Hugo Rifkind had an interesting piece in the Times yesterday on the Scottish referendum arguing that the No campaign, by focussing on economics and pragmatism (where they obviously have the edge), had totally conceded the realm of emotion and attachment. Yet Rifkind, coming south in his twenties to settle in London, had found that England was his home, too, and ends his article explaining why Britain is indeed one country.Consider the failure of J.K. Rowling, the leading popular culture light of the Better Together campaign (she grew up in the veddy English Bristol area of western England, but moved to Scotland to be near her sister after her divorce), to appeal to British patriotism, even though her Harry Potter books are a wonderful capstone of what writers of English and Scottish (e.g., Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie) ethnicity have jointly given humanity: the world’s finest children’s literature. Rowling strikes me as one of nature’s conservatives who is intellectually hobbled by today’s sterile liberal Nice White Lady political concepts ill-suited to her rich imagination.
The whole No campaign seems devoid of any idea of British patriotism, indeed barely mentions the B-word in its literature, instead approaching the thing like an unhappy spouse weighing up the costs of sticking with it or leaving to end up poorer. If that’s the reason for union, then it’s not one that’s going to keep the marriage going for very long; and indeed opinion polls show a huge gulf between the over-sixties and the rest of the Scottish population, which suggests that whatever the result this month, independence will come eventually.
And in the south many of those advocating the United Kingdom sound remarkably like they could be making the case for the European Union, using arguments for pooling resources to create a social democracy. JK Rowling’s version of British patriotism may have angered some of the SNP’s weirder supporters, but it would leave many Englishmen cold. Likewise with Eddie Izzard or Tony Robinson: the cheerleaders for union are mainly coming from the soft Left, the very people who least empathise with patriotism or understand the things that hold people together – history, mythology and hormones.
Ross Douthat in the NYT offers what his heroine Rowling should have been able to come up with:
The “yes” campaign has made all sorts of implausible promises, to its discredit, but it has also done something well-and-truly creditable: It has appealed, frankly and without embarrassment, to the human element in politics, the mystic chords of memory, the sense of solidarity and shared history and common purpose that makes nations something more than just arbitrary boundaries drawn for the purposes of enlightened political administration, and nationalism something more than just an inconvenient obstacle to such administration, which is the point of view of many European elites today. Whereas the “no” campaign — well, I’ll let Pascal Emmanuel Gobry tell it:
What does nationhood mean? What does it mean to be a people? Is it merely a self-interested bargain between parties, or does it mean something more?
The Yes campaign in Scotland (for independence) has strong answers to these questions. For the Yes campaign, it means something to be a Scot. Scotland has a history and a patrimony worth cherishing, and this means that the Scots should — finally — have their own say on their future.
Meanwhile, the No campaign has been very clear on these questions: Nope; there’s no such thing as a nation. The only reason the Scots should be part of Great Britain is because it’s a good deal for them. The No campaign has been overwhelmingly an affair of carrots and sticks: It has alternated between offering Scots goodies (more money for schools and hospitals!) and scaremongering about the drastic consequences of a split. The No campaign has articulated absolutely no vision of what it means to be British.As Gobry notes, this is rather remarkable, since three hundred years of shared, sometimes glorious, never boring history should have supplied a powerful nationalistic argument on behalf of union. (Read this piece, from the Scottish writer Alex Massie, explaining his “no” vote, for hints of how argument might have sounded.) But that’s a language that U.K. elites, like their counterparts on the continent, have trouble speaking nowadays, and so that high ground was ceded to Alex Salmond almost from the start … meaning, in turn that whatever pocketbook appeals were made on the union’s behalf, the emotional appeal of secession was (well, almost, judging by the last polls) strong enough to match.
Now emotion alone is a poor reason to make a leap into the political unknown. But the emotional element in nationalism isn’t just atavistic; it points to something more practically and prosaically desirable, which is the possibility of true self-government.