If the North voted to leave the Union, would Westminster leaders care?

Opinion: Miliband’s madcap flags proposal has been but one sign of panic in the No camp

‘Would one among them urge English cities, towns and villages to drape themselves in the Ulster Banner, aka St Patrick’s Saltire, to send the message – “Stay”?’ Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivers a speech at Scottish Labour campaign headquarters in Glasgow. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

‘Would one among them urge English cities, towns and villages to drape themselves in the Ulster Banner, aka St Patrick’s Saltire, to send the message – “Stay”?’ Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivers a speech at Scottish Labour campaign headquarters in Glasgow. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

 

Has Ed Miliband ever gone for a dander in Drumahoe? I doubt it.

On Monday night, the Labour leader produced another in the sudden series of wizard wheezes that major party leaders across the water have come up with to lure the Scots into staying united with the rest of the kingdom: “Over the next few days we want cities, towns and villages across the UK to send a message to Scotland: stay with us. We want to see the Saltire flying above buildings all across our country.”

Last time I went through Drumahoe, there was half a dozen Saltires fluttering from the lamp-posts, and that was only at the first cross-roads. And the Drumahoe display is on the discrete side compared with more exuberant areas of Ulster-Scots exhibitionism.

The reason Mr Miliband didn’t factor this in is that the distinctiveness of Northern Ireland is something of which he knows little, which in turn reflects the fact that he doesn’t really think of the North as a part of “our country”. And neither do the other Westminster leaders.

If there were a border poll next week as envisaged in the Belfast Agreement, would they be stumbling over one another to offer Northern Ireland voters bribes and blandishments to persuade them to not to leave? If told by the North that the union wasn’t working, it was time to call it a day, would Westminster politicians they break down and beg, plead for another chance?

Would one among them urge English cities, towns and villages to drape themselves in the Ulster Banner, aka St Patrick’s Saltire, to send the message – “Stay”?

Or would they shrug, “Probably for the best, so,” and, as soon as the North was out of earshot, start partying like there was no tomorrow?

We don’t have to wait for the votes to be counted, or even cast, to conclude that the political establishment in London couldn’t care less about the North. Maybe we knew this already. But it’s clarifying to have it confirmed.

Miliband’s madcap flags proposal has been but one sign of panic in the No camp. Gordon Brown last week lurched back onto the field of battle, to cheers from commentators who just a few weeks ago were presenting him as a figure of pity and fun. Now they are holding him up as the hero who might save the day.

Brown is one few British politicians to have taken a serious interest in the meaning of Britishness. Addressing the Fabian Society’s annual conference in 2006, he asked: “What is the British equivalent of the US Fourth of July, or even the French 14th of July? ...Perhaps Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday are the nearest we have to a day that is. . . commemorative, unifying and an expression of British ideas.”

It didn’t occur to a man with an abiding interest in the Union that there is an obvious candidate for an annual “British Day” – May 1st, the date in 1707 when the Treaty of Union came into effect with the inaugural meeting of the British parliament. It seems not to have occurred to anyone last May that, given the approaching referendum, the anniversary might be marked by celebration, lamentation or debate as to which might be more appropriate.

The 2007 tricentenary appears to have passed unremarked.

May 1st 1707 wasn’t a day of liberation for either party. The English might have celebrated it as the day they’d finally subdued their rebellious neighbours. But that wasn’t quite it. Their welcome for the incorporation of Scotland was matched by the contentment of the Scottish ruling class, its own imperial ambitions having come to naught, at the prospect of joining in the Empire’s plunder of the world while keeping its “own” lower orders in check.

Thus it is that the independence campaign – perhaps to an extent unappreciated outside Scotland – has not been fought on the basis of national pride and liberation but mainly on the proposition that Scotland would be a more just and decent society freed from entanglement with England.

This hope may prove futile in an independent Scotland. The notion of Alex Salmond and his party as radical crusaders for a more equal society is fanciful. And the same pressure from global capitalism will press in on independent Scotland as on Scotland as part of the Union.

The difference might be that the referendum campaign has mobilised more people in grass-roots political action than any other issue in a long, long time, while creating an excited expectation of social and economic change for the better.

The leaders of an independent Scotland will have to try from the outset to finesse this fraught contradiction. They will have their work cut out. One way or another, whatever the result of the referendum, there’ll be ructions the morning after.

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