I have been a disappointment to many people. One niche group emerged in 2012, when my previous firm, Pinsent Masons, merged with the largest Scottish firm McGrigors. For some time afterwards, whenever I met one of my new Scottish partners, I could see the faint shrinking when they realised that, despite my given name, I’m as English as they come. They were always kind to the afflicted, of course, but a sense of the closest kinship would take much more earning.
The question of kinship with the Scots is assuming a renewed significance in British politics. The Scots did not vote for Brexit. Nor did the Northern Irish. This has not stopped the UK government from pressing ahead with the hardest form of Brexit that it can contemplate, paying no heed to the wishes of the 48% who voted against it. Their supporters have spent the years since 2016 telling anyone who does not whole-heartedly pledge themselves to the most extreme Brexit that they are quislings, traitors and enemies of the people, threatening every national institution that they perceive as an impediment or a nest of enemies, from the BBC to the Church of England to the Supreme Court.
No doubt by chance, there has been a steady rise in support in Scotland for independence in recent years. Leavers seem discomfited by this. Boris Johnson told Conservative MPs that devolution had been a disaster. This is unlikely to make the overwhelming majority of Scots who are happy with devolution feel more warmly to him, his government or the union.
The strategy of Leavers to deal with Scottish disaffection appears to be to snaffle some decisions back for Westminster so that the SNP can’t get in their way, to bung Scotland enough money to keep it quiet, to browbeat it with threats of the awfulness of transitioning to independence and to deny it a referendum so it can’t break away. If this is their strategy, it is doomed to fail and probably in the short term. Scotland will not accept being treated as a colony for any length of time. Douglas Ross, who had set sail on a promising course as new Scottish leader, must feel as if he has hit an iceberg.
It is a shame that, in an era of identity politics from which they have profited in the short term so much, Leavers have studied it so little. For what they are embarking on is a project of nation-rebuilding and in order to do that, an understanding of identity is central to the project.
Trigger warning for diehard reactionaries: discussion of “intersectionality” follows.
There has been a lot of study of the questions of identity. Almost all of it has been undertaken by academics with a left-leaning perspective and in the context of power structures. Conservatives affect to despise its products. They are fools, because these studies include essential concepts for their grand project.
Few of us have only one identity. The way in which those identities blend affect our lived experiences and our views of the world. There will be Brexit-supporting young gay Yorkshiremen who cycle and don’t like wearing masks. They will think about life quite differently from a married middle-aged Remainer Cornish woman who drives and is shielding.
Many Leavers and Remainers (and almost all of the noisier ones) have spent the last few years looking at life through just the prism of Brexit and using it as a purity test. This is particularly a problem for Leavers, who are running the show at present. Because what this has meant is that those who do not identify with the hardline view of Brexit that the government and its fellow-travellers aggressively tout are being excluded from any sense of the Britain that is to emerge.
Polls show that this excluded group presently comprises a clear majority across Britain. Even if you don’t trust polls, however, you have to accept that there are clear and repeated majorities showing up in the ballot box in Scotland (and London, for that matter) that have decisively rejected the government. If the union and national cohesion is important to you, you need to think about how you offer a Britain that they can feel a part of. And if you are a Leaver, you need to remember that you have spent four years telling them how much you despise them.
This is true not just in Scotland. Northern Ireland is feeling very unloved just now. And it is easy to see how other areas could soon feel excluded from a rigid single vision of Britishness. If the country is to hang together, it needs to feel like a loose baggy jumper, not a straitjacket.
Candidly, I don’t believe that this is really very important to many Leavers just now. Yes, they would definitely prefer Scotland to remain part of the UK for reasons of national prestige. But they aren’t prepared to make any meaningful compromises to achieve it, to help those Scots who have a sense of Britishness as well as a sense of Scottishness value that enough to stay on board. They genuinely believe that only their version of Britishness is valid. They are loving the union to death.