On September 18, 2014, the people of Scotland will be asked a very straightforward question: should Scotland be an independent country?
As the date edges closer the emotional arguments (which have been fairly mute so far) will have a greater part to play, particularly around June, when the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn is celebrated.
If the voters opt for independence, it will remove about eight per cent of the population and economy from what is now the United Kingdom, along with about a third of the total land mass.
It would also act as a remarkable shot in the arm (although that’s probably an inappropriate term to use these days) for Irish nationalists in this part of the United Kingdom. In other words, it’s going to be a very big day for pan-UK unionism and the future of the United Kingdom.
My gut instinct – and I suppose that an awful lot can still happen in the remaining 262 days – is that a comfortable majority will reject independence.
The long-term risks of going it alone are enormous and there is a lot to be said for the continuing comfort blanket afforded by membership of the United Kingdom.
That said, I couldn’t think of three more miserable, limp, uninspiring champions of the Union than Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Mind you, they have been helped by the weight and impenetrability of the pro-independence tome issued by the Scottish Nationalists a few weeks ago, which raises more questions than it answers and seems to leave an awful lot to chance, circumstance, naked sentiment and blind fate.
Anyway, the United Kingdom is not going to break up in 2014, or anytime soon.
So where does that leave unionism in Northern Ireland? Well, while the Union may be safe I’m not sure that the same can be said of what we understand as unionism. Increasing numbers of people are refusing to vote for unionist parties, although increasing numbers of people are also admitting that they are in favour of staying within the United Kingdom. On the surface that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever: I mean, why would people reject the unionist parties but not reject the Union that those parties promote?
The obvious answer to that question is that a very significant element within the pro-Union community (by which I mean those who would vote against Irish unity in a referendum) is dissatisfied with what is being offered by unionist parties. Let me add a caveat to that: it is possible that parties like UKIP, PUP, NI21, Conservatives and some sort of Bryson/Frazer vehicle will produce an upsurge at the next couple of elections, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
I don’t think that any of them can tap into the non-voting, pro-Union market and persuade significant numbers of them back to the polling stations.
Here’s what I think. Most people in Northern Ireland reckon that the Union is staying as it is for the foreseeable future – and that includes elements of both Sinn Fein and SDLP’s core vote, who would, if given the choice, much rather live in a united Ireland.
Similarly, most people have also accepted that, for better or worse, we are stuck with the Assembly, the Executive and the other bits and bobs of the institutional machinery. What people want is hard, clear evidence that government does what it is supposed to do – govern. And govern in a way that addresses the everyday issues and concerns that matter to them.
That doesn’t happen and because it doesn’t happen more and more people are choosing not to vote. And because they are utterly, utterly fed up with the lack of competent, relevant government here, they will not easily be convinced that any new or attempting-to-reinvent-themselves parties will make a difference.
Meanwhile, the so-called mainstream parties (DUP/UUP/SF/SDLP/Alliance) continue to fight the old battles and pick the even older scabs, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their own collective incompetence is the key factor undermining public confidence in our political institutions.
The unionist parties are also missing a very important trick. Time is on their side.
The status quo is on their side. Opinion polls are on their side. History is on their side. The United Kingdom is staying in place. The Union is staying in place. There has never been a better time to unshackle themselves from the bonds of fear and paranoia and begin to behave like modern, confident political parties.
Stop talking about ‘the need to reach out beyond our traditional bases’ and actually do it. Reach out. Promote the Union and the collective benefits of the Union. Champion a vision of a Northern Ireland at peace with itself. Champion a pan-UK unionism which doesn’t give a damn about colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, economic background et al. The United Kingdom is a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural wonder: let’s be proud of that and champion that.
A close friend (from a small-n nationalist background) said to me almost 30 years ago: “Alex, I think I could be a unionist if it wasn’t for the unionist parties here.”
I knew exactly what he meant, because I have argued for years that unionists have often been their own worst enemies. We are not very good at making our own cause look attractive. Maybe it’s something to do with our Planter/Presbyterian/Paranoia make-up, but we don’t do the sort of sentimental, passionate, visionary stuff that wins people over. Instead, we like to spook ourselves and put the fear of God into believer and non-believer alike.
Those who believe in the Union need to give very serious consideration to their tactics and campaign: being a majority is not, in itself, enough anymore. We need new voices and new thinking. The Union and United Kingdom is much too important to be left to same-old, same-old unionism here. Happy new year!