In Defence of the United Kingdom

By Wright, Esmond | Contemporary Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

In Defence of the United Kingdom


Wright, Esmond, Contemporary Review


Esmond Wright

Northumbrian by birth, with Scottish parents and grandparents, with a heart that races fast every time I see pictures of Holy Island near Seahouses, where we had a summer cottage when I was small: I regard myself not as English nor as Scottish but as Northumbrian. Educated at a grammar school in Newcastle and King's College, Durham; after taking a first degree there, going on to the University of Virginia, perhaps a Northumbrian by upbringing and half-adopted as an American during the War. As a youngster I knew Berwick best of all cities and the Tweed it fed on, and felt at home wherever the Tweed ran, whatever 'border' it ever was.

Are things any different now that, after 300 years' absence, a separate Scottish Parliament is to sit in Edinburgh after elections next month?

Let me begin by saying that, it is not the case for the United Kingdom that has to be made, but the case against it. The United Kingdom exists. It has, at least for the last three centuries, given its varied peoples a higher material standard of living than any other country in the world outside the North American continent, and a happier, more peaceful, and more democratic political and social order than any other country in the world's history. It is not, of course, without need of improvement, for no system is perfect. But any case for basic constitutional change needs to be made and proven beyond doubt. It is the Scottish National Party which has to make, prove, and sustain that case, for it is the destruction of the UK, as at present constituted, that it advocates. For my part, with all its imperfections, I prefer the present order - amended, revised, and improved - to the revolutionary notions of political and economic separatism.

In giving my reasons I shall rest my case largely on a rebuttal of the changes proposed by the SNP. In doing so I shall omit the economic arguments for the maintenance of the UK; they have been effectively marshalled elsewhere by Gavin McCrone in his admirable book, Scotland's Future: The Economics of Nationalism.

I am aware that in omitting the economic arguments there is a danger that my own contribution will be a little like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. In my view the economic arguments for the Union are overwhelming. Not one of the government experts whom we cross-examined in the meetings of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, when 30 years ago I was an MP myself, even remotely suggested that there are any economic grounds for the break-up of the economic framework of the UK.

Since much of the SNP case is not about economics but about emotions, I also run the risk of appearing to put up one emotion, that of Britain, against another, that of Scotland. Let me emphasize that to me these are not antithetical, but complementary. For 360 years the good Scot has been a good Briton. For long before that he was a better European than was the Englishman, and he has certainly been a good imperialist and internationalist. The British Empire could be even more accurately described as Scottish. So in putting a case for Britain I am not doing so as an alternative to Scotland, but as a case for the maintenance of the present connection. Why fly to other systems that we know not of? My first argument then is itself emotional. I believe the present in all its imperfections is a superior system to the alternative put forward by the SNP.

My argument is historical: the UK is a fact and a product of history. It has existed as a union of the thrones since 1603, when a Scottish king, whose descendants still rule, went hot-foot to London and returned for only one brief visit. An ex-leader of the Scottish National Party, the late Professor Douglas Young of St. Andrews, used to say 'what a pity it was that King James did not stay at home and send viceroys to London, Cardiff, and Dublin.' This is, of course, a quite unhistoric view, and it was the last thing in James's mind.

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