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National identity no barrier to diverse relationships
18 May, 2021

Funny how inspiration often comes from the most unlikely of sources! Half-watching the late evening news round-up on the local elections, I suddenly sat up and took notice. The reporter had been interviewing two youngsters about the prospects of Scottish Independence, one who was for and is now against, and in the interests of balance (!) one who was against and is now for it.

Suddenly I heard the words “In this day and age, it seems stupid to turn your back on any Union, whether it is through Scottish Independence or through Brexit.” The other youngster argued “Many people that want Scottish independence don’t want to give up the pound sterling or to see a hard border with England. We just want to assert our own national identity and pursue our own national policies.”

In my mind, this immediately triggered a comparison with the situation in Ireland. No hard border between North and South and - at best - an ineffective and unwanted economic border down the Irish Sea. In this case, both the EU and UK are trying to come up with a soft formulation to make this work.

Europeans would recognise this process as working towards a sensible political compromise. Governments operating through political compromise are commonplace and well understood in countries where they are elected by proportional representation. But here in the UK where we have a “first past the post” system, this is not so common nor very well understood. It also makes alliances between political parties relatively rare, whilst outdated concepts of sovereignty (or zero-sum thinking?) remain prevalent.

Why can’t we have our cake and eat it? If regions of the UK voted to remain in the European Union (EU) – and if it makes good economic and geographical sense for those regions to remain closely aligned with the EU and its Internal Market - surely with a little goodwill (and far less dogmatic ideology) from our present government leaders. this could be somehow formalised?

I’m no historian, but I see similarities with the demise of the feudal economy, when each town of the realm was independent and governed by its own ‘Lord of the Manor’. People (the peasants of those days) would never dream of visiting or working in a neighbouring town. Today, people may remain proud of their hometown (and often its football club); but that does not prevent them from travelling or working elsewhere. Tribalism is still a facet of human nature, but the tribes are getting much bigger, more geographically dispersed and intertwined than they ever used to be.

Surely we can remain proud to be British, without cutting ourselves off from the rest of Europe? Why should today’s rigid national boundaries be any more sustainable than yesterday’s town boundaries?

Like it or not, the UK straddles some small islands, which are collectively highly dependent on maintaining close co-operation and trade with their close continental neighbours. We certainly should not be denigrating those within our islands that identify closely with the EU and its peoples. Rather than feeling somehow threatened by diversity, we should remain united and celebrate it. To pursue the football analogy, you do not have to identify with and actively support a specific football club, just because you happen to live within that particular town!

Let us not forget that 70 years of peace and prosperity in Europe has been largely underpinned by the pan-European project envisaged by Churchill immediately after World War Two. However, the world and our societies have changed significantly during this period.

These days, TV, radio and the internet allow people to closely follow events on the far side of the world. Cheap air travel enables them to visit other countries and to experience other cultures for themselves. Email and now video conferencing allow people to build friendships and form social groupings, irrespective of distance.

While the mainstream British media is filtered by a few controlling media-magnates, the internet, TV and podcasts enable us to follow news and views that are not otherwise being expressed. Cultures, ideologies and religions have become far less constrained by national boundaries. Yet the dangers of misplaced and excessive nationalism have not receded; on the contrary, social media and the “echo-chambers” of like-minded people seem to have encouraged and empowered various forms of extremism, including right-wing nationalism.

What does this mean for the future of the UK? Perhaps we are about to find out. Forcing the entire country to follow the traditional values and world view of the small political and media bubble in and around Westminster is simply not sustainable in the medium term. The people are finding their own voices; our devolved governments are reflecting their views and concerns rather better than the distant, and rather centralised national government in London.

If Northern Ireland can have a specific Protocol within the Brexit agreement to have an open border with the EU and so remain inside the EU’s internal market, then you can be sure Scotland will want the same. We do not yet know what Brexit means in practice, or what Scottish independence may eventually mean. But rather than see things in term of black/white, win/lose, or in/out, there is surely scope for political compromise?  One that will allow substantial parts of the population of the British Isles to pursue their own national identities and economic policies, whilst retaining broader unions with their close neighbours in the rest of Britain and in Europe?

Nick Heenan
Member of the European Movement
Retired from the European Commission in 2015 after 23 years’ service

The views expressed in the blog are purely personal and do not in any way represent those of any other organisation or individual. London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.


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Andrew (Andy) Pye
published this page in Latest blogs 2021-05-18 09:15:13 +0100