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Henry Hill Red, White and Blue

Henry Hill: When nationalisms collide

Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

I’m as much a fan of variety as the next columnist, but it seems that UKIP just can’t keep itself out of the news. This week the focus has been on Nigel Farage’s close shave with a mob from “Radical Indepence” in Edinburgh and the ensuing back-and-forth between Farage and Scotland’s very one ‘Nat One’, Alex Salmond.

There seem to be two broad schools of thought on this. The first, expressed quite nicely here by Allan Massie, is that Farage is really a bit of a big girls blouse for being so upset that his meeting was challenged in a hearty and rumbustious fashion in the best traditions of British politics. The second is more in line with Farage’s own view that there is a nastily fascistic undercurrent to having political meetings broken up by force and something very distasteful by the indulgent treatment the Scottish media has given his aggressors.

Personally, I was most entertained by the Daily Mash’s cutting analysis. But unlike whoever came up with the headline ‘Nigel Farage’s Edinburgh humiliation’, I don’t really see how being mobbed in this fashion actually reflects badly on Farage or UKIP. I experienced much the same thing on a pettier scale when I was an active, elected Conservative in a very left-wing students union. Sometimes your meetings get stormed, sometimes somebody throws at punch at you on election night – it is your response to such attacks, rather than the attacks themselves, that reflect on your character.

In that light, Farage could have done perhaps with even thicker skin. Hanging up on a hostile interviewer and allowing the words “pretty ugly nation” to be attributable to him, without the relevant context, were both missteps. Yet despite that the most important thing is that it doesn’t appear to have done anything to stem Farage’s desire to establish his party in Scottish politics, which is what his opponents actually wanted.

Beyond that, the incident does highlight the interesting point of whether or not the nastier side of Scottish nationalism is going to grow more active – and attract more attention – in the build-up to the referendum. The mainland Celtic nationalisms have all managed to acquire a level of metropolitan respectability largely denied their English and British counterparts, an undoubted factor in their relative success. Part of this is that, the actions of a few Welsh-language ultras aside, there’s not really much of a ‘direct action’ wing to these fundamentally constitutional movements. The dark side of Scottish nationalism, embodied in the ‘cybernats’, lurks in the comments threads of news articles and largely passes the public by.

Will that remain the case if crowds brandishing ‘Yes’ slogans start making the headlines for harassing opponents? Chasing Nigel Farage out of a pub has been easy enough for the First Minister and the SNP to laugh off, but I feel that Salmond would have been better served by playing the statesman and defending freedom of speech, unpalatable as it might have been in the short run to have any kind words for a man so utterly opposed to his separatist vision as Farage,

In condemning the behaviour of UKIP's harassers Salmond could look magnanimous and statesmanlike, as well as putting some clear blue water between the mainstream separatist campaign and the fringe elements of Scottish nationalism. You're not in a good place when George Galloway is taking the higher road.

Better Together London ought to be just the start

One of the complicating factors for any unionist campaign is striking the right balance between a focus on it being a question for the country in question (which it undoubtedly is), and deploying one of the undoubted strengths of the Union: that people from all four home nations support one another.

To my mind, it has never made sense for unionists to fall into the nationalist trap that insists that only people from Scotland should campaign in or contribute to the campaign to keep the UK together. Scots should certainly be the voters, that much is beyond question, but to cut Scottish unionists off from the assistance of Welsh, English and Northern Irish people is to concede vital ground and play on the separatists’ turf. After all it is they who maintain that such people have no business in Scottish affairs – a unionist cannot credibly hold that view.

With that in mind, it was a most welcome discovery to found out about the launch of Better Together London. It’s heartening to see the unionist campaign reaching out to other parts of the United Kingdom, reminding people that whilst Scots are the voters in 2014 the continued existence of the UK is a battle in which every Briton has a stake.

Yet although this is a good first step, there remain a few key questions about the nature and extent of Better Together’s new outreach strategy. First, there is the simple question of extent. It is easy to see how London, being as it is at the centre of the British media world, might make a tempting, high-profile exception to what Better Together intend to be an entirely Scottish-focused campaign.

Thus BT London could be viewed not as the first part of an attempt to marshal the peoples of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to the pro-union cause, but as an outpost that allows BT to maintain a profile with Westminster and the London media. This would be a great shame, and I hope that in the run up to 2014 we’ll see Better Together branches set up in other cities across the UK.

The other question is whether or not BT London (and any other branches that might get set up) is aimed at the British as a whole or merely at ‘expatriate’ Scots. The tone struck by the BT London event seems to suggest the latter. The initial justification that “London contains thousands of Scots” made sense but a recent update on the page asked people to invite “any Scottish friends you have in London”.

Again, that’s fine in and of itself but I’ve taken the liberty of inviting friends from all over the UK who might be in London and want to demonstrate their support for the unionist cause and probably contribute, if the means are made available. I hope that we non-Scottish partisans in the unionist cause are made to feel welcome and exploited to the fullest in the battle to come. We’ll find out on June 5. 

A trades union declares for the Union

In April, I lamented the apparent decline of the staunch opposition of Scottish trades unionists to Scottish nationalism, and linked to an article explaining how a belief that a separate Scotland will be left-wing forever, combined perhaps with a decline in the number of true-believers in the fundamentally internationalist doctrine of socialism, was leading Scottish trades unions into the separatist camp.

Well, at least one has bucked this unhappy trend: the Scottish wing of ASLEF, the train drivers union, has unanimously voted to oppose independence. They even overcame their suspicions about cooperating with the Conservatives and officially affiliate to the Better Together campaign. May it be the first of many.


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