In some ways, the Scottish referendum is already lost – in spirit if not in letter – for the Unionist cause. Whatever the result on September 18, the wind is in the sails of nationalism. From a standing start of plateaued support, Alex Salmond has dragged the Scottish people into a photo-finish; that lends him and his vision for Scotland victory whatever the outcome. The British state has failed to make its case. Instead it has leaked support. The only question now is whether it has lost enough to sound its own death knell immediately or whether this will be a longer, more drawn out passing.
This makes me enormously sad and makes me hope – unusual for me – that I am wrong. How I pray that the results proper utterly belie recent polling, that the Nationalist cause will have been beaten back to its long-standing niche of around a third of Scots. That the country in which I was born, and which I love, will rise unexpectedly with a last great roar and assert its power over hearts and minds. If Salmond is beaten by a healthy enough margin to set back independence indefinitely – say, by 55% to 45% – I will be ecstatic to have been proven such a panicking and useless pundit.
Mind you, I would hope that readers would forgive my losing of my head. After all, all about are losing theirs. What other explanation for the Westminster parties’ sudden rush to promise yet more devolution to Holyrood if only the Scots will stay with us? This week the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems will commit to new tax, welfare and employment powers for the Scottish Parliament in what the First Minister has described as a ‘bribe’.
I agree with Salmond. A bribe is precisely what this is, and a foolish one at that. The Westminster elite, suddenly faced with the impending destruction of our country, are desperate. Like a soon-to-be abandoned spouse they offer up endless promises of what it will be like if only their partner will stay; like that spouse, some of those promises are an illusion because the sacrifices offered will make things worse in the long-term, not better. It may be the case that the offer of ‘devo-max’ powers will sway enough voters to keep Scotland with us, for now. But more devolution to Holyrood will not solve the radical growing apart that has led us to this moment, where separation is so real and vicious a possibility. It will make that gulf between us wider.
Why has it proven so hard for the Better Together campaign to galvinise positive, enthusiastic and optimistic support for our union? Why has so much of their argument focused narrowly, bitterly, on the apocalyptic consequences for Scots of venturing out alone? Why does Alastair Darling spend his Today programme interviews and debates with the First Minister muttering darkly about currency markets and depleted oil reserves? Because there’s nothing else to say. We have eroded the shared, common political life of the United Kingdom to such an extent – hollowed out our country so much – that we find it now lacks a compelling foundation. It is a roof over Scots heads but not a family home. Tony Blair thought giving Scottish people a Parliament with powers would answer the independence question once and for all, instead it begged it. And all we have left to say is that it’s mighty cold outside.
The same goes, sadly, for us the English. Our political life is not as one with the Scots – there is so much more in the way of institutions and experiences that we do not share. Of course, to some extent this has always been the case. Scotland has always had a parallel legal system and different schooling, for example. But the culture of public services has fundamentally changed here – and not there – in a way that estranges us. England’s NHS, police forces, schools system, university funding model – all of it has undergone revolution: Both of the Blairite and the Cameroon variety. Scotland has been allowed to go a different path, to engrain a different culture; our institutions have less and less in common. The one area where union is vital and our experiences, needs and interests have remained aligned in the normal way of a state is in defence. Problems such as the irreversible, devastating impact of separation on our nuclear deterrent is, sadly, unlikely to stir the people of England to the streets.
That steady twin evolution of our interactions with the state makes it hard to speak honestly about unity. We allowed, back in the nineties, for the idea that Scotland could not be expected to bend to the overall democratic consensus of the UK. And in doing so we removed one of the great, moral defences of the British state. The Conservative Party is unpopular in Scotland, in part, because starved of Scottish members it has struggled to speak articulately about the emerging differences in expectation and experience in different parts of our Kingdom. Of course Thatcherism damaged Toryism north of Hadrian’s wall, but the scar tissue continues to impede: A party mostly English in experience is blind to the way in which new, different taboos and rules have developed elsewhere. The reason for the Conservative Party’s failings in Scotland is not that there are not Scots on the right, but that we have been guilty of talking about a different country and presuming that it bears a close enough resemblance to theirs to pass muster.
All of that difference will only get worse if we throw more powers at Holyrood as a reward for a ‘no’ vote. And we will reap the consequences. In ten years, maybe more maybe less, when the question of independence comes up once more we will have even fewer arguments in our armoury. How will we explain the benefits of staying with us once even the pensions are paid out from Edinburgh, when the welfare state is not a shared resource but a fractured one, when Westminster does next-to-nothing worth mentioning besides keeping a few rusty subs in the Firth of Clyde? These promises may scrape us a win in the battle but they will lose us the war in the long-run.
Instead we need something truly radical. We need the British state to equip itself with a reason to exist. There is no going back on the devolution that has happened, but now we must embark on a programme of nation-building here at home. There are spaces where a shared identity might be forged – in new infrastructure on a massive and cross border scale, perhaps – and we must identify and exploit them. It may cost us money, and it may be more complicated and less immediately popular than giving up, but a concerted effort is required if the Union is to survive the damage this referendum has already done. If, God willing, Britain is given a glimmer of a second chance on September 18 the answer will not be sigh with relief and hand over the keys to yet more areas of Government – that way eventual disaster lies. Instead we must assert a role and a reason for Westminster and for the UK. Before the question is popped again, as it will inevitably be.
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