Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist and writer. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
As I write, I’m sitting at home on Monday evening after returning from the #Unity2014 Rally for the Union in Trafalgar Square. Organised with three days’ notice by Dan Snow of the Let’s Stay Together campaign and given some limited (but enthusiastic) cheerleading by the unionist press – most notably the Spectator, who threw a tea party – someone put it to me that it was much more like a flash mob than an ordinary political rally.
Despite that, it was a real success. Quiet fears that it would be a bit of an embarrassment, that the crowd would be noticeably small, proved unfounded. From my vantage point on the base of Nelson’s Column it was plain to see that Trafalgar Square was full.
Moreover, the speakers were good. It helped that there weren’t any politicians to split the audience – for all we unionists condemn the politics of trying to rally people against an alien other, we appear prepared to suspend that rule then those others are politicians. Better yet, none of the arguments were economic – the theme of the speakers was “what being British means to me”, and it produced an event which really stood out from the main thrust of the unionist campaign (with due credit to others, like Hands Across the Border, who have taken a similar line).
To my surprise, the best unionist speech of the evening came from an Irishman. Bob Geldof spoke of having “an immigrant’s gratitude” to the country to which he credited so much of his success, and his speech took in the broad sweep of this country’s accomplishments and values whilst tying them to a tangible sense of personal identity. I hope there is a video of it somewhere.
Other speakers, including Eddie Izzard and Al Murray of Pub Landlord fame (who commented on the fact that he had spent much of his career sending up “Britishness”), also managed to examine the personal, emotional case for the Union in their own distinct ways. As someone who has been writing about the need for ‘Britishness’ as the essential cement of the Union for years, it was an affecting moment, and I was glad to be there.
But seeing what could be pulled together in such a short space off time also served to bring home to me just how much more we could have achieved if we had embraced the heart side of this debate from the beginning. It would have been perfectly possible to organise rallies of this size in dozens of the cities and towns of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – in fact, the biggest could have been substantially larger.
The message that we the rest of the British have a real emotional investment in the outcome – it is our country on the line on Thursday, after all, the Scots will still have Scotland either way – could have been brought home with real force.
But despite some early promising signs, the No campaign has given in to a real sense of ‘cultural cringe’ about Britishness, and they have suffered for it. Much as some might sniff at the prospect of the Orange Order marching ten thousand people through Edinburgh bearing Union Flags and being proud of their identity, but the fact is that flag-and-crowd stuff really matters. It is ridiculous to wring one hand about the lack of enthusiasm for Britain whilst dismissing the few who try to express it on the other, but that is exactly what many establishment unionists have been doing for a long time.
When I read the talk about the need to make the case for the Union in England, I think back to my years in Manchester when I was consistently blocked – at one point having my nomination papers edited before submission – from standing under our party’s full name: the Conservative and Unionist Party.* Standing there on Nelson’s Column, looking out at a crowd of people who face their country being dissolved around them, it really struck home how absurd it was that the unionist camp spent the years it had to prepare for this moment telling itself that the Union was a “Scottish issue”.
Obviously if we lose on Thursday then none of this will matter. But if the Union survives then the organisers of this evening’s rally and the Auld Acquaintance Cairn have a lot more to teach the next generation of unionists than the official No campaign. The Union is, and was always going to be, a cause for every Briton, and when we treat it as the business of one nation alone – or worse, simply as a business – we undermine it as surely as any nationalist.
If the SNP ever get a second referendum, we start planning the rallies on day one.
*Perhaps in some small measure of redress, the Conservative Future delegation decked out some of its Facebook pages in new togs for the occasion, courtesy of yours truly…