Welcome to the London base of the Scotland Office, and, before the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Office. In a dimly lit corridor downstairs hang the portraits of my predecessors.
Highlighting that this has been the political home of Scots in London for generations. Not only for ministers from the UK government and our Scottish government colleagues, who have rooms downstairs…
…but also for countless Parliamentarians, Scottish journalists, business leaders and others who have graced the many events in these magnificent surroundings over the past century.
To this day it remains a ‘network hub’ for Scots in London, somewhere that we can promote all that is best about Scotland and tackle the Scottish dimensions of the major issues of the day. But for all that, it may be regarded as a slightly curious place to host a speech on Scotland, some 300 or so miles from the epicentre of the ‘great debate’ that is shaping our future as a nation.
However, as someone who is extraordinarily proud to be Scottish, it is not such a stretch. As I will hope to establish over the next 20 minutes or so.
The choice before us
In 2 years time, when Scots are faced with the choice about whether to leave the UK family or to remain within it, we want to make the decision in light of all the available facts. It is the most important collective decision people in Scotland have ever been asked to take. There are many questions to ask and answers to give on the potential impact of such a radical and irreversible move. So we’ll want to get the arguments sorted. People will want to know where Scotland would fit in a fast-moving, globalised world.
What level of defence and security we would build for ourselves and use to the benefit of others. And what the economic impact would be - both the costs and the opportunities - for Scottish business, and Scotland’s families, in setting up a new and separate state. These issues - and many more - will be debated in the months and years ahead. Indeed, this ‘great debate’ is already under way.
Nationhood and statehood
But the First Minister said something interesting back in July about the nature of the decision that we as Scots will take about our future in 2014. He said that, for him, the key driver of his support for independence was not the economy, but rather about Scotland’s sense of itself as a nation, and that nations always do better when they are independent countries. I am not convinced that the majority of Scots share this view. For many Scots - most Scots - I don’t think that their primary consideration for the future is a sense of nationhood unfulfilled.
Most people I speak to are more preoccupied with the daily concerns that confront individuals, families and communities throughout Scotland and, indeed, all of the UK:
- is my kid’s job safe and my standard of living secure, at a time of financial turbulence?
- is the country generating the cash we need to pay for our schools, hospitals and roads?
- are my monthly bills going to keep rising, and is my rent or mortgage affordable?
These are certainly the issues that concern the people I meet and talk to and keep the UK government focussed in its day to day work. And I believe that for people throughout Scotland, these, and other aspects of the quality of their life, will be of central importance when they decide how to vote in the independence referendum:
- will my family, my community, be safer, stronger, more prosperous within the United Kingdom family or outwith it?
My own view is clear - to coin a phrase, we are better together, staying within the family.
But the First Minister’s comments back in the summer did identify something fundamental to the thinking of those who advocate independence. For them, there is a point of principle that as a nation, separate statehood is, per se, a necessity for Scotland to reach its potential. This evening, I would like to look more closely at that claim.
Acknowledging, as the pro-UK side of this debate must, that identity plays an important part in our argument; that this debate is a matter of the heart as well as of the head.
And being clear that the emotional aspect cuts both ways and is not the reserve of nationalists alone. I want to explore this in very personal terms - not simply as a Scottish politician, privileged to be at the centre of the constitutional debate. But as a Scot with my own sense of national identity and how that shapes the Scotland where I want to live and live with my family. So this evening I will talk about what nationhood and national identity means to me. And how that informs my choice about Scotland’s future.
The Scottish nation - who we are
So who are the Scots… and what is this nation of ours?
This question - examined by so many learned thinkers and academics down the years - is pretty tough. For some people, our nation’s identity is shaped by our land. From the standing stones in the Northern Isles, past the grandeur of our cities’ Georgian and Victorian terraces to the uplands of southern Scotland - the ‘debateable lands’, where once the writ of kings, whether in Edinburgh or London, barely ran. For others it is about our national experience.
The Declaration of Arbroath, the Reformation, the Clearances. Stirling Bridge, Bannockburn, Flodden and Culloden. And for many more it is about the rich variety of our cultural life. The languages we use - Gaelic, Scots, English. The pipe bands and silver bands, the clarsach and fiddle, the poetry and the prose. The sporting triumphs, and more recent defeats, of our national sides at rugby, football and so much more.
All manner of things - geography, history, politics, religion, philosophy, values, scientific invention, art, literature, music, sport and so much more - all of these meld to give us an individual and a collective sense of what it means to be a Scot.
We are all fascinated by this sense of nation - we take it apart, explain it, rationalise it. We have the odd argument along the way.
My experience of Scottish life is that the ties that bind us are strong and enduring. We have a clear sense of self, of identity, and of nation. But we don’t need to be, or stay, north of the border to feel it. Or require newcomers to share every last aspect of it. To be Scottish is a fact of your life or, just as validly, a very personal choice - Scottishness is inclusive, not exclusive.
As many ‘new Scots’, like the former asylum seekers, who played football in a forest clearing near Selkirk, as part of this summer’s ‘Cultural Olympiad’, would attest. As would the young kids and local families, who cheered them on, some of whom might trace their family history all the way back to the Borders raiding families of the middle ages.
They’re Scots one and all.
National identity and independence
Which leads me to ask, in the context of nationhood, what extra purpose independence would serve?
After more than 300 hundred years within the United Kingdom, our Scottish identity has not withered. On the contrary, it has flourished.
Within the UK family our institutions have remained - Scottish education, the Scottish legal system, the Church of Scotland. Our culture has thrived - with the advance of Scottish folk music and contributions to every musical genre, old and new. An artistic tradition that has taken in Raeburn, the Glasgow Boys and Bellany, one of whose works is on the wall behind me to the left. And a fine Scottish literary tradition spanning Burns, Scott and Grassic Gibbon through to Gray, Kelman, and of course, J K Rowling.
Our social and political values remain resonant in a partnership of nations. Where the Claim of Right was received with acclaim. Where the Scottish Parliament was demanded and re-established. And where the devolution settlement continues to strengthen and evolve so that the domestic issues that impact on Scots lives can be settled closer to the people. This is hardly a nation oppressed or held back. This is a nation whose identity thrives and whose sovereignty of the people has been reinforced by its 2 governments working together to make sure the referendum on independence takes place.
And it will.
In the old days opponents of independence decried Scotland’s place in the world - the country was ‘too wee, too poor, too far away’. That is not the approach of this government: we are making the positive case for our partnership of nations. But there should be a symmetry here on the other side of the argument. In the old days, we could only rise and be a nation again through independence. That, too, is an obsolete argument. And insulting to many, who are proudly Scottish. Or comfortable living in Scotland, while proud of feeling some other national identity.
There is no need for anyone to feel insecure about Scotland’s identity, place or position. We don’t need Scotland to become a separate state to prove things either to ourselves or to others. But I believe that, if we did choose that path, something - something important - would be lost forever.
The British nation - who we are
Most of us north of the border say that we are Scottish first and British second. And that makes complete sense. Most people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own versions of this layered, multi-dimensional identity.
But British identity does exist.
300 hundred years of history shouldn’t be worn lightly, then discarded casually. Not when so much has happened down the centuries to bind us together. Most Scots wear their British identity with comfort and ease. And it is a very good fit. We can take an historical tour to remind ourselves:
- the growth of empire, which allowed generations of Scots to found businesses, forge trading links and finance the growth of Scotland’s cities
- the armed forces, where, under the Union Flag and other colours, flags and pennants, Scots played their role in 2 world wars, countless other campaigns, and interventions to protect civilians from Kosovo to Afghanistan
- the global platform, on which Scots have stood - as British prime ministers, chancellors, or leaders of international organisations; or as financiers, exporters, scientists and explorers
But I don’t want simply to play you ‘Britain’s Greatest Hits - the Scottish remix’. I want us to recognise that our identity within Britain remains strong to this day.
How we flourish
There is no physical border separating Scotland from the rest of the UK. There are hard-to-miss signs on the trunk roads. More subtle changes of road surface on the others. Nature plays its part - and there is no more majestic entrance to Scotland than at the Carter Bar, 10 miles south of Jedburgh. While the River Tweed does its job to mark the boundary for the last few miles on the run in to Berwick.
But the dotted line on the map which separates Scotland from England is, for the most part, a conceptual rather than a real dividing line. When Hadrian ordered the creation of a physical dividing line, he didn’t just lock out the Scots, but the northern English, too. Nobody else has ever been quite as bold.
And when it comes to the economy, cultural and social life of this country, I believe that, far from borders being built up, any remaining divisions are eroding over time. In Scotland today we export twice as many goods and services to the rest of the UK as we do to the rest of the world combined. Nearly three quarters of Scottish imports come from the rest of the UK. And companies owned elsewhere in the UK employ a fifth of all Scottish workers and contribute to about a quarter of total business turnover in Scotland. In terms of everyday cultural experience, we share so much in common.
In the BBC we have a cherished national institution, however challenged it has been recently, with BBC Scotland and BBC Alba catering for our national and more local interests across Scotland. We have fantastic universities in Scotland, born out by 22,000 English students who choose to study at them. And Scotland had more than its Barnett share of medallists at this summer’s London 2012 Olympic Games. An occasion on which all parts of our United Kingdom jumped to their feet to cheer on Team GB. And we’ll enjoy the sporting sequel at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, even if our loyalties will be more divided.
But its in the family sphere that British identity is written into our DNA. The UK is a huge family: we’ve gone from 1707 when just 3% of the Scottish population had English relatives to around 50% today. And we are a nation on the move. More than 450,000 people living in Scotland today were born in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. And more than 830,000 born in Scotland now live in other parts of the UK. And in 2011 there were nearly 7 million trips made to Scotland from the rest of the UK, compared with about 2.5 million made from overseas, reinforcing the close bonds of business, friendship and family.
My own story is a case in point - I am a proud Scot whose family is a very British story. My parents are from Northern Ireland. I was born there but my family moved to Inverness when I was just a toddler and I have lived in Scotland ever since. My 2 younger sisters were born and raised in Scotland but now live in England. My wife was born and brought up in England but now lives happily in Scotland. My young daughter is being raised to be proud of her Scottish identity and also proud of her British heritage. I believe that this is the reality for most families and I also firmly believe that most people in Scotland are secure in our own identity and nationhood without having to leave the United Kingdom to prove it.
I don’t feel I have anything to prove - and I don’t think anyone else in Scotland should either. Millions of us who consider ourselves Scots don’t need a legal frontier to establish our identity. We don’t need to leave the United Kingdom, which we help to shape, to be Scottish.
We are Scottish, and British, and we are proud of it.
And happy to enter the debate on independence on that basis.