The Social Union is Already in Action

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
National Collective



About Michael Gray

Michael studies politics at the University of Glasgow. He admires creativity, optimism and education. He desires peace, social justice and good parties.

There are 8 comments

  1. Rod Mac

    Another great piece Michael , I cannot foretell the outcome of the Referendum (however I remain optimistic) what I can foretell is you will go on to be either a great journalist or a great author ,more likely both!!
    Take care son.

  2. Martin Pratt

    The Common Travel Area is a bit of a myth. As your Wikipedia link points out ID checks on people arriving in the ROI from GB have been required since 1997 and the whole arrangement (which has little or no legal foundation) was very nearly abolished in 2007. I’m sure it doesn’t really matter but passport checks akin to travelling from Canada to the US or from England to France are quite possible after 2014. That might be a price worth paying for separation but harping on about a fragile, eroding and informal Common Travel Area does not support the case for a nebulous and ill defined “social union”. Scotland will become like every other country to the rest of the UK – in peace friends and in war enemies. Just like Ireland and France.

    1. Jim Bliss

      I can hop on a train in Dublin and be in Belfast in a little over two hours. I can spend the afternoon in Belfast and return home to Dublin that evening. And no ID / passport checks are required. If Scotland votes for independence (which I hope it does, simply because my Scottish friends are pro-independence) then I suspect the Scotland/England border will be like the RoI/NI border.

      1. Martin Pratt

        I can be on a train in Paris in two hours from where I live and passport checks ARE required. Why should London to Edinburgh be any diffetent to the London to Paris trip? Both separate countries in the EU.

        1. Jim Bliss

          Simply because – just as with the UK and the Irish Republic – the historical connection between England and Scotland is very different to the one between England and France. It’s that simple. Just as US citizens don’t need a passport to cross the Canadian border. A passport is not required to cross from France to Monaco, from Italy to San Marino (or The Vatican City)… or indeed when crossing between many sovereign nations that have strong historical ties.

          It would make absolutely no sense (economically or socially) from either a Scottish or an English perspective to introduce border controls, even in the case of a fully independent Scotland.

          I’m not saying it definitely wouldn’t happen (probably not really an issue – as I very much doubt Scotland will vote ‘Yes’ to independence). Merely that if it did happen it would involve unnecessary bureaucracy and socio-economic damage for no other reason than political posturing.

      2. Jebediah Beane

        The success of UKIP in the elections this week does suggest that the border control issue will be contentious in the event of a Yes vote

  3. Luke Devlin

    A useful contribution. I would add that the UK’s Ireland Act 1949 specifically stated that the Republic of Ireland would not be treated as a foreign country in UK law. There’s nothing to suggest that the UK would treat Scotland any differently.

    1. Martin Pratt

      I’m not sure that you can assume that. London has better relations with Paris than Holyrood and you need a passport to get on a train to Paris. Indeed you need a passport to get on ‘plane to Dublin. I think, based on the poisonous antipathy shown by Holyrood to Westminster, relations between the countries will be quite fractious and strained after independence and I don’t see us passing an equivalent of the Ireland Act. It would be electoral poison. For one thing it would extend voting rights to Scots in London in parliamentary elections which the rest of the EU doesn’t get.

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