Murdo Fraser is Member of the Scottish Parliament for Mid-Scotland & Fife, and the Scottish Conservative spokesman on Covid Recovery.
The essence of the UK is having multiple identities. I am Scottish and British and happily so, as are many who are English, Irish or Welsh, and British at the same time.
Nationalists present us with a false choice that we can only have one identity, and that if we adhere to both we are somehow undermining each of them. That is why some Scot Nats delight in calling people like me ‘Uncle Toms’.
But just as nationalists spend most of their time emphasising difference, it would be wrong to presume that most people, partly because they see the benefits of the UK, naturally feel Scottish and British without some effort. Britishness cannot be assumed.
When British identity is asserted it cannot be by cliché. A ‘Last Night of the Proms’, ‘Trooping of the Colour’- type Britishness of flag-waving where the Union Jack is flown can turn into a nationalist trap by seeming to be a competitor to, rather than an embodiment of, the Saltire.
During the Brexit campaign, senior members of the Remain campaign believed that your average Briton felt they had a ‘European’ identity when many felt they didn’t, and were made to feel foreign by its assertion – a mistake to avoid.
Walls of separation have the space to be built when links and ties are allowed to wither. Some in the UK have been withered by social change and language.
In my youth Scots families holidayed in the south in resorts like Blackpool, Brighton and Scarborough. Now the price of air travel and the weather mean they go to Spain or Portugal (or at least they did until Covid struck).
A familiarity with the sun has meant that a familiarity with England has faded. The annual home internationals used to bring all parts of the UK together for football in one week in the early summer. Scots fans saved for two years in anticipation of the ‘Wembley weekend’, but that is no more.
Digital television means that viewing can be localised, or internationalised, but at the expense, perhaps, of truly national broadcasters. No longer do we travel by British Rail past British Steel works. The word British is less part of daily life than it once was, and now references to the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament on the news, or the Scottish Government and the UK Government, allows some to portray to Scots that which is ours as foreign.
Our UK Government is responsible for more spending in Scotland than the devolved administration, but you wouldn’t know it by walking down a Scottish street.
We should also recognise that familiarity with such language has been allowed to fade so slowly that any sudden imposition could jar. To build the emotional case, that which is practical needs to become loved.
It is often said that the NHS is so revered in the UK that it has almost become a national religion. That did not grow instantly at the establishment of a new public service in 1948, but took root as people as individuals relied on its care at pivotal moments in their own person story – birth, illness and recovery.
If we want a new recognition of the UK’s role, if we want to build an emotional case, this must be an important element. The UK is a national health service across all in these islands. Its power to pool and share resources are at the heart of the case for the UK.
Education has a similar personal engagement with the individual that builds communities that hold together. My father’s generation did National Service, in his case a lad from the Highlands rubbing shoulders with those of a similar age from all other parts of the UK, and finding that they were not so different. The expansion of higher education provides the opportunity for a similar experience for today’s young people (who, if polling is to be believed, are the ones who need most convincing of the benefits of the Union).
It may sound a paradox, but the decision of the Scottish Government not to charge Scots students fees for their tuition has narrowed the opportunities for Scots students to learn. The number of places for Scots at Scottish Universities are capped to limit the costs of the policy, meaning that Scots-educated students can need to get higher grades than their English counterparts just to get in.
And the fact that Universities in the rest of the UK do charge fees has limited Scots’ horizons. Where once a bright student looked for the best institution for their course wherever it was in the UK now, too often, money means their vision stops at the border.
Logically the Scottish Government should pay towards the fees of Scots going to universities in other parts of the UK, and the UK government should look to build an equitable system that encourages student from all parts of the UK study in institutions based on educational rather than financial judgements. If that means funding Scots students to study at English, Welsh, or Northern Irish universities, then so be it.
We need to recognise and celebrate that Scots live in all parts of the UK. Indeed, in terms of the number of Scots who live there, London is Scotland’s third biggest city.
The ties that bind should not be invisible threads, they should be celebrated.
The greatest car designer in the UK is a Scot – Ian Callum – but a man who made his name at companies like Jaguar in the West Midlands. Scotland no longer boasts a car manufacturer (although it does have a thriving automotive sector). In that he follows the iconic names of Alexander Fleming, a Scot who discovered penicillin in London, or Jame Logie Baird, who invented the television when living on England’s south coast: Scots-born talent given the opportunity to thrive in the rest of the UK.
And you don’t need to be a sports fan to acknowledge that many of Scotland’s greatest moments have taken place on English turf.
Peoples are united by interests and opportunities as much as geography. A farmer in Perthshire will often have more reason to make common cause and be better understood by a farmer in Dorset, than neighbours in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Re-building a post-industrial base is a problem facing Liverpool and Manchester as much as Glasgow and Dundee.
The best of British history is when we have come together, as we did to defeat fascism in the 1940s. (The worst, like the exploitation of the slave trade, was shared as much in Glasgow and Edinburgh as Liverpool and Bristol.)
The stories of our four nations are intertwined and form a formidable narrative. We need to tell the whole story and not just read the parts bound in tartan. We are both four nations and one – and although there will always be tensions and disagreements, it is a series of multiple identities with which we have become generally comfortable.
So let’s celebrate the bonds we already enjoy, deepen that which are there, and not be frightened to be terribly un-British and shout about it in public