There seems to be an even greater than usual degree of confusion from the Unionist parties when it comes to the use of the word nation. David Cameron illustrated this in his keynote speech to the Tory party conference last month. When urging Scotland to stay in the UK he had this gem of a sentence. “We want us to stick together. Think of all we’ve achieved together, all the things we can do together. The nation, as one. Our Kingdom – united.” (my emphasis) Here it is quite clear that the one nation is the UK. Which sits a bit oddly with the notion, also favoured by many Unionists, that the UK is a multi-national country. We cannot really be both.
The term One Nation has recently been taken on board by the Labour party. A prominent part of that party now openly promotes Labour as the One Nation party. They have even produced a booklet – One Nation Labour. You can read it here. It is quite a fascinating read, more for what is left out, rather than for what it says. For nowhere in its 23 chapters is there any meaningful reference to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Which is particularly odd, given the extent to which policy in these three “nations” has diverged from England. It is even odder in light of the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence.
Labour’s version of One Nation seems to be contradictory at its very heart. While the articles in the booklet often use the term Britain or Great Britain, much of the content can only refer to England in our new devolution world. It is perhaps most revealing that the only chapter which is specifically about a nation is about England, in the chapter entitled, One Nation Labour needs to re-engage with the English question. (my emphasis)
It gets even more confusing when one gets away from the One Nation Labour faction. The New Statesman had a recent cover with the headline “Can Milliband speak for England?”. On the other hand we have Andy Burnham, the shadow Health secretary at Westminster, calling for common policies across the whole of the UK. This latter call is very strange indeed. It seems to betray an ignorance of the history of the NHS, which has since its inception always been different in Scotland. Andy Burnham also seems to be ignorant of the very strong support that Scottish people have repeatedly shown for our separate NHS.
The LibDems would appear to be the only UK party with a clear policy on constitutional matters. They are in favour of a federal UK. However, they have never sought to implement this policy, even when way back in the days they were the governing party. Recently they do not seem to have made any attempt whatsoever to put forward an actual proposal for a federal UK. For one of the major difficulties of federalism is how do you create a partnership of equals among the four very different component parts of the UK. There is also the not inconsiderable difficulty that a federal UK can only come about if one or other of Labour or the Tories were to support it. To date neither party has shown the slightest interest in federalism. So in effect the LibDems are left to propose something that they will never be in a position to deliver, at least not on their own.
The conflicting views from the three Unionist parties highlights one of the gravest weakness in the No campaign. There is no coherent vision of what kind of UK they want to preserve. Pretending that the UK is simply one nation is not likely to prove very appealing to the many Scots who regard Scotland as a nation. I imagine many people in Wales have a similar view of Wales as a nation. Even if they want Scotland to remain in the UK, they may not take too well with Cameron’s dismissal of Scotland as a nation.
Labour seems to be the most confused as their One Nation rhetoric suggests. The more Labour appears to be focussing all its efforts on winning back voters in England, with polices that are at odds with majority opinion in Scotland, the more they risk alienating their voters here. This is confirmed by the trends in opinion polls, which show Labour consistently behind the SNP.
There is also the small matter of what the future holds for the UK. Is it to be one with further devolution or is it to be one in which there will be less devolution. Some in both Labour and the Tory parties have already suggested that some powers could be handed back to Westminster. As the referendum date gets closer, all the Unionist parties will be under greater and greater pressure to spell out in detail just what kind of UK they want us to remain in. I look forward with keen anticipation to what they have to say.