February 6, 2014 3:27 pm

The English make the case for the break-up of Britain

Where is the admission that England has something to lose from Scotland’s departure?

To understand why Scotland might soon vote for independence one has only to listen to the way the English talk about the 307-year-old union at the heart of the United Kingdom. The dominant strand of English opinion says that Scotland would drown in the attempt to go it alone. Instead of seeking separation, Scotland should count its blessings for England’s unbounded generosity.

Eight months ahead of a referendum that could presage the break-up of the UK, opinion polls say most Scots may indeed decide to play it safe. The headline figures suggest only a third are committed to independence. Closer examination of public sentiment, however, indicates that among those who say they are certain to vote in September about 40 per cent back independence; and the trend has been in the direction of the nationalists.

Tune in from Edinburgh or Glasgow to the conversation in London and it is not difficult to see why Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National party, still hopes to lead his country to independence. From the Labour left to the Conservative right, self-proclaimed English unionists hum the same insulting tune: outside the union Scotland’s future would be one of impoverished irrelevance.

The UK Treasury has led the charge with a stream of purportedly objective studies suggesting that the Scottish economy would be brought to its knees were it to turn its back on the union. Public spending would have to be slashed and taxes raised to make up for the loss of fiscal transfers from London. The financial services industry would take fright and flee southwards. The Scottish economy would become less competitive and less efficient, cutting living standards and discouraging investment. And, in case the Scots have not got the message, the rest of the UK might refuse the currency union promised by Mr Salmond.

The Ministry of Defence has weighed in with a warning that Scotland would be stripped of its security in an ever more dangerous world. The Foreign Office pipes up that other EU nations would certainly delay and might block Scottish membership of the European club. Even Mark Carney, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, has been conscripted to the cause, journeying north to warn that if Scotland wanted to keep sterling it would have to surrender sovereignty over fiscal policy.

There is merit in many of these arguments. Mr Salmond is the big beast of British politics – the most accomplished retail politician anywhere on the island. His stirring oratory and formidable presence are not invariably matched by attention to important detail. He is untroubled by contradictions. Confronted with the complexities of, say, a banking union, he offers a careless shrug that says “trust me ... we can sort all that out after the vote”.

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Measured against the effort to frighten the Scots into voting No, however, Mr Salmond’s optimism is beguiling. The SNP has discarded narrow, anti-English nationalism in favour of an expansive view of Scotland’s role as a small and open European nation. This brand of nationalism does not demand rupture with England, but asks for a relationship of equals between good neighbours.

Many Scots will have noticed the contrast with an England turning in on itself – a nation gripped by moral panic over immigration, lashed to the mast of perpetual austerity and, if David Cameron’s Conservatives have their way, quite likely to turn its back on the wider world by pulling out of the EU. This England veers between patronising Scotland and saying good riddance.

With the Tories in the ascendant, English politics collides with the broadly social democratic consensus in Edinburgh. The SNP wants to attract more smart students and skilled workers from overseas; the UK government is locking them out. Mr Salmond spies opportunity in Europe, the English see conspiracies.

It is no accident that Mr Cameron has absented himself from the campaign. Mr Salmond views the prime minister as his best recruiting sergeant. What do the Tories promise for a second term? More cuts in public services, a bar on immigrants and a vote on leaving the EU. This is not Scotland’s agenda.

As someone born in London of Irish, Welsh and Scottish ancestry, I earnestly hope that Scotland decides to stay in the union. Both nations are enriched – culturally, politically and socially as well as economically – by the marriage. In a world of disappearing borders and of waning European influence, it makes sense to stick together.

The case for Scotland remaining part of the UK is not much different from that of British membership of the EU. Much of what passes among nationalists as precious national sovereignty is notional.

Where, though, in all the Whitehall propaganda is the admission that England has something to lose from Scotland’s departure? Where is the tribute to the Scots who have played a disproportionately important role in UK politics and public policy, in the armed forces and diplomatic and intelligence services and in the economic and cultural life of England? Or is it simply too obvious that England’s voice in the world would be greatly diminished by the break-up of the union?

Whatever the vote in September, Scotland cannot indefinitely be cowed. The long-term answer is a looser partnership – a federation, for want of a better word – that respects the wish of the Scots to hold sway over their domestic affairs yet embraces the reciprocal gains from the union. In the absence of such an offer, were I a Scot I would cast my vote for Mr Salmond.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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Letter in response to this column:

Salmond for PM – of united kingdom

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