Unionist Reductionism

By Stephen Bowman

Better Together are taking all this independence malarkey a little too seriously. That’s to say, they’re overemphasising the importance of Scotland’s constitutional relationship with the rest of the UK. This is something that they do while complaining that the SNP obsesses over constitutional change at the expense of ‘more important’ issues, like health and education. Yet, no doubt deliberately, they singularly fail to acknowledge the contradiction in arguing that constitutional change is unimportant while also predicting that at an independent future would be dangerously different and uncertain. On the occasions that they take the latter approach, they’re not only exaggerating the future importance of the UK, but they’re also overegging the importance of its past.

How many times have we heard a figure from Better Together remind us of the great things that Scotland has achieved as part of the Union? These typically include the National Health Service and Britain’s war against Nazi Germany. Then only yesterday, at the Scottish Women’s Convention in Glasgow, Labour’s Margaret Curran said that women’s rights have been developed and protected by people cooperating across the UK. Specifically she said, ‘How did we achieve these changes? We did it with women working together across the UK.’ This simplistically implies that women gained improvements to their rights because of the existence of the UK, not because of any other historical reasons. It’s a step away from saying something like ‘women got the vote because of the UK’, which seems to imply that women – or Scottish women, at any rate – wouldn’t have gotten the vote if Scotland had been separate. Well no. Women in the UK got the vote because of a variety of reasons, most of which had little to say on the merits of Scottish independence, and many of which may have been true in or out of the UK. Likewise, what’s to say that an independent Scotland wouldn’t have established a National Health Service of its own, having also just participated in a war against fascism? Yes, both are great British achievements, but they are great not because they are British.

Equally, there’s no point using history to beef up arguments in favour of independence. William Wallace may well have voted Yes if he was alive in September 2014, but he probably would’ve just as quickly lopped off Alistair Darling’s head. Neither is there any point in deploying counter-factual history to argue that things would’ve been different in the past had Scotland been independent. Some things may well have been – for example, perhaps an independent socially democratic Scotland would have taken a more redistributive approach to North Sea oil revenues – but other things would likely have been the same, including a conservative opposition to giving women the vote. The point is, the past is in the past, and it’s best left there. It is indeed a foreign country and is foreign to Scotland as much it is to the UK.

To be fair, the Yes campaign generally refrains from using historical arguments. Its message is one of hope for the future and focuses on the opportunity that independence offers to improve the lives of as many people as possible. It might work, or it might not. Better Together, however, seem to have few positive things to say about Scotland’s future. For them, simply to say that Scotland and the UK are ‘Better Together’ is enough. We were Better Together in the past, and so we’ll be Better Together in the future. Yet this reductionist argument is little more than British nationalism, and provides no legitimate reason to vote No in September. Better Together can’t have it both ways. If independence won’t solve all of Scotland’s problems – and it probably won’t – then neither is the UK uniquely responsible for all that is good about the country.

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