Noticeable by its absence – even as we enter the third week of the contest as to who is to be our Prime Minister – is any serious debate on the existential question facing the United Kingdom: whether it can survive?
I believe the Union is today more at risk than at any time in 300 years – and more in danger than when we had to fight for it in 2014 during a bitter Scottish referendum.
But what is at stake is not some outworn relic in our unwritten constitutional heritage or a historical curiosity from a bygone age.
In jeopardy are both the unity and integrity of the United Kingdom and the shared values – tolerance, respect for diversity, being outward looking – that underpin what, for all its ups and downs, has been the most successful example of multinational co-operation anywhere in the world.
In our long history the overwhelming majority have prided ourselves in being patriots who love our country – not bitter nationalists who hate our neighbours, demonise foreigners, immigrants or other minorities and blame external forces for everything that goes wrong.
I fear for the unravelling of a community of mutual interests, common purpose and shared ideals.
For the national debate is now more than about the kind of Brexit we want: it is about the kind of Britain we aspire to become.
A tolerant country must not now become an intolerant one.
An outward-looking country must not now turn in on itself.
A fair-minded and inclusive people must not allow the vicious manufacture of division and the targeting of ‘enemies of the people’.
You can love your country without being made to feel you ever have to hate your neighbour.
You can embrace a broad patriotism without subscribing to a narrow nationalism.
I want to argue specifically against the hijacking of patriotism by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson – a political deception that has tried to present an act of economic self-harm – a no deal Brexit on October 31st – as a patriotic act.
I want to argue we need an informed, region-by-region debate outside the Westminster bubble through the setting up of citizens’ assemblies on the problems raised by Brexit including immigration and sovereignty but many of which – the state of our manufacturing, the condition of our towns, and rising poverty and inequality – cannot be solved by Brexit.
I want to suggest that we now need – as recommended by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission – an updated UK wide strategy from better education in our schools to stronger laws to counter Islamophobia from the right, anti-Semitism from the left and all forms of racism.
And I want to argue for a progressive defence of the union showing that we – all four nations – are best placed to succeed in a harshly-competitive global economy – when we find ways to co-operate within one set of islands – rather than engage in economic wars.
Let me start with what is happening in Scotland for just as all our attention has been fixed on a Britain moving from a soft Brexit to a hard Brexit, the Scottish nationalists have moved – almost unnoticed – from demanding a soft form of separation to demanding a hard, more extreme form.
In the 2014 Scottish referendum the nationalists proposed leaving the UK political union but said they wanted to keep the UK pound and to stay inside the UK custom union and the UK single market.
Now they are committed to a wholly separate Scottish pound and to abandon, in a quiet, almost furtive, way the UK customs union and single market which has given us tariff-free, tension-free trade across the four nations for 300 years and prevented what now seems inevitable under independence: a hard border at Hadrian’s Wall separating Scotland and England and life reduced to an unending battle between us and them.
But just when all mainstream British parties – Conservative, Liberal and Labour – should be waking up to this new threat, on red alert and working together to make the strongest possible pro-Union case, those who would seek to defend the Union are less and less in evidence.
Just at the time when they should be upholding their name as a party of the Union against the hard line separatism of the SNP, the Conservative and Unionist party have become the Conservative and Brexit party.
In a recent poll 63 per cent of Conservative Party members have said they would sacrifice the Union as a price worth paying for Brexit.
But sadly when we hear from a larger – but now also not too large group, Conservative voters’ support for the Union is even less: 79 per cent – would sacrifice the Union as the price worth paying for Brexit. And nearly half (49%) believe Scottish MPs should be excluded from the right to sit in the UK Cabinet. Even 24% of Scottish Conservative voters also take that view. As the survey of Conservative supporters said, ‘attitudes to the Union are marked principally by rivalry and mutual-indifference’.
If this splintering of a past consensus over the very existence of the Union is damaging us, what else is happening across the country?
Let us look separately at the views of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, both of whom have formed a close association with the populist nationalist Trump cheerleader Steve Bannon.
Farage has himself said that he is about more than shaping Brexit – he wants to shape Britain. But if the British people have always stood for a tolerant, fair-minded, outward-looking and pragmatic patriotism – what kind of patriotism is it that Nigel Farage stands for?
If we, the British, have prided ourselves in our tolerance, can we dismiss that infamous Farage-launched pre-referendum poster depicting almost exclusively non-white migrants threatening our borders – men and women who were, in fact, crossing from Croatia to Slovenia – as an aberration – a momentary episode in the heat of the moment of a bitter campaign?
He is on record saying he feels ‘awkward’ sitting on a London train next to people not speaking audible English – and this instinctive prejudice extends into many areas of our national life – from demanding local referenda for any new Muslim mosques – large mosques are ‘not necessarily a good idea’ he says – to the banning of lectureships and courses in European studies in our universities – effectively a ban on free speech – because they were, his party said, an avenue for pro-EU propaganda.
If we in Britain think of what Churchill called fair play as a distinctive feature of our national culture, what of Farage who has promised to undo our anti-discrimination and equality legislation just at a time when anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are rising?
This at a time also when more and more appreciate why the ‘Me Too’ movement has had to be formed, undermine, gender equality laws such as a woman’s right to maternity pay.
And what are we to make of his plan to replace our NHS, the best example of fairness in action, with American-style private insurance – not to give the NHS the £350 million a week the pro-Brexit posters promised to ensure free universal health care but to threaten to carve up the NHS, its dismembered parts sold off to his friends in the stock exchange.
If Britain is seen by us not just as traditionally tolerant and fair-minded but as outward looking, what do we find in the Farage brand of nationalism? A Britain that for him is glorying in isolation, viewing every institution with the word ‘European’ or ‘global’ in its title as ‘the enemy’ or as hostile territory.
So where does this intolerant, divisive inward-looking nationalism take us? It leads us exactly where divisive continental nationalisms led us in the past – to targeting and then blaming and demonising immigrants, foreigners and anyone who stands in the Farage way – and, of course, using language designed to induce uncertainty, fear and discord, rebutting any criticisms and countering any arguments with the now familiar trademark accusations of ‘betrayal’.
And sadly Farage is taking part of the Conservative Party with him, for only a few days ago, a survey found that half of their members were strongly hostile to the idea of having a Muslim as Prime Minister; almost half believing in the existence of ‘no-go’ zones where non-Muslims cannot enter; and over two-thirds believing there are areas of the UK ‘operating under sharia law’. Just as Labour must address the evil of anti-semitism in its ranks the Tory party has to address the evil of Islamaphobia.
And what else do these two forces now have in common? Seeking the hardest of hard Brexits.
Boris Johnson, like Farage, is demanding an exit by October 31, no later.
Johnson too is prepared to have ‘No Deal’.
Johnson is even prepared to renounce paying the outstanding part of the British £30 billion plus debts to the EU and risk landing in an all-out economic war that will take a long time to resolve.
But the real impact of a No Deal has been set out not by me but by the cabinet Secretary in a 14-page document – a 10 per cent increase in the price of foods, long hold ups in components reaching our manufacturers; bail outs needed by businesses; a likely recession on the way; and the threat to public order, the Northern Ireland peace settlement and the integrity of the Union.
But here is the problem.
Both Farage and Johnson do not only want to sign up for what will be an act of economic self harm that runs wholly counter to the national interest.
They have made No Deal on October 31 and this act of economic self harm a test of true patriotism.
Talking up No Deal means renouncing the chance of a positive post-Brexit relationship with the continent and our major economic partners: it is yet another example of an inward-looking, isolationist and dogmatic approach that has no economic logic and runs counter to our long-term national interest.
And yet those who do not go down that road are accused of not being true patriots and of betraying Britain. Our patriotism has been hijacked by a narrow dogmatic nationalism.
But Boris Johnson is not just defining his patriotism as being anti-European.
Look at what he has written on the Union – not in the heat of the moment during a referendum – but continuously over 20 years. What his writing adds up to is a manifesto vehemently opposing the three constitutional pillars upon which today’s Union is built.
Scottish representation in the UK parliament, Scottish devolution and Scottish funding.
First, representation: He believes that the number of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament should be substantially reduced.
Unable to understand careful care has to be taken in any union – whether the USA, Germany or Australia – when considering the representation of minorities, he continues to argue that Scotland is grossly over-represented at Westminster.
When it comes to the devolution settlement, he would curtail the Scottish parliament making their own decisions in devolved areas such as universities and social care.
And he also opposes as ‘reckless’ and ‘unfair to England’ the financial linchpin of the Union – the 40-year-old UK-wide settlement – the Barnett formula – which allocates resources by taking account of differing needs and changing demography across the four nations of the UK.
And if the Scots were in dire need he would have an answer: ‘I propose that we tell them to hop it’.
The SNP think of him as their best recruiting sergeant for independence. And not surprisingly few Scots believe the Union is safe in his hands, fearing whether through ignorance, carelessness or malice he will be prepared to play fast and loose with the Union when it suits his personal electoral needs.
Unless he specifically rules it out, he will almost certainly – and under the influence of his election guru, play the ‘English card’ – whipping up English nationalistic fervour against Scotland for English votes that put at risk the Union itself.
If the precedent was set by David Cameron with his posters of the Labour leader in the pocket of the Scottish first minister – think of a similar Lynton Crosby campaign for Johnson – the claim that a Corbyn minority government – dependent on SNP votes – would grant another independence referendum to the SNP.
It is right to warn of the SNP’s obsession with independence. It is right, too, for us to remind Labour that as a party of the Union it can never and must never make a backdoor deal with the SNP.
But of course, that’s not the point of the Crosby-Johnson exercise: their interest is not that the SNP or Labour have the best policies in the national interest: their aim is to whip up English nationalist fervour against Scotland simply to secure a Tory victory – and even at the cost of harming the Union.
But Scottish nationalism plus English nationalism plus Welsh nationalism plus Ulster nationalism does not add up to a United Kingdom. Four nations united only by nationalism will not sustain the United Kingdom. It means a house divided that cannot stand for long.
So the issues before us are economic, but they are also cultural and constitutional – and go to the heart of the debate about the future of our country.
It is time to draw a line in the sand: to call on the tolerant, fair minded, decent, patriotic majority of British people, who include millions of Leave voters as well as Remain voters, to speak up against the hijacking of our patriotism.
First, we need to reject the view that a ‘no deal’ Brexit on October 31 is somehow an act of patriotism and show that is wholly against the national economic interest.
We need to stop the pretence that no deal is anything other than a bad deal and be honest that it can only be the prelude to a worse deal.
Second, if we are to restore trust, which is being so tragically undermined, we have to show we can address the very real problems that led people to vote Brexit in the first place – and I, and no doubt many others, have very specific proposals on how we can manage migration, uphold British sovereignty, deal with the low pay economy, resuscitate our towns and regions and develop modern manufacturing strength.
And we have to take the debate on our future outside the Westminster bubble and beyond a deadlocked parliament and bring the British people back in to our confidence by listening to them.
In the wake of the 2016 vote to Leave, any leaders other than those in power would have spearheaded a national debate to remind ourselves that an intolerant and isolationist brand of nationalism is not an expression of British values but a repudiation of them. But even now there may be a way to reset our relationships with the world: recognising that trust has broken down because, in our representative democracies, political parties are no longer performing their traditional role of assembling and then aggregating public opinion to build an informed consensus.
And in their place, Facebook, Twitter and our social media give a spurious impression of direct democracy as if leaders and led are communicating with each other on equal terms. However, at its best the internet promotes a shouting match without an umpire and, at worst, an echo chamber isolating and reverberating the most extremist of views.
So we should attempt to build a more informed democracy through region by region public hearings – what in Ireland were called citizens’ assemblies – where we encourage a honest debate on all the specific options for our future.
These would bring together, in microcosm, voters who would spend time hearing the facts, interrogating the experts and challenging the factional views. And see if we can build a new consensus across our country in advance of a final vote by the British people.
To combat the rise of intolerance we should take up the recommendation of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission – the proposal for an updated national strategy for improved community relations.
The strategy could include measures that range from better education on community relations in our schools to stronger laws which would eradicate racism.
It is essential to do more to counter Islamophobia from the right, anti-Semitism from the left and all forms of racism and I will address this in the Isiah Berlin lecture in July.
The Union needs new defenders and it is the time to explain the threat from these new nationalisms to all of our citizens.
I believe the case for Scotland’s role in Britain is strengthened not weakened by recent developments that have demonstrated the scale of our trading links with the rest of the UK, the sheer complexity of our interdependence, the heavy costs of a break up and the real benefits of co-operation.
The SNP says that with the threat to £14billion of trade with mainland Europe and 200,000 jobs dependent on it, the Scottish economy faces a crisis.
But Scotland has £50billion of trade with the rest of the UK – and how much more damaging is the risk to the one million jobs and the thousands of companies which depend on trade across the Scottish border?
The SNP says that we should not disentangle ourselves from 40 years of integration with the EU because of the economic damage that will be done – but just how much more difficult would it be for the Scottish economy, jobs and investment if we attempt to disentangle 300 years of integration and interdependence within the United Kingdom?
It is now urgent that those who support Scotland’s role in the UK put the case against the two divisive extremes, Nationalist and Conservative, that threaten to blow the United Kingdom apart.
Make no mistake, we are now in a battle for the very existence of Britain – with two views of our future competing against each other.
Let me repeat: being a multinational state has made us more tolerant and less intolerant. Being a multinational state has made us more outward looking and less inward looking. And being a multinational state has made us more fair-minded and less prejudiced, more respectful of diversity and less antagonistic to minorities.
We have to defend these values. I myself will go round Scotland putting the case for Scotland’s role in Britain and making the modern case for Scotland’s role in Britain and a better relationship between Scotland and Britain.
Of this I am sure: if we engage with each other we will, I believe, find people are far more tolerant, fair minded and less inward looking and less dogmatic than those who have hijacked patriotism, turned it into petty nationalism and today dominate our politics with such disastrous results.
There is one other spur for our actions. A few weeks ago as we commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we were reminded that English, Scots, Welsh and Irish soldiers are buried side-by-side in the battlefields of Europe, together in death as they were in life.
They fought not as separate nationalities but as one for a common cause. It mocks their sacrifices to wish a bitter partition of the United Kingdom which they gave their lives to save.