Central to the Scottish Nationalist frame of reference is that "the UK is not a country". Central to our belief as Unionists is that the UK (or Britain for shorthand) is indeed a country!
This essential difference usually means that Nationalists and Unionists are living and thinking and speaking in quite different realities.
We have to be aware of this, and be careful not to get into a "debate" where we are both speaking from utterly different premises.
Why do the SNP and their supporters believe and say such a thing?
Their aim is to de-legitimise the idea of the United Kingdom.
If they can pretend that the UK does not actually exist as a Nation-State then it is much easier to dismantle it and render it politically irrelevant.
To do this, the SNP push the idea of the UK being merely a political State; that is, a sort of convenient arrangement between different nations who agree to get along for the time being, but who are connected in no substantial way.
We disagree of course!
The UK is a Nation of Unions (not a union of nations)
There are two ways of looking at the United Kingdom. How you view and understand the UK "relationship" will lead you to different policies, which will lead you to different outcomes.
The first view is that it is a "union of nations". This leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the UK is merely a "conditional" arrangement.
That is, "so long as it works we can stay together, but if we go through a stormy patch then we need to break up and go our separate ways." This is a weak frame through which to view and understand the UK - although sometimes it may have its rhetorical uses. Unfortunately, it is the view which the MPs in the British Parliament predominantly articulate.
The second way - the way that we view the UK - is that it is a Nation of Unions. That is, it is something fundamental; a Nation in itself.
This leads us to the inevitable conclusion that we should be concerned at all times with its intrinsic integrity. This is the strong frame through which to view and understand the UK.
Our social and cultural union has been created for at least 5,000 years. We had a coming together of Tribes and small 'Kingdoms' throughout the British Isles; a union of sorts in the Kingdom of Scotland; a union of England with Wales; the 1603 Union of the Crowns; the Parliamentary Union in 1707; the Union with Ireland in 1801; as well as our natural social and familial unions which continue to be created every day.
Far from being a mere political State – a "Union of Nations" – the United Kingdom has become, over time, a Nation of Unions - a Nation-State; a political State which is also a Nation.
Furthermore, as evidence for our position, the UK today has all the proof of being a Country – a Nation-State – including as per the above graphic. We have a common:
- Head of State
- Political System - Representative Parliamentary Democracy
- International Boundary
- Armed Forces
- Presence on International Institutions
- Worldwide Embassies
Furthermore, while different parts of the UK have slightly different legal systems, we have an integrated Legal System in the sense that Judges from all parts of the UK sit on the Supreme Court, the ultimate court in the UK for civil cases.
So, we are clearly one Nation!
Our view of the UK frames it in a substantial way and in a way that is harder to destroy.
This is the Solid Frame through which to View the UK
The SNP (and unfortunately some in the mainstream "unionist" parties who want to move the UK in a "federalist" direction) frame it in a very loose way. They frame the UK as a mere "State", a mere "union of nations".
We understand that some people can view the UK as a "union of nations". We totally understand why, and we know that it can be viewed as that...through one particular frame. But it is a weak frame for a unionist to view the British relationship.
It leaves it weak and vulnerable and it is a potentially fatal frame. It confers no degree of solidity to the idea of the United Kingdom.
Our view of the UK as a Nation – as a "Nation of Unions" – frames it in a substantial way and in a way that is harder to destroy.
Why we Must Argue that Britain is a Nation
Well, firstly, we are correct! The UK has been brought together and developed over the centuries into one Nation, a Nation of Unions, as above. It is no longer just a "union of nations". The long history of our Islands has created something of considerably more substance!
Secondly, if you argue on the basis of the UK being a State alone – a mere "union of nations" – then you have to argue for the continuing relationship on the basis of conditionality.
What do we mean by this?
We mean, you have to argue that the UK is a conditional thing ("dependent upon") the ever-changing circumstances of the moment; you have to argue that it is merely provisional, merely temporary; that it is holding together for the time being, but might not last if various policy changes happen.
That is, if it works today then it is a good thing. If it doesn't work today then we have to seriously consider breaking it up!
This attitude forgoes consideration of the long-term good, and instead jumps about from random temporary political point to point, with no fundamental anchor, and no concern for the morrow.
This can lead into elevating arguments solely related to temporary political policies – making a huge deal of such passing things, which are literally here today and gone tomorrow.
This risks bringing down the temple for something that would have been sorted out tomorrow anyway!
Recently, that has included highly debatable temporary policies and complaints related to "austerity" and "food banks", or the "rape clause" and the "bedroom tax" (remember that one – no longer an issue but it actually risked bringing down the UK in 2014)!
However, if you argue on the basis of the UK being a Nation, then you bring in the important long-term matters of identity, allegiance, loyalty; in short, the emotion, the vim and vigour, and you make the matter one of the Heart and not only the Head.
The Difference Between the UK (Nation of Unions) and the EU (union of nations)
To illustrate what we mean, take for example, the UK's relationship with the EU.
The EU is a political State. The EU is, indeed, a union of nations.
As we say, the UK is a Nation-State; a different thing entirely!
Since the EU is merely a State, then it is quite legitimate for one nation to go and do its own thing (ie to hold a referendum on its own volition, and then to get a unilateral divorce if it chooses). Hence the UK can leave the EU.
However, if we apply that same frame to the UK's relationship with itself – if we imagine the UK is a mere "union of nations", with each part free to do whatever it wants – then it means that Scotland is free to go and do its own thing regardless of everyone else in the UK; regardless of everyone else who values the UK and regards it as their country too.
It would mean that Scotland could get a unilateral divorce, and destroy the UK, without thinking about the others in the relationship.
If the UK were merely a "union of nations", then the fact that Scotland voted to Remain in the EU would, indeed, be sufficient reason for Scotland to go and do its own thing.
A lot of Scottish Nationalists clearly do believe that this is the actual constitutional relationship, and that this is what happened, and that this is what we should do!
Thankfully, that is not the reality. The constitutional reality is that the UK is one Unitary Nation-State which voted as one Unitary Nation-State to Leave.
The UK is leaving the EU precisely because it is a Unitary Nation-State.
The British Parliament has the Power to Prevent another Separation Referendum
Since we conceive of the UK as a Nation-State – a Nation of Unions – then this means that the process of divorce should be (if allowed at all) a mutually agreed thing among all the people of the United Kingdom. It is not a matter for "Scotland alone".
The fact that the UK is a Unitary Nation-State means that the central British Parliament must always retain the power to prevent a referendum, especially if it is likely to be damaging to the integrity and maintenance of the one overall United Kingdom Nation-State.
It has this right and responsibility and duty because it speaks for all the people of the UK (not just those in Scotland) who have a vested interest in the maintenance of their common country – the United Kingdom – and a desire to see it continue.
It is entirely necessary, proper, democratic and legitimate to have this power because it is standing for all the people of our United Kingdom who are all invested in this mutual relationship – who are all involved by virtue of being part of our one Nation-State.
If we don't see the UK as a Nation-State though, and if we think of it merely as a "State", as a "union of nations" then it is much harder to make this point, if at all!
At the end of the day, though, we can and will make compelling and true arguments why Britain is a Nation. But others will try to make incorrect arguments that it is not.
What it comes down to is – who has the ability to ensure their point of view dominates?
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