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

Daily Mail (London), January 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

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. …

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