The independence referendum phenomenon has:
- located me comfortably in something from which I have been estranged all my life;
- taken something from me that has been a formative presence in my life for almost as long as I can remember;
- aligned me positively with something I have previously resisted.
The first of these is – unionism.
I have discovered that I am ‘a unionist’ and have come to a belated understanding of what, at heart, ‘unionism’ is – as I have not been politically free to do before. And I am liberated into unionism, perhaps the greatest surprise of the lot.
Anyone who is Irish will understand that surprise. Everyone else may simply accept that this has been a transformational new perspective.
Take all of the awkward political baggage away from ‘unionism’ and its essential nature is there: a bonding, a strength, a sharing, teamship, openness, inclusiveness, difference, creative tension, adjustment, tolerance…
I have come to understand that I am by nature and political philosophy – this unionist.
Conversely, I have come to understand how narrow, how excluding, how claustrophobic, how chauvinist, how ungenerous is nationalism. I know and warm to many nationalists who are not like this at all; and I have no doubt that many others are the same. Like everyone, though, I have seen mass fundamental nationalism set to work in this campaign and it has been terrifying in its brute tribalism.
The second change – the loss, the thing that has been taken from me is – ‘Scotland’.
It’s very name now belongs to others, annexed to the nationalist, separatist cause. They have taken ownership of it, stolen it in broad daylight from everyone else who was entitled to have it and to use it.
They have also stuck it on to everything that moves and much that doesn’t in a leadenly repetitive partisan political branding, a menacing football chant that belongs to some, not to others – and not to me.
It’s oddly hard now, to know what to call a country I know well from having poked about in a great deal of it for so much of my life.
And yet I turned to the country itself at the worst of the alienation of this bitter campaign. I drove it. Photographed it. Breathed it in. Opened to it. Tried to recover what its name once meant to me and somehow reattach it – like the shadow Wendy sewed back on to the heels of Peter Pan. I’m not there yet but I have to try.
And the new alignment? That is to the European Union.
The EU’s indefensibly undemocratic structure, grandiloquent titles [everyone seems to be ‘President’], centralist bureaucracy and asymmetric eurozone have always been hard to accept as having any worth.
But discovering the ugliness of raw nationalism and the inclusiveness of the core meaning of unionism has brought awareness that the challenge is to reform the European Union and the home union, the United Kingdom, from the inside; not to walk away from either of them.
The concept of union is constructive and the fact that it includes and does not seek to exclude is cohesive and tolerant. It’s about ‘Come in’ and not ‘You don’t belong’.
The fact that any union may be ill-managed or mismanaged at any given time does not mean that that union is unserviceable or that the concept is inadequate. It means it needs dry docking and an agreed refit programme for an updated function.
Nationalism is sectarian, fuelled by opposition and divisively triumphalist. Witnessing this campaign has taught me that these characteristics are too easily summoned and mobilised in support of political ends. This could not be more dangerous.
I do not see how, once these attitudes and feelings have been stoked and loosed as they have been, they can be brought back under restraint – and who would try? I am afraid – not frightened – afraid of where they will go now.
I had voluntarily invested myself in Scotland and had hope in it. It has disappointed me. That is a felt loss. Yet the searing of this referendum has shown me who I am, a unionist, a federal unionist. I could never have imagined that the defensive and thuggish ‘unionism’ I lived alongside for so long might have masked something essentially large in spirit into which one could be liberated.
When all the evidence is weighed as it must be, the last question is not political, it is philosophical: nationalist or unionist?
And here I am, a unionist at the end of it all – and freely voting ‘Please, No’.
Lynda Henderson, Editor and News Director