Now that the independence referendum is over, several things need to happen.
The first is that we need to have a serious national conversation about what the Union is about, what are its advantages, and what are its shortcomings, and how these latter can be addressed. Despite the fact that Mr Salmond has hinted that this decision is but a staging post, the Prime Minister has told us that the decision is binding for a lifetime. No one can predict the future, but it would be helpful to all if we could accept that the Union is here to stay, and ask ourselves how we could make it better.
That the Union is not perfect is an obvious point. No human institution is perfect. This Union of ours is asymmetrical in structure, in that 85 per cent of the Union’s population lives in one of its countries, England. And it has another asymmetricality to it as well: Scotland has a degree of self-determination within the Union, as do Wales and Northern Ireland, that England is denied.
But these are structural and political problems, which can and should find solutions. Perhaps a Federal United Kingdom is the way forward. Belgium is a Federation. So is Germany. So is Switzerland. A Federal United Kingdom would require some big adjustments, not least, it seems to me, a federal parliament somewhere other than Westminster. But it could be done.
But the greater challenge, perhaps, is in making the cultural and moral case for Union. And it is here that the Church has its part to play. It is true that the Scottish bishops maintained a strictly neutral line before the referendum, and that was completely correct. It is true that the English and Welsh Bishops said nothing at all, which may also have been correct. But now perhaps is the time to show some leadership: we have a Union, at least for the foreseeable future, one that a convincing majority of Scots support. Now we need to show that this marriage is more than just a marriage of economic convenience. After all, the Church has long supported the European Union – why shouldn’t it support this much older, much more stable and enduring Union of ours?
The chief moral reason for supporting the Union is because we are committed to peace. In the not so remote past, England and Scotland were constantly at war, but the Union makes this unthinkable.
The second compelling reason is because bringing down borders, in many circumstances, is the right thing to do; putting them up is a recognition of defeat. Two democratic countries, that share a language, and many ties of blood and friendship, with a history of joint ventures going back 300 years (and very successful joint ventures too) should stay together. A border between us (apart from the notional border we have at present) is unthinkable, as it would mean a border between friends, families, and a border running right down the middle of people as well.
The third reason is because we support internationalism; this is not because we are Marxists who hold that that “the workers have no country”, though there may be some truth in that; it is rather because we are Christians and believe in the brotherhood of man, and we are Catholics, and believe in the universal destination of all goods. This land is a shared land, and to be shared by all, in equal measure. We don’t believe in aggressive territorialism.
One positive thing that has emerged in the referendum campaign, and may emerge further as the way the votes were distributed is pored over, is this question: how can we ensure fair shares for all? It is simply not true that the Union causes poverty north of the border or anywhere else. But it is true that poverty should be regarded as our primary challenge, wherever it is found in the United Kingdom.
We have, for better or worse, and I believe for better, a Union; now we need to strive for an ever more perfect Union.
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