Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Renaming Unionism

I watched Mo last night having taped it at the weekend.  Julie Walters was excellent as the "People's Politician" and I found the story a very powerful and moving, which certainly didn't stint in its covering of Mo's life, illness and death.  At a time when our politicians are held in particularly low esteem, it was good to be reminded of the potential and possibilities which politics offers.

This was most highlighted in the coverage of the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland during Mo's stint as Secretary of State.  Peace in the Province, at such a tentative state just now, came about from two main causes - the overwhelming desire of the people living in Northern Ireland, and the political process.  Politics is fundamental to life in all its functions, and it is useful to be reminded of this when we are feeling scunnered with the state of our democracy.

Another point which the film made me think about was the connotations of the word Unionism.  I am a Catholic with Irish blood in me like many others in the West of Scotland.  When I hear the word Unionism, I think of Trimble and Paisley, figures quite frankly inimicable to my beliefs and background, figures who I would never wish to be associated with.  Yet at the same time I, by dint of my belief that Scotland is best placed in continuing as a member of the United Kingdom, am a Unionist.

It is a horrible predicament to find myself in!  I think though that it highlights one of the challenges for the political debate in Scotland concerning the country's future.  Thankfully in Scotland our positions on being independent or in the UK are not based predominantly on religion, in contrast to Northern Ireland.  Rather they are political positions, broadly crossing the divides of class, religion and culture.  Yet the connotations of the word Unionist are strong in Scotland where so many of us have a connection to one side or the other across the water, leaving us in an uncomfortable position of trying to square a psychological and cultural circle.

The current consensus on the North, that it should remain part of the UK until the majority of its population wish otherwise, seems a sensible position to me.  Logically it is also the same position to hold via Scotland.  I may not agree that independence is the best future for Scotland, but I do believe that it should be the right of the people to decide. 

Of course to further confuse matters and to seemingly contradict myself, I don't believe that a referendum on independence is appropriate at this time.  Although 10 years seems like a long time, it is actually in the context of a country and a parliament a very short period.  Devolution is still bedding in and the appallingly low political literacy of the populace mean that making an informed decision on the future is difficult, particularly when Holyrood is not yet being used to its full potential.  Within this context I also believe that the Calman Commission was premature - of course devolution should be an evolving process, but it should also have continuity and time.  Rushing these matters doesn't help the process at all.

However, whenever the referendum happens (and there will be one at some point, even if only to finish the issue off for a while) it is important that those supporting Scotland's continuation in the UK find new language to express their ideas in.  Whilst Unionism as a term obviously makes logical sense, its potential connotations impact upon it usefulness and further heighten the feeling that it is not Scottish to be pro-UK.  The pro-independence camp has done a fairly successful job of distancing their use of the word nationalist from the many negative connotations that it carries from other political contexts.  Likewise the pro-UK camp must work harder to find new and positive ways to express their vision. 

This is a difficult proposition as the pro-Union side incorporates a far broader range of views from strict traditionalists to radical federalists.  It will require debate and the recognition that there are some very different outcomes possible for Scotland's future.  It must move away from the purely negative approach of declaring that an independent Scotland would be a disaster - it wouldn't be.  An independent Scotland would get along alright - I just don't believe it would do as well.  The public are fully aware that Scotland won't go down the drain and that the SNP will not destroy the country.  What they are looking for is a positive vision for the future which shows how Scotland can be the best it possibly can.  The SNP and other nationalists are providing one vision - it is up to the other side to now counter that with its bright future.


Drew said...

Hi Jamie

Couldn't agree more. Great post.


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