It’s a sad irony that a party with ‘Unionist’ in its full name has had to sit on the sidelines for most of the Scotland debate. Rebuilding our presence north of the border is the work of a generation, but we have one month to save the Union.
All the economic arguments have been well-aired by now, so I want to make a political argument. Namely that the Union – for all its flaws and imperfections – is still the world’s oldest and best example of successful multi-ethnic power sharing. In our fractured world, in troubled lands from the Black Sea to the banks of the Tigris, the British model of statehood has never had more relevance.
That we don’t tend to think of Britain as a multi-ethnic partnership is a measure of just how successful the Union has been. With our stable politics, we’re prone to forget what a historically unusual state of affairs our constitution represents. Few countries have been able to pull off a system where a people representing just 8 percent of the population have been able to live in centuries of settled peace with the majority.
And not only live in peace, but punch way above their demographic weight in culture, business and politics. As they’re probably tired of hearing by now, Scots founded the Labour Party, practically invented modern financial services and have served with distinction in every war fought by the modern British state. The SNP wants to banish all this to history, but I believe our model – the fusion of distinct Anglo-Saxon and Celtic identities into a greater British whole – has much more to offer today’s world than narrow secessionist nationalism.
Take Iraq, another country dominated by the politics of majority versus minority.
Any comparison between eighteenth century Britain and the modern Middle East is bound to be imperfect, but less so than you might think. Like Iraq’s Sunni and Shia, we too had to deal with a legacy of civil war, sectarian violence, unevenly distributed natural resources, and a distinctive set of religious and legal traditions expressed in a common language.
Iraq’s immediate problems stem from the failure to achieve a comprehensive political settlement after 2003. The Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki has hoarded power to itself, pursuing divisive sectarian policies at the expense of Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni minorities. In a culture of rampant cronyism, Kurds and Sunnis have been politically marginalised, while constitutional guarantees of greater autonomy have not materialised.
Many suggest the answer is partition, but this ignores the realities on the ground: few Sunnis identify with the idea of their own state (landlocked and lacking oil), many parts of the country are ethnically mixed, and any successor states would be more vulnerable to the ambitions of regional powers – including the Islamic State.
I believe our own historical experience offers an alternative way forward. But there are three important lessons to follow.
First, share the power. After 1707 there were plenty of English gripes and grumbles about the influence wielded by Scottish politicians, but bringing the Caledonian elite on board was essential to making the British project work. So too was regional autonomy, particularly over law and religion. By contrast in Iraq excessive centralization is wrecking a political consensus. Most Sunnis don’t want a caliphate, but for more power to be devolved away from Baghdad.
And in a multi-ethnic state no one group should have a monopoly on military power. The fateful decision to disband the Sunni Ba’athist army contrasts with our own policy of incorporating Highland regiments into the British Army, giving former Jacobite rebels a stake in the new Hanoverian political order.
The second lesson is share the wealth. This may involve some fiscal transfers, but it’s important to look at the big picture. The Act of Union was essentially an English bailout following the collapse of an ill-fated Scottish colonial experiment in Panama, very much the RBS of its day. Was it worth it? Well in return for our investment we got some of the finest minds in engineering, finance and philosophy the world has ever seen. Oh, and Gordon Brown.
In Iraq there is currently no legal framework for the sharing of oil revenue between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government. Seven months ago Maliki cut off the KRG’s budget in a bid to halt Kurdish oil sales. Resolving this dispute is crucial if Baghdad wants to maintain Kurdish support for the idea of Iraq.
The third lesson is be prepared to embrace something bigger than your own ethnic group. Blood and soil nationalism only exists on the far fringes of British politics because the idea of Britain is big enough to accommodate many identities. What matters is not who you worship or where you cast your vote, but whether you share our values. I’m a Kurd by birth, a Tory by politics, but above all I’m a British subject of Her Majesty the Queen.
Of course it hasn’t all been plain sailing, even for us. In Northern Ireland all three lessons were ignored at great cost. Forging a state from disparate elements will always be a messy business, so we must take the long view, be patient with countries like Iraq, and offer our support against the forces of anarchy and barbarism.
Finally, consider the counterfactual. If Scotland votes Yes, what lesson will we have shown the world? That you can have partition without bloodshed? I’d like to think so, but I’m more cynical. In Moscow, Baghdad and Damascus I suspect the real lesson will be this:
Even Britain – liberal, stable, democratic Britain – couldn’t live with its differences – so why the hell should we?