Last night Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales met at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It wasn’t a meeting of the British and Irish Council. It was – perhaps symbolically – an event for the next generation. For the 58th year the best university debating teams from the British and Irish Isles met for the ‘John Smith Memorial Mace’ final.
From the many metaphors molded to symbolise the Scottish independence referendum this is my favourite. It represents the social union. Other comparisons – with their origins in the idea of the family – are used to frame Scotland’s future. To some independence is the process of growing up and standing on your own two feet: such as Alex Salmond’s phrase “England will lose a surly lodger and gain a good neighbour.” To others ‘separation’ is like a divorce or an upsetting break up. We are entrenching competition and division, they say.
Between these two pictures of pain and pleasure there is a third option: the continuity of social union. Continuity, due to its most conservative of tendencies, is an idea I generally keep my distance from. The world needs social change; and an independence which preserves the status quo is not worth having. However, in this instance, the continuity of social union across the British and Irish Isles is worth preserving and celebrating. People instinctively like sharing culture, language, music, literature, travel and history. That’s why making it clear that these aspects of life will remain irrespective of Scotland’s political status is important. With political independence no one is leaving house and home. Scotland is simply getting its house in order. I will still love Joyce and Orwell.
So last night as students from across these islands met in Edinburgh many ancient and symbolic factors were at play. To some the four names, the four nations, represented mere accidents of birth and geography. To others there is something more meaningful in the nation as a political community. Irrespective of your own position, the nation is important within our shared political history. The conflict between the United Kingdom – as empire, union and state – and the island of Ireland is of perpetual political significance. The meaning of statehood – alongside religion, resources, and many other contributing factors – dominated our politics across the centuries. The fall out from Ireland’s stateless relationship with the United Kingdom and subsequent independence continues till this day.
So the nation matters in our past. But British and Irish history also stands as an example of the cultural, social and political relationship which endures beyond independence. That is meaningful for our present. Even though the Irish state originally faced far more chaotic circumstances than Scotland currently does, these great barriers are subsiding. To some this was symbolised by the Queen’s recent visit to Dublin. It demonstrates the cooperation which endures, and is perhaps strengthened, between equal nations.
A microcosm of that relationship took place last night in Edinburgh only a mile from what may soon become our independent parliament. All the fear whipped up by those with certain political motivations appeared quite meaningless. Our old, great institutions of education – Scottish, English, Irish and Welsh – met together without acrimony and spite, aware of both commonality, difference and the future. And, as the young I find are often prone to do, they demonstrated greater maturity than their older political representatives.
The independent Scottish education system was of course guaranteed by Article 25 of the Act of Union 1707. Glasgow – to take one example – was established in 1451. In 1690 a staircase was constructed on its campus to celebrate the relationship between the independent nations of Scotland and England. Academia yesterday, today and tomorrow transcends borders and identities.
So last night, as Trinity College Dublin narrowly defeated the University of St Andrews, there was a feeling that irrespective of 2014 such relationships continue. The British and Irish Council – with its Secretariat in Edinburgh – already exists for that close, political cooperation. We can follow the Nordic Union where five states combine common culture and interests. Our independent systems of law, our independent churches, our independent education systems, our independent media groups have co-existed over time. Irish and British trade unions share members and goals. Identity and solidarity have always transcended the nation state. Therefore our social union will continue.
Yet we must take seriously the fears – especially among the Labour movement – that Scottish statehood could be a barrier to solidarity. There are Scots with sincere and compassionate concerns than independence may not be catastrophic for such cooperation, yet may corrode common interests. A response requires more information and evidence – for instance about the free travel arrangement shared between the UK and Ireland. Then more people – informed of the social union – will take a similar position to Mary Lockhart, Chair of the Scottish Co-operative Party – who today stated her support for independence.
Last night I saw that social union in action. The political reality that will affect us all is more complex than my personal experience or thoughts. It requires a higher burden. Even on that burden, when you look to the growth of the British and Irish Council, there is little to fear. Our social union existed in a different forms across these islands before 1707 and it will endure beyond 2014. So cast off fears of division. An independent Scotland will be an equal nation that cooperates with its neighbours. Soon, perhaps, that British and Irish Council shall have three and one day four independent nations. Interdependence and independence will co-exist. It can happen. It should happen. If we choose it, it will happen. Scotland and the world shall be a better place for it.
— Michael Gray (@GrayInGlasgow) April 21, 2013