21 October 2021

Britain must strive for a more perfect union


I am a Scot. I was born in Scotland and brought up and educated in Scotland. I now have the immense privilege to represent the north-east of Scotland, my home, in the House of Commons. And I happen to believe it is the best part of the best country in the world.

But I am also a Brit. And proud to be so.

I am as at home in London as I am in Aberdeen.

That, for me, is the greatness of our country. We are four peoples in one. The British: a hotchpotch of backgrounds and identities but with shared values. We can be proud Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish, English. We can be proud Londoners or Aberdonians. Muslim or Christian. We can be a mixture of all of the above and more and still be British. That is the beauty of our brilliantly confused melting pot of a country. It is what makes us who we are.

And it saddens me – no, more than that, it is heartbreaking – to hear people talk of the break-up of this nation, my home, as if they are speaking of nothing more than the end of a business relationship, a trading agreement. As if the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland represents nothing more than a corporate, business, economic arrangement between four distinct and separate nations.

Of course, the economic and business relationships between the home nations are deep and vitally important – not least to the millions of people who rely on the continuation of the UK’s internal market for their jobs, income and security. But it is so much more than that: this country, my country, the UK, is about the familial ties across our islands. It is about our shared history and the shared values that together we stood up for over the past century and more.

This is the country that abolished slavery; that fought with the Commonwealth and our other allies to free the world from oppression, Nazism and Communism; that helped found the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations and Nato; and that has stood as a beacon for the poor and dispossessed of the world as a symbol of hope that good will, forever, overcome evil.

I will never forget one hazy summer’s evening, about 14 years ago, being aboard HMS Edinburgh, having crossed the Atlantic from Brazil. We were slowly sailing into the English Channel. It must have been about July and the sky was that glorious reddish/blue/magenta colour you only see at the end of a hot summer’s day when you are down by the coast.

On the upper deck, looking across a sea that was flat calm, and just visible through the fine mist, was the Cornish coast. I could smell the air, almost taste the fish and chips. And I remember thinking to myself, that is my coast. My home. And as long as there remains breath in my body, that is what it will remain.

Very often you hear the United States described as the great experiment. But, to my mind, the original great experiment, launched 70 years before the Bostonians inexplicably decided to chuck what was, by all accounts, perfectly drinkable tea into the ocean, was ours: the experiment of the United Kingdom.

As with any experiment, you change and adapt the processes in order to achieve the desired outcome – in this case a country, diverse and different, but united and at peace with itself. And in 314 years, in an attempt to succeed, we have seen the shape of our Union change and evolve. We have seen our systems of government adapt and develop in order to achieve what the Americans might describe as a more perfect Union.

This is a state, I have to admit, that we seem quite far from achieving. But that does not mean we should stop trying. It is the duty of all of us to strive to improve our United Kingdom. For if our small islands in the North Sea, with so many ties, with so much in common, cannot stay united, what signal does that send to the rest of this sorely divided world?

That is the exciting challenge we all have. And what a challenge. What an opportunity. Inheriting the struggle from the shoulders of giants like the great Donald Dewar, who himself described devolution as a journey, we can make this country work for all its people.

It is a matter of demonstrable fact that this country achieves much more together than it ever could apart – you simply need to look at the incredible pace of the Covid vaccine rollout to see that. Why would we put that at risk? Why would we want to create a border where there has been none for over 300 years?

That is the depressing vision of the nationalist separatists. That is the defeatist attitude of those who look on our Union as a mistake or a remnant of history. That is the sorry analysis of those who cannot believe that our future can be better than our past.

It is not my attitude.

I often like to think of the UK as a family: Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Comfortable and happy together for the most part but shaken sometimes when one of the family tries something new or admits to wanting to do something different. It takes a while for the family to get used to the idea, but eventually, when it does, it usually makes for a better and more rounded situation. That is the UK with devolution in 2021.

The United Kingdom. Imperfect? Certainly. Failed? Certainly not. Unfinished? Probably. We are determined to make it work.

To admit we cannot adapt, to admit that our great experiment of maintaining our Union has failed, to break up our country simply because we are uncomfortable with one part of our constituent parts doing its own thing – would be the easy way out. Democracy is difficult. Maintaining this Union is difficult.

But we must persevere.

Does that mean trying new ways, again changing how we do things? Adapting our processes to achieve a more perfect result? Maybe. And we should not be afraid of that.

The unwritten constitution of our UK is not some museum piece – stuck in aspic, incapable of flexibility and radical thought. From its earliest days it has proven, quite simply because it is by its nature unwritten, to be able to adapt, flex and change with the pressures, challenges and demands of the times we have found ourselves in.

Unlike the nationalists, I am an optimist. I believe we can do it. With imagination, with courage, with determination, we can build that better Union. We can complete the experiment. This kingdom is united. And, working together, we can unite it still further.

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Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

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