published on 17 September 2014
When I first got married back in 1985 (just a few years after Charles and Diana), most of my friends went to great lengths to ask me if I was concerned about the fact that ‘one in three marriages end in divorce’. At the time I felt it was a strange thing to ask a soon-to-be newly-wed, and I simply shrugged it off. History in those past thirty years has told us that even the marriages of the great and good (including royals) can end in tears and break-ups, and new found independence.
David Cameron took the trouble to fly up to Aberdeen last night and ask me to consider the union between Scotland and England (and Wales and Northern Ireland) as a sort of marriage. I am a Scottish voter, and so I presume I was one of the people he was addressing.
This is a decision that could break up our family of nations, and rip Scotland from the rest of the UK.
Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, different nations, with individual identities competing with each other even at times enraging each other while still being so much stronger together. We are a family of nations.
It was an interesting metaphor to use in the context. If we think that he could have chosen any form of rhetoric, he could have emphasised an economic or rational case for continuing the partnership. His choice was instead to put the relationship in very personal, and indeed gendered terms. He took the role of the wounded husband, pleading with his wife to stay together ‘for the sake of the kids’ and for ‘all that we’ve been through’. After all:
…we built this home together.
But as with Cameron’s Britain, families are largely shaped by power, and the functionality of the family is the product of how that power is exercised.
A family is rarely based on egalitarianism, in most cases there are one or more dominant members, usually the parents. From the reports of Cameron’s speech, it is not quite clear in this case exactly ‘who is the daddy?’. But in the long ‘family’ history there is one member whose behaviour has been of particular concern. England has always been the dominant partner, as evidenced most obviously by the location of the Parliament and central government of this ‘family of nations’.
However, for Cameron
A family is not a compromise, or a second best, it is a magical identity, that makes us more together than we can ever be apart, so please – do not break this family apart.
The optimistic vision is of our family of nations staying together, there for each other in the hard times, coming through to better times.
What Cameron failed to say, however, is that in modern Britain the odds of a successful marriage have drifted out even further than they were in my youth. According to the Office of National Statistics, the data from the 2013 census in England and Wales now shows 42% of marriages ending in divorce.
As we are all truly aware, divorce is now mainstream – almost as many marriages fail as succeed.
On top of that, of course, there is the issue of what takes place within the family itself. For many, the family is a safe and loving social unit (the ‘magical entity’), even if it is eventually soured by divorce.
But we should not forget the fact that the family may often be the location of violence and abuse, particularly directed by the dominant (usually male) partner against the other (usually female) partner and their children.
According to Women’s Aid in 2011/12
31% women and 18% men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 years.
This amounts to 5 million women and 2.9 million men…
In 2011/12, the police reported nearly 800,000 incidents of domestic violence.
On average 2 women a week are killed by a male partner or former partner: this constitutes around one-third of all female homicide victims.
There are around 500,000 victims of sexual assault each year, 85%-90% of whom are women.
56% [of the perpetrators of the most serious sexual offences against women] were partners/ex-partners.
And according to the NSPCC, in 2011
Five per cent of under 11s, 13.4 per cent of 11-17s and 14.5 per cent of 18-24s had experienced severe maltreatment [including sexual abuse] by a parent or guardian during their childhood
So where does that leave Cameron’s emotional appeal to the magical ‘family of nations’?
Is the United Kingdom a ‘Disney family’, with its ups and down, but where all-will-be-well before the credits role at the end?
Or is it something closer to the abusive or dysfunctional reality that exists outside of this nostalgic bubble?
It is important, of course, to remember that the act of saying a family is loving and happy does not mean it necessarily is. And quite obviously if one of the partners is on the verge of ‘walking out the door’ (to use Cameron’s own phrase) there is clearly something going wrong.
It is hard to avoid the metaphor of England (that largest and most populous nation of the United Kingdom, and therefore the ‘dominant’ partner) as an abusive husband and father. This is not necessarily the case, but there are strong grievances in Scotland (and in other places) that the relationship has not been (and still is not) a positive or healthy one.
There is no simple narrative here – the experience of being Scottish in the United Kingdom is extremely varied. We can do no justice to that by trying to simplify it to the extreme of saying we are one big happy family.
Most chillingly Cameron warned that
Independence would not be a trial separation, it would be a painful divorce.
The separating out of Scotland from the United Kingdom will not be an easy process. The warning is that (like an awkward ex) England would make that process as difficult as possible.
Many of us have been there, done that, and wondered if it was worth it. Only to remember that the painful divorce was the less bad option, it was the alternative to staying in a more painful marriage.
And that is perhaps the biggest weakness of Cameron’s argument. We should no longer assume that divorce is the ‘nuclear’ option. Divorce is the mainstream. We are used to living with families that are separated and blended.
And most of us are thankful that abused wives and children are no longer obliged to put up with the abusive father, as would have been the only option in the 1950s family Cameron is pointing us back to.
If we want to see our national politics in familial terms, then we should feel quite alright about doing it in a twenty-first century manner. No divorce is painless, but very often it is what the individuals want.
In truth, if the 18 September vote has a ‘Yes’ majority, and Scotland chooses for itself to ‘leave’ the family of Great Britain, it will do so as a young adult seeking their own independence, and not because of any marital breakdown.
That is in itself an emotional time for all involved, but the family is not ‘broken’ by the change. Scotland will remain part of Britain, and England should learn to live more easily with itself and its grown up ‘family’.
(Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia, reproduced under Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0)