7 January 2021

Boris should bring in an Erasmus for the Home Nations

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Now that the deal is done and all of the arrangements are in place, a section of Brexiteers seem to be waking up to the implications of Boris Johnson’s capitulation to Brussels on the status of Northern Ireland.

There is certainly scope for disagreement about the scale of the damage. But one thing it has undoubtedly done is give the Republic of Ireland the opportunity to play good cop.

Whilst London forks out for unpopular measures such as Irish Sea border infrastructure, Dublin has stepped in to provide continuing funding for EU perks, such as the European Health Insurance Card and access to the Erasmus Scheme, for Ulster residents.

This contrasts most unfavourably with Westminster, which has for decades been too squeamish about its role in the Province to even put the Union Flag on its (British) driving licences. And it puts a spotlight on one of the pressing questions facing unionists as we gear up for this year’s devolved elections and beyond: what are the perks of the Union?

Ministers might be tempted to respond, when it comes to students at least, that the new Turing programme is the obvious answer. But as Tom McTague has pointed out, that doesn’t do quite the same thing. Turing is about getting British students out into the world. Erasmus, on the other hand, is an exchange programme intended in part to help foster a European demos.

How effectively it does this is of course open to question. Perhaps it really does largely self-select for a particular cohort of middle-class language students who are pre-disposed to “a sense of Europeanness”. But the programme shows that the EU’s leaders recognise an essential truth: that you can’t sustain a political union (let alone a fiscal one) without an underlying identity.

In fact, there are signs that the Government has previously considered a policy more akin to what McTague is after. A year ago, the Daily Record reported that Boris Johnson was considering a ‘Union bursary’ to help encourage English and Scottish (as well presumably as Welsh and Northern Irish) students to study across the different Home Nations. Let’s call it the King James Scholarship.

Nary a peep has been heard on the subject since, by all accounts, but it should definitely get more attention – not least because Michael Gove, the man at least nominally in charge of the Government’s anti-separatist strategy, has such a strong background in education himself.

The case for it is easy to outline. The zero-fee regimes operated by the devolved administrations create a ‘home tuition’ effect which strongly discourages their school-leavers from studying in England. It makes intuitive sense that people who grow up and live their lives in an exclusively Welsh or Scottish pattern, as opposed to one with a British dimension, will be more likely to feel exclusively Welsh or Scottish.

If, as Aristotle said, we are the sum of our habits, unionists need to create more spaces where people live at least part of their day-to-day lives as Britons. If not, we will eventually run out of Britons.

So much for the theory. Making a success of such a programme in practice would be more complicated. For starters, the inverse incentives created by English students paying fees means they don’t seem to have much trouble getting into Scottish universities.

On the Scottish side, simply offering to pay tuition seems unlikely to cut it. After all, it would only make attending university in England as cheap as attending in Scotland, which has a different culture as regards going a long way from home to study. Even in the pre-tuition fees era, Scottish students at English universities weren’t apparently all that common.

It seems likely that to really appeal, a bursary scheme would need to go beyond tuition and include a grant towards accommodation and living expenses too. That would naturally make it more expensive, so it would be more important that ministers were selective about which courses and applicants received the funding.

Another potential barrier to entry is the fact that it is reportedly the habit of English universities to ask prospective Scottish applicants for A Levels – which they do not habitually sit – on top of their Highers. Ministers would need to assess whether or not the two qualifications are equivalent and, if they are, work with the higher education sector to ensure that their admissions offices recognise this.

(It says something about the mounting incoherence of the UK that we have apparently managed, in this informal sense, to fail to deliver mutual recognition of qualifications inside one country.)

Even if all that could be overcome, and it had the desired effect, the King James Scholarship could only be a small part of a solution. But it would at the bare minimum be a recognition that it is the British nation, as much as the dry United Kingdom, that it is the task of unionism to save; that the mission remains that set out by His Majesty in 1604:

“Hath not God first united these two kingdoms, both in language, religion, and similitude of manners? Yea, hath He not made us all in one island, compassed with one sea, and of itself by nature so indivisible as almost those that were borderers themselves on the late borders, cannot distinguish nor know or discern their own limits?”

And implicit in that recognition is another: that victory in that cultural struggle will need much more time than an imminent referendum affords. Another reason not to grant one.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.