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The Scottish Referendum

HMA Alex Ellis' speech

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


I want to thank Ambassador Castro Neves and CEBRI for hosting today’s event and to you all for attending. If you will excuse me, I will speak not in the language of Vinicius de Moraes but of Rod Stewart.

Next month one of the most anticipated events of 2014 in the UK will take place. The eyes of my own country, of Europe, the US indeed the whole world will be on Scotland, to watch the climax, after years of preparation and much debate, of a contest of strategy and tactics with only one winner. I can’t wait for the Ryder Cup.

Next month will also see another event in Scotland of, even to the greatest golf fanatic, deeper and longer significance. On 18 September a referendum will ask a simple question – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” to an electorate comprising most people over the age of 16 who live in Scotland. I, like most British citizens, will not have a vote. But I, like many Brits, will be affected by the outcome, for both personal and professional reasons. And the consequences of the vote will not be contained to the United Kingdom; they will ripple far and wide, including to Brazil and here to Rio.

I wanted to take the opportunity to talk to you about why I want the United Kingdom to remain together. I do so.

  • Firstly, as the British Ambassador, deeply proud to represent, support and celebrate all parts of the United Kingdom. And delighted that the civil service rules allow me to support, vocally, the British government‘s aim of keeping the UK united.

  • Secondly as a Brit, son of an English father and a Scottish mother, who spent all his childhood summers, and part of almost every summer holiday since, in Scotland; who looks every day in his office at a picture of the village of Plockton in northwest Scotland, as a reminder of long summer evenings by the water. A Brit who cheers Scotland for rugby and England for football, so I don’t do a lot of cheering. The only claim to sporting fame which my family has comes from Scotland. My grandfather played rugby for Scotland, albeit in a rather different time. Far from today’s fitness regimes, diets and sponsorship, it was only as my grandfather ran onto the pitch in Paris that the manager told him his position - “Stevenson, you’re hooking”.

  • Thirdly, speaking in a city with deep ties to the United Kingdom whilst sitting outside it.

My argument today is a simple one. The debate about Scottish independence is often characterised as a choice between the heart saying yes and the head saying no, between an exciting dream and cold reality, between the soul and the wallet. I reject that choice. If Scotland votes to keep the Union, as I hope it will, I don’t want that to be a dull, reluctant choice. I want it to be an affirmation of what is great about the Union. I want it to be the heart, as well as the head, saying yes to the United Kingdom.

But before the heart, let’s look at the head. It’s worth recalling the practical arguments for the Union. If independent, what currency would Scotland use? What would happen to the Scottish economy? To taxpayers in Scotland? The British government’s position is clear. The only way to keep the pound is to stay part of the UK. Every Scottish household is £2000 a year richer because Scotland is part of a borderless UK. By remaining part of the UK, people in Scotland will benefit by around £1,400 per person every year in lower taxes and sustained public spending.

A second set of arguments for the head are about Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the world, starting with the European Union. Would it be a member? If not, how would it join?

I worked for many years on EU issues, including the last large enlargement of the EU and in the office of the President of the European Commission. I was very interested in the comments of my old boss, Mr Barroso, who said that, I quote “it will be extremely difficult to get the approval of all the other member states to have a new member coming from one member state”.

All I would observe is that if Scotland became independent, it would have to apply for EU membership, and it would have to negotiate it. There is no guarantee that the outcome of that negotiation would give Scotland the benefits which British negotiators have won over many years for the United Kingdom - an opt out from the euro, a budget abatement worth billions, and an opt out from the rules on frontier checks.

And my experience from previous accession negotiations is that the countries inside hold the cards, not the countries outside. This point was put vividly by grandfather, who as well as being rugby player was a history teacher from an academic family, and thus was regarded with a certain caution by my grandmother’s family, who were business people, including in coal. My grandfather described the blazing coal fires in each of the big rooms in my grandmother’s family house, keeping the nip in the air at bay. In these rooms there were two rings of chairs, one near the fire, one further out. “And if you were on the inner ring it was warm. But if you were on the outer ring, it was damn cold”.

Looking beyond the EU, there is a wider point about Scotland and the UK’s relationship with the world. The UK has a unique role in world affairs which it uses to enhance the UK’s security and prosperity, promote its values and ensure the safety of its citizens abroad. People in Scotland benefit from the UK’s presence and strength, whilst having a devolved government in Edinburgh that is able to pursue the international aspects of its policies for Scotland alongside, and with, the support of, the British Government.

The UK’s diplomatic global network, of which I am part, represents Scotland worldwide, employing over 14,000 people in 267 Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates in 154 countries and 12 Overseas Territories around the world; including the Embassy in Brasilia, the Consulates in Sao Paulo, Recife and of course here in Rio, and the trade office in Porto Alegre, as well as a growing network of Honorary Consulates.

Part of that diplomatic effort is the promotion of businesses based in Scotland, which benefit from over 160 UK Trade and Investment offices in over 100 countries, including in Brazil and especially here in Rio.

Scotland benefits from the UK’s soft power. For examples in 2012, the British Council facilitated 1,000 international school partnership projects in Scotland. The UK’s international scholarship programmes such as the Foreign Office’s Chevening scholarships, which we plan to triple in Brazil, enables international students to study at Scottish universities. Indeed, Edinburgh has specific scholarships, under the Chevening scheme, for Brazilians who want to study there.

So much for the practical arguments. These are sound, but tend to be couched in negative terms – what Scotland would lose if it separated.

I would like to set out today the positive arguments for the Union; not about the potential losses of separation but the actual gains from being together. And for me these arguments are about identity.

My country, the United Kingdom, is what it says it is, a united kingdom, with that unity now over 3 centuries old, over a century longer than the existence of Brazil as an independent nation. It is a unity which has emerged through a slow, sometimes painful process of war and peace, of economic success and failure. It has evolved and adapted to changes in reality. It is a remarkable achievement of evolution and continuity.

It is a success because contained within British identity is internal diversity. Squeezed into a land roughly one sixtieth the size of Brazil is huge variety, of dress, customs, accent. You may take only a week to bicycle from its toe in Land’s End to its tip in John O’Groats, but on your way you will experience difference in topography, from the warm wet green hills of Devon to the bleak heathery mountains of The Highlands, shown behind me; difference in food and drink, from cider and clotted cream in the south west via the curries of Birmingham to the whisky streams of Speyside; difference in accent and style, from Liverpool to Edinburgh.

That is a diversity which I like, and like to represent. Diversity of identity is a strength, hard won and too precious to lose. It is a diversity which provides creativity, provides resilience, and provides opportunity. It is a diversity which is inclusive. Most of the 14% of the British population who are from ethnic minorities describe themselves as British, not English, not Scottish.

It’s a Union which is much the better for Scotland’s presence. Scots were central to the expansion of the United Kingdom in the 19th century, from David Livingstone’s decades of wandering through Africa to the adventures of Thomas Cochrane, Marques of Maranhao, in the Brazilian navy. Scots are central to the development of modern capitalism, from Adam Smith to the founders of the Hong Kong Shanghai bank. Scotland today provides athletes, chefs, politicians, singers even diplomats, from our Ambassador to Sweden to the FCO’s chief legal adviser, who bring great benefit to the United Kingdom, and the world. And, of course, it provides whisky. This last point is of relevance to us all and perhaps especially to our consulate in Recife, because I am told that Pernambuco has the highest consumption of Johnny Walker Red in the world.

This British diversity, rich with contributions from all parts of the United Kingdom, is one which the rest of the world finds admirable, intriguing and utterly confusing. I don’t blame them. How to explain a country which contains four different nations? To explain a country whose armed forces contain nationals from outside the United Kingdom? Which shares a Monarch with 15 other countries?

Given the many eccentricities of the United Kingdom, it is perhaps not surprising that so many Brazilians end up calling me English. I have lost count of the number of times I have corrected that I am not the Ambassador of “Inglaterra” but of the “Reino Unido”. Just for the record, I’m not English, I’m British, and I’m not the “Embaixador Ingles” but the “Embaixador Britanico”.

Despite the linguistic confusion, I think most Brazilians, most non Brits have an instinctive concept of the UK which is very much shared by all the nations in it; of rule of law and fair play, a distinctive sense of humour, respect for privacy and for difference, a sense of history mixed with an outward looking modernity. Each of these characteristics is not exclusively British but the combination of them somehow is; a strange amalgam of the Queen, David Bowie and Dr Who. And it’s attractive as well – Brazilian tourists to the UK have doubled in the last few years, with increasing numbers going outside London, Brazilian students now study in all parts of the UK.

Brits appear in different ways in the relationship between my country and Brazil. Let’s start with the most important part – football. Charles Miller, Charlie, was the son of a Scottish father and English mother, both resident in Brazil. The rule book he brought with him was that of the English Football Association, and he came to Brazil from the town of Southampton, in the south of England. So Charles Miller was a product of the United Kingdom and Brazil, not just of Scotland or England. There is no need to dwell on what happened to the fortunes of England, Scotland and Brazil in football after he landed here.

Turning to the modern day, one of the pillars of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Brazil is oil and gas. The discoveries of huge reserves of oil off the coast of Rio has presented a once in a generation opportunity for Brazil’s economic and social development, which British expertise is contributing to; from the huge firms such as BG, on its way to being the biggest single investor in Brazil, Shell through its participation in the latest pre salt exploration alongside its many existing activities, and BP, here for over 50 years; to the niche players who are transferring skills and technology in, for example, how to extract oil more efficiently from very deep water, how to extend the life of a deep well.

Much of this expertise is in Scotland, which is why I visited Aberdeen before I started this job. But it is spread around the UK, from Newcastle, in the North East of England, an important manufacturing hub; to the Midlands where Rolls Royce, a global player in the marine business, has its HQ; to the South West of England, the base for a number of firms working here in Rio. This is a British business effort, with expertise from all over the United Kingdom, and stronger together than apart.

There’s a link between business and a third pillar in the British-Brazil relationship – education. I have already mentioned the 1000s of Brazilian students going to the UK. Many of the British firms in Brazil are supporting education, from the researchers who will be guided from BG’s new technology centre here in Rio to the apprentices at GKN’s factory in Porto Alegre. Linked to this, many British Universities are investing in Brazil. Edinburgh University has opened an office here, Birmingham and Nottingham have large and growing links with Brazilian Universities. All this supports Brazil’s economic and social transformation. And it is British support, not English or Scottish; and, again, stronger for being together than apart.

These stories of history, business, education are true not just for Brazil but for many countries around the globe. The great internationalisation has been British, not English or Scottish. It is Britain, and Britishness, which is recognised all over the world.

Let me return to my start. Could some of what I have described – on education, trade, culture - exist without the United Kingdom? It probably could; but in a less effective way and, importantly to me, in a much less appealing form; narrower, less diverse, frankly less fun. For such a stable, tolerant, outward looking country to split sends exactly the wrong signal to a world where, elsewhere, risks abound of new barriers, narrower identities and disintegration.

A final, more personal point about identity. I said at the start I am British. But what am I if Scotland were to become independent? I want to be British, not Scottish or English. I like being British. It’s part of who I am, a life lived in many different places but with a clear national identity, recognised and, in general, admired in every country where I have made my home.

We will see what happens on 18 September. I hope, for personal and professional reasons that the United Kingdom stays together. Whatever the result of the referendum, I admire how my country can deal with this issue in such a calm, fair, mature way. It is proof of the depth of democratic maturity of the United Kingdom . The British ability to face up to big, difficult questions is one I hope we will always keep. So I hope that Scotland says yes to the Union. And I also look forward to a victory in the Ryder Cup.

Alex Ellis, Rio de Janeiro, 19 August 2014

Published 19 August 2014