THE END OF BRITAIN? with Its Military, Scientific and Cultural Achievements, the Union of England, Scotland and Wales Is History's Greatest Success Story. to Let Blinkered, Mean-Spirited and Unscrupulous Politicians Destroy It Would Be Unforgivable; SATURDAY ESSAY
Byline: by Dominic Sandbrook
A FEW days ago, I was in Edinburgh with a television crew, working on a BBC documentary.
It was Burns Night and, in a pub on the Royal Mile, we watched the traditional ritual: the entrance of the haggis, the appearance of the bagpipe-player and the vigorous recital of Robert Burns's famous Address To A Haggis.
This was the best of Scottish patriotism, convivial, open-hearted and thoroughly likeable.And, as a mere Sassenach, I loved it.
Yet just up the road, in Edinburgh Castle, a rather more dangerous kind of nationalism was on show.
That afternoon, Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond chose to unveil the question that he hopes to put to the Scottish people in the autumn of 2014, on a date sure to inspire an outpouring of nationalist fervour: the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, in which the Scots defeated the English.
If Mr Salmond has his way, the referendum will mark the death knell of the United Kingdom. Condemned by the choices of 16 and 17-year-old schoolchildren, to whom he hopes to give the vote in contravention of UK election law, the most successful and mutually enriching partnership in history would be consigned to oblivion.
Opinion polls suggest that most Scots would rather stick with the status quo. But Mr Salmond is a supremely driven, canny and unscrupulous political operator -- and two-and-a-half years is a long time.
And while the media's attention has been focused on Scotland, most commentators have overlooked a much deadlier threat to the survival of the Union.
For slowly but surely, the idea of Britain itself is quietly slipping out of fashion. And if we are not careful, we will lose something deeply precious -- for once shattered, it can never be put back together.
A few days ago, a survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that English voters, like many of their Scottish counterparts, are falling out of love with the UK.
According to the IPPR, fully 40 per cent of English voters say that Englishness is more important to them than Britishness.
Meanwhile, almost one in four English voters would like to wave farewell to the Scots, while four-fifths support the so-called 'devo max' option, which would give Scotland complete financial autonomy without completely severing the Union.
Since only 31 per cent of English voters say they are 'very attached' to the UK, it is not hard to see why, despite the polls, Mr Salmond is so bullish.
For even if his countrymen fail to deliver the death blow in 2014, some commentators predict that the English will eventually pull the plug themselves, condemning the UK to the dustbin of history.
FOR anyone who cherishes their British identity, loves the UK and dreads the thought of disintegration, these are deeply disturbing findings.
And at their heart, it strikes me, is the utterly misconceived belief that you cannot be truly English, Scottish or Welsh while still being proudly British.
But national identities, as the historian Linda Colley famously remarked, are not like hats. You do not have to wear just one at a time, and there is no reason not to fly the Union Jack beside the flag of St George or St Andrew.
How many British families, after all, are made up of a mixture of English and Scottish, or English and Welsh or, indeed, all three?
And we should not forget Britain's historic links with our nearest neighbour, which survive today in the form of Northern Ireland. Though part of the UK, Northern Ireland is not technically part of Great Britain, and would be left high and dry if the Union disintegrated.
For my part, I consider myself proudly British, yet I suspect it would be hard to find a more patriotic Englishman.
My wife once described me as the most English person she had ever met, which, being Irish, she did not mean as a compliment.
I am the kind of person who rather enjoys quoting the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes's remark that to be born English is to have 'won first prize in the lottery of life'.
Yet, like most people, I am a mongrel, being three-quarters English and a quarter Welsh.
I went to university in Scotland and spent my honeymoon in Edinburgh.
I support England in international sporting tournaments -- but I cheer for the other home nations, too (as long as they are not playing against the English).
The truth is, I feel profoundly attached to the British family.
I am well aware, of course, that, like any family relationship, the Union has had its ups and downs.
After all, England and Wales were united only at the point of a sword by the conquering Edward I at the end of the 13th century.
And as late as the Victorian era, as my Welsh grandfather never tired of reminding me, schoolchildren west of the Severn were beaten if they spoke Welsh rather than English in school.
In many ways, the Anglo-Scottish relationship was even trickier. Until James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne in 1603, the two countries regularly fought vicious little wars, while rival armies crossed the border so many times during the Civil War that it is hard to keep count.
Even the Act of Union in 1707, which established the Kingdom of Great Britain, failed to eliminate the lingering tensions.
Britain's first Scottish Prime Minister, the 3rd Earl of Bute, was savagely mauled in the 1760s by English satirists, while Dr Samuel Johnson, the incarnation of bluff Tory Englishness, loved nothing better than to mock the Scots.
'The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees,' he told his Caledonian friend James Boswell, 'is the high road that leads him to England!'
Yet when you consider the extraordinary legacy of the Act of Union, all the grumbling and backbiting fade away. For the plain and unarguable truth is that the British experiment has been the most influential partnership in history, banishing old enmities and creating the most successful nation-state the world has ever seen.
All of us -- whether English, Welsh or Scottish -- like to tell ourselves that we have always walked tall on the world stage.
Yet the reality is that until our nations joined hands, we cut minor, even irrelevant figures, lurking anxiously on the European periphery.
By contrast, the list of achievements of the UK is simply astonishing.
Working together, men and women from Aylesbury, Aberystwyth and Aberdeen created the world's first industrial nation, an economic powerhouse that redrew the limits of possibility and prosperity.
Our generals, explorers and missionaries built the biggest empire the world had ever seen, often with Scotsmen in the vanguard.
Historians estimate that in the half-century after the Act of Union, some 30,000 Scots settled in the American colonies alone.
Canada, Australia and New Zealand are as much Scottish creations as they are English, while the intrepid Scot David Livingstone became one of the most famous explorers in history.
One estimate suggests that one out of three British colonial governors after 1850 was Scottish -- a clear sign that Great Britain Ltd's supposedly junior partner was punching well above its weight.
As for the Welsh, their contribution belied their nation's small size. The regiment known today as the South Wales Borderers, for instance, served with distinction during the Victorian era Sikh Wars, the Indian Mutiny and, most famously, the Zulu War, where Welsh heroism at the Battle of Rorke's Drift became justly legendary.
Indeed, I defy anyone to watch the famous Men of Harlech scene in the film Zulu, in which the British soldiers, facing overwhelming odds, strike up the great old Welsh song, without shedding a surreptitious tear.
What underpinned all this, of course, was a profound sense of British identity, based on what we had in common, rather than what divided us.
Over centuries, British identity -- which had not even existed before 1707 -- became associated with institutions such as the monarchy, Parliament, the Royal Navy and even the BBC. But there was more to it than that.
What brought us together was not just our shared respect for the rule of law, our love of free speech, our quirky sense of humour and our fondness for inventing ever more elaborate ball games.
It was our sense of ourselves as a special community, jumbled up together on a small, rain-swept Atlantic island, yet looking boldly outwards, unafraid to confront the challenges of the world.
For when they stood together at Waterloo, Omdurman, the Somme and Dunkirk, the men of England, Wales and Scotland knew that they were one people, united by ties of history, language, values and blood.
THEY would have had no time for Alex Salmond's mean- spirited, short- sighted, narrow-minded nationalism. Much has changed, of course, since Britannia's imperial heyday. But there is no reason why the end of empire should mean the end of the most successful partnership in history.
Of course, the UK must always keep evolving. Even that supreme Englishman, Winston Churchill, who served for a long time as MP for Dundee, predicted that one day 'a federal system will be established in these islands which will give Wales and Scotland the control within proper limits of their own Welsh and Scottish affairs'.
With hindsight, you realise that devolution should have come earlier, thus strangling Celtic nationalism at birth.
Yet the irony is that today, it is actually the English who suffer the greatest democratic deficit, lacking any meaningful power to govern their own affairs.
Indeed, last week's IPPR survey found that 45 per cent of English voters feel that Scotland gets 'more than its fair share of public spending'. While 79 per cent would like to see Scottish MPs banned from voting on English affairs (the so-called 'West Lothian question') and 36 per cent would like to see a devolved English parliament.
But it should not be beyond the wit of our politicians to devise a system that preserves the best features of the British Parliament while giving English voters -- as well as their Scottish and Welsh counterparts -- the sense that they can decide their own destiny.
What worries me, though, is that the three pro-Union parties -- the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats -- seem so inept at making the case for Britain.
The nightmare scenario is that, as voters slowly get used to the prospect of Scottish independence, support for Britain will slowly leech away.
And if the worst happened and the Union broke up, I believe it would be the biggest disaster in our history.
The fact is that we would all be much better off in a confident, outward-looking, culturally diverse and economically powerful Britain than in a narrow, squabbling, inward-looking assortment of petty statelets.
WE ARE stronger together and weaker apart.
And this is not just a question of national sentiment, but one of cold, hard political and economic reality.
In an increasingly uneasy and dangerous world, with China and India rising in the East, the U.S. turning inwards and the eurozone on the verge of total meltdown, separation would not merely be messy, it would be extraordinarily risky.
At the very least, it would mean years of political haggling, administrative chaos and economic uncertainty.
In place of the strongest national union the world has ever seen, we would find ourselves in the middle of the messiest divorce case in history.
Such an outcome would not merely be a deadly threat to our economic prosperity in an age of deep international anxiety. It would be a tragic waste, throwing away our heritage of tolerance, collaboration and brotherhood in the name of a blinkered, parochial and xenophobic nationalism.
As men and women of Great Britain, we have achieved great things. From the enterprise and ingenuity of the Industrial Revolution to the shared sacrifice of the Somme; from the Victorian railways to the D-Day beaches; from religious toleration to the rule of law, we Britons changed the world.
To lose all that, to sacrifice our shared history and common interests, would be utterly unconscionable, leaving us all culturally and economically weaker, smaller, sadder and poorer.
As it happens, the man who put it best was Scotland's national poet, the Ayrshire Ploughman who, in a victory for decency and common sense, pipped the bloodthirsty William Wallace to the title of 'Greatest Scot' a few years ago.
Robert Burns was indeed a great Scotsman. But he was also a great Briton. And at a time when Britain's very survival seems in grave peril, his words still ring clear and true:
Be Briton still to Britain true Among oursel's united; For never but by British hands Maun British wrangs be righted.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: THE END OF BRITAIN? with Its Military, Scientific and Cultural Achievements, the Union of England, Scotland and Wales Is History's Greatest Success Story. to Let Blinkered, Mean-Spirited and Unscrupulous Politicians Destroy It Would Be Unforgivable; SATURDAY ESSAY. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: Daily Mail (London). Publication date: January 28, 2012. Page number: 16. © 2007 Daily Mail. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
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