minority, even within their own cohort. Both governments should be speaking to Middle Scotland, which is the measured and thoughtful part of the population that will ultimately decide the nation’s constitutional fate. The SNP are so far proving rather better at this.
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The Westminster Tories seem set instead on insulting our intelligence. That preposterous song is only the most egregious example. There are good reasons Scots –including, I suspect, most unionists – don’t want to sing “God Save the Queen” at sporting occasions. This London-centric determination to enforce a celebratory patriotism on the weakening British identity is doomed to failure. What are we to make of the campaign by the Conservative MP Joy Morrissey and the British Monarchists Society to “put a portrait of Her Majesty in every home, company, and institution that would like one”? It can’t just be Scots who have an allergic reaction to this kind of boosterish tripe.
Stop it. Stop it now. Stop the threats that any second independence referendum will effectively be gerrymandered by allowing all Scots to vote, regardless of where in the UK they live. The franchise should extend to everyone registered to vote in Scotland, as it was in 2014, and no further. As the civil servants who managed the arrangements for the last referendum point out, any change to this would be fiendishly complex and disruptive. And it’s such an obvious unionist fix.
Brexit has already done so much damage to unionist sentiment north of the border. It feels like every subsequent utterance from this quasi-English nationalist cabinet is geared to display its emotional distance from or political disregard for the non-Home Counties bits of the UK.
There is a suggestion that Ruth Davidson, now in the Lords rather than Holyrood, could be appointed as constitutional secretary. This is – at last! – a good idea. Davidson’s reputation in Scotland may not be what it was at its height, but she remains a smart and canny operator. She understands the nation and its tribes, and bears the scars from many previous battles with the SNP. Cultural awareness and sympathy is sorely missing from the current Westminster approach.
The reality is that while this might well be (for now) One Britain, it is comprised of four nations with distinct and often competing identities. These cannot be jammed into the funnel of a single unionist trumpet, and attempts to do so only alienate us further. Stop the nonsense. Stop the weirdness. And wake up.
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