Ed Milliband, UK leader of the Labour Party was in Scotland recently to give what was billed as a major speech on why the Labour Party is opposed to Scottish Independence. You can read the whole speech here. He claimed in his speech that he was focussing on the positive case for the UK. I have to say I did see much that was positive, but then I am just a little biased. To me it seemed that Ed Milliband was again and again extolling the virtues of British nationalism. He tried to frame his argument around the need to build a progressive society in the whole of the UK, but to make his point about the importance of maintaining the UK, he had to assert that Britishness was what mattered more than anything else. Once again we had the rather unedifying experience of someone asserting the Scottish nationalism was very, very bad, but British nationalism was very, very good. To illustrate this I present four of the key points that Ed Milliband make in his speech. Quotes from his speech are in italics.
His first point was that he supports Scotland as part of the UK, not because he thinks Scotland is too poor or too weak to break away: but: because I believe that Scotland as part of the United Kingdom is better for the working people of Scotland, and better for the working people of the United Kingdom as a whole.
Now this is rather bold claim which partly rests on the somewhat dubious notion that the Labour Party is the party of progressive social change. Not much evidence for that in the 13 years of New Labour rule. Remember it was the Labour government which began the process of changing the NHS in England, dismantling comprehensive schools in England and committing the UK to illegal wars. It is also more damagingly contradicted by the recent events at Westminster. The UK economy and welfare system is now under the control of our nasty Tory led government for goodness knows how many years, at the very least until 2015. How on earth is that better for the working people of Scotland? And what if the good people of England decide to return the Tories to power in 2015 for another five years - how is that supposed to be better for the working people of Scotland? The reality is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing we in Scotland can do about this. Why should the people of Scotland have to wait until the English decide to kick out the Tories? We only elected one Tory MP in 2010, yet we have to suffer the ravages of this nasty government. No benefit here.
Ed Milliband’s second point was that if we wanted greater fairness and a more responsible capitalism, then this could only be done at a UK level. As he put it: But I tell you this: we can only do it together. We must reform our financial services; its rules, its culture, its institutions. But if we change the rules separately, banks would move wherever the rules were weakest. We need stronger rules together, not weaker rules apart. Rather than advancing fairness together, the risk is a race to the bottom on bank regulation, on wages, and conditions at work. We can achieve more progress together. He concluded this point by a direct challenge to Alex Salmond. Mr Salmond, you can’t build fairness in Scotland by giving up on fairness in the United Kingdom.
There is some merit in this argument, but why just in the UK? Surely there is a need for all of these progressive changes throughout the EU? I can just as easily challenge Ed Milliband - you can’t build fairness in the UK by giving up on fairness in the EU. On this logic, Ed Milliband ought to be arguing for a single government for the whole of the EU. Which of course he is not. I am sure he agrees that these progressive changes should happen at the EU level and that a Labour government would advocate for these changes within the EU. But then so would an independent Scotland. The only reason why Ed Milliband or anyone else would make this particular argument is that he is at heart a British nationalist. The UK comes first and to hell with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. Not much of an internationalist here.
Ed Milliband’s third key point was about diversity. He put it thus: Britain is united in its diversity. By shared values and common interests. Not an island divided by borders on the basis of nationalities or nationalisms. But one brought together with the strength drawn from multiple identities.
There are three points here. One, though the island of Great Britain does not have borders, there is an international border within the British Isles. Or has Ed Milliband forgotten about the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland? Or does Ed Milliband not regard Northern Ireland as part of the UK? As regards our shared values and common interests, does he seriously believe that the citizens of the Republic of Ireland do not share these values (whatever they are) or have the same interests? Despite the border what is so different between an Irish citizen of the Republic and an Irish citizen of Northern Ireland? Do they have different values and interests? Thirdly, all the nations of these islands are diverse and have multiple identities. This is certainly the case with Scotland, which owes its origins to the coming together of Scots, Picts and Angles. Ever since Scotland has always attracted and welcomed people from different nations and cultures. Within Scotland, most Scots are proud of their local heritage and this is certainly true of myself - a proud Fifer and proud Scot. As the existence of the Republic of Ireland has shown, we do not need to be part of the one political Union in order to share values or interests or to celebrate diversity.
Ed Milliband concludes his piece by claiming that we are: Bound together by common ties. Nearly half of all Scots have English relatives.
There is nothing progressive about a vision which says a pensioner in Liverpool is no concern of his, a child growing up in poverty in East London is no concern of his, a disabled person in the Midlands is no concern of his. That isn’t a progressive vision.That is shutting the door on the problems of your fellow citizens.
When a Scotsman who works in the shipyards of Govan meets an Englishman who works on the docks in Merseyside, he doesn’t see a foreigner, he sees a fellow countryman. The pensioner from Aberdeen or Ayr has more in common with the pensioner in Bristol or Bolton than with a pensioner in France or Belgium.
These famous common ties. It is fascinating how these ties that bind us together seem to be exclusively with England. It is quite clear from Milliband’s dismissal of Belgian and French pensioners, that Scots should only concern themselves with people from England. How international is that! Why should our undoubted and valued links with England supersede our links with other people? It is interesting that he chose Belgium and France as his examples of other countries. For I imagine that there are not many Belgians or French people living in Scotland. But what about Italy or Poland? There has been a small, but innovative and long standing Italian community living in Scotland for well over 100 years. Not all Scots would be so dismissive of Italian pensioners. Or what about the many thousands of Polish people who have come to live and settle in Scotland during the past decade? Are we to care nothing about their friends and relatives still living in Poland? Not to mention the thousands of Scots of Indian, Pakistani or Chinese descent. Are their family connections to be dismissed as of lesser worth than family connections in England? And of course there are the hundreds of thousands of Scots whose family roots go back to what is now the Republic of Ireland. Are these family roots too of a lesser kind? I find this constant emphasis on ties and links with England deeply insulting. I value our links with England and I too have family and friends in England. But I also have family and friends elsewhere. And I do not value them less. On the contrary since I have a daughter and grandson living in Switzerland, I value them more. However, much as I love my daughter and grandson, and much as I like Switzerland, it has never occurred to me that Scotland should become part of Switzerland simply because I have relatives living there.
I find it rather sad that in order to keep Scotland within the UK, a leader of the UK Labour Party of all people, should be reduced to arguing for a narrow British nationalism.