Countries stay together because they want to. Constitutional arrangements are contingent upon this desire, not progenitors of it. You see, there came a moment when no amount of ‘home rule’ could have preserved (all) Ireland within the Union. Think of it in human terms if you prefer, eventually a partner who is perceived as intolerable to live with is shown the door: no amount of domestic tinkering can mend the broken will. Thus it can be observed that a singular focus on the constitution as unionists strive to safeguard the British Union is to put the cart before the horse. Unionists have to cultivate the desire to remain British amongst their fellow countrymen or the Union is burst.
So it is that despite the act of affirmation of September 2014, the Union of 1707 remains in danger largely because the cultural bonds between its constituent peoples are fraying. In human terms again; we’re drifting apart. The common threads of shared identity and endeavour that characterise a sense of nationhood are less immediate, less pronounced, and less recognised than perhaps ever before all across Britain. We just feature less in one another’s news.
Let’s start with what we’ve lost. The story shows that gradually but appreciably those threads have been fraying in these islands. There is simply no other way to read an independence vote of 45%. Like, none. More impressionistically, but no less importantly, as we look around these islands there is simply less Union to apprehend; no longer do people the length and breadth of the country go to work for British Rail, or other industries bearing the national prefix; no longer are the armed forces so sizeable that they are a daily reality in every community, constantly reminding Scots of the service that binds all Britons together; no longer – even – is there a UK-wide labour movement or party of any relevance, workers’ struggles are increasingly distinct affairs. The odd visit from Jeremy Corbyn – bless him – won’t change that.
This, of course, is not to deny the significance institutional developments, particularly devolution. It has given us distinct political narratives and actors, something which only further serves to emphasise the atomization of the peoples still collectively known as the British. If you doubt this, cast a look at the picture of Nicola Sturgeon outside of Number 10 recently, or that of Theresa May at Bute House. As Andrew Tickell has alluded to in The Times, it is not hard to imagine circumstances where these are looked upon as images of the domestic and the foreign; ours and the other.
This is not to lament all the changes that have occurred, rather it is to observe that if Britain continues to drift along the path of ours and the other then the reserves of kinship and goodwill that the Union must – at some level – call upon to defend itself will ineluctably diminish. The threads will snap.
So Unionists have a problem. What should be done?
Well, it is to overstate the position – although by less than you’ll initially suspect – to declare that the fabric of our Union can be fastened at a stroke. Allow me to engage you with an idea: the British Government should negotiate an arrangement to provide that any Scottish football team which wishes to join the English football league structure can. Yes, that old chestnut again. A hackneyed notion rendered renaissance by time and circumstance.
Winston Churchill once asked a telling question of this nation: “what is the purpose which has brought us all together?” As so often, he already had an answer to proffer: “it is the conviction that the life of Britain…can only be achieved by national unity, and national unity can only be preserved upon a cause which is large than the nation itself.” If he’s right – and he is – a contemporary Unionist is thus bound to ask what, today, is our cause? Not war and empire building; no, those have long since ceased to be our primary national activities, while even that foremost object of national idolatry, the NHS, now comes with a caveat: ‘Scotland’ or ‘England’.
Preserving the environment? Devolved. Education? It’s always been left to each alone. Winning the Olympics? Too rare a challenge. But football… football is ever-present, it is the common cultural manifestation of the British. It is the greatest modern export of England and Wales. It’s time we got a piece of the action. It’s time we were allowed to join the endeavour. Each weekend league football is our service of national worship. It should remind us of the strength of our collective, this shared communion, but, instead of it being a great binding force of Union, a cultural apartheid can be seen to run through the heart of the sport here – one which gives life to the invocation of the phrase “the national game”. Yes, history is why we have a schism in our footballing church but that’s no reason to resist reformation. Today, British membership does nothing to lift Scottish clubs’ condemnation to penury and ever increasing state of European irrelevance while, at once, providing English – and crucially – Welsh clubs with bottomless riches and boundless opportunity. Better together indeed.
This is more than a cause of significant resentment, although it is most certainly that. It is also a deprivation of commercial opportunity with real social consequences. The Premier League’s 2015 announcement that it will channel £1 billion to grass roots causes means a generation of English and Welsh children will grow up with facilities and kit which will simply be unaffordable for Scots bairns. One need only glance at the area surrounding Celtic Park in Glasgow after the Commonwealth Games’ investment to see the regenerative effect which the combination of sport and commercial opportunity can bring. What would become the ‘British Premier League’ would sweep such changes through Scottish life with a broad brush.
But there’s a deeper reason why this reformation would be a more salutary move for the Union than is commonly understood and it is this: sport is not a merely tangential thing people’s lives. The human experience is a vicarious experience: people like to live and, more importantly, dream vicariously. This desire is why people read novels, study history, watch James Bond. A route to the Premier League would give Scottish football fans cause to dream grander dreams. The British state would come to be recognised for giving Celtic and Aberdeen the opportunity to return to European prominence, the British Union would be singularly responsible for restoring Rangers. Football anchors communities, it gives people some of the best moments of their lives. But it does so much more besides. Sport binds people together. It’s recorded that the sense of Indian nationhood was strengthened following their inaugural international cricket match against England at Lords; a sense of American exceptionalism can, in part, be seen to derive from the distinctiveness of their sporting pursuits; Scotland itself has rarely felt as joyous being British in the modern era as it did during the London Olympics of 2012. The BPL would bind us together. We’ll want to read each other’s news.
There will be objections – there always are – but a direct intervention to improve social experiences, to help people realise their cultural dreams, can never be illegitimate. It is not a bribe. Consider government intervention in the arts. Attracting the best composers to London, in order that the wealthy may more perfectly hear Puccini, is never countered with such platitudinous nonsense. My hunch is our big clubs would want this. And, with European football facing radical change – and Chinese challenge – in the coming years, this is the art of the possible. There will be specifically English objections: they’re surmountable. The Premier League serves one God – and our teams can bring them more and more of it.
Shankly was wrong: life is more important than football. But social politics is a powerful thing. People don’t downsize their dreams once they’ve dared to imagine them. There are Yes voters to be peeled away here. Recall, feeling British – somewhere, somehow – was a key indicator that a person would vote No. It’s a simple business really: make people feel British and you save this Union.
Whatever its genesis, our political union was cultivated by the desire of all Britons to do great things – and to do them together. Its finest hours, in both peace and in war, have been collective heaves. And, as Churchill recognised, the pursuit of such great causes are simply necessary for Britain to survive. Britain has to have a point to it beyond Barnett consequentials. To see all this is to see that ours remains a union that can only be sustained through shared endeavour, through doing still more great things as one. Constitutional change is inevitable at all events but such moves may prove futile without also tending to the loosening of the cultural bonds between the peoples of this United Kingdom. If Mrs May really wants to put the Union at the heart of everything she does, football is the place to start.