October 24, 2011 10:10 pm

Little England: Britain sleepwalks towards break-up

The argument about the union binding Scotland to England has been recast. Will they be together in 15 years? Don’t bet on it

Alex Salmond addressed the Scottish National party’s  annual conference the other day. Few beyond Scotland will have noticed. That is a pity. As David Cameron’s Conservatives resume their obsessive debate about leaving Europe, Mr Salmond is advancing Scotland’s departure from Britain.

North and south of the border with England, the SNP leader is a grown-up among adolescents. Alone among Britain’s party leaders, he has the confidence and guile to change the political weather. As Scotland’s first minister he is running rings around unionist opponents in Edinburgh and Westminster.

Mr Cameron is comfortable in 10 Downing Street. Labour’s Ed Miliband is settling in for what could be an uncomfortably long spell as opposition leader. Nick Clegg has lost the haunted expression he wore during the Liberal Democrats’ first year in coalition. These are not leaders, though, who rewrite the terms of political debate.

Mr Salmond is in a different class. You don’t have to like or agree with him to acknowledge he has recast the argument about the 300-year-old union binding Scotland to England. Will Scotland still be tied to its southern neighbour in, say, 15 years hence? I wouldn’t bet on it.

At the very least, the SNP is leading Scotland to self-rule in all but foreign affairs – an autonomy comparable to that enjoyed by Catalonia. Many will think this is no bad thing – for the English or the Scots. But surely the relationship is worthy of serious discussion across Britain? It would be curious were the union to sleepwalk towards break-up.

Unionists are doing their best to assist Mr Salmond. The voting system for the Edinburgh parliament was designed to prevent the SNP from ever winning a governing majority. Mr Salmond has now secured just such a position. The electoral checks and balances failed to anticipate the self-destructive capacity of the unionist parties.

The rot began to set in for Conservatives, of course, during Margaret Thatcher’s heyday. But the big failure since has been the Scottish Tories’ unwillingness to adjust to devolution. Decisions about health, education and welfare – things that matter to voters – are now taken in Edinburgh. Tories invite the charge of irrelevance by talking about nothing but the union.

Labour has been laid low by hubris. Gordon Brown saw Scotland as a personal fiefdom. It sustained Labour’s (disproportionately Scottish) politicians at Westminster. The party’s best and brightest from north of the border would not waste their time in local politics when they could play on a British stage.

Unsurprisingly, Scottish voters have woken up to the insult. Why should they back a party that treats their parliament as a parish council? Even now, leading Scottish Labour figures such as Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander prefer opposition at Westminster to a shot at the top job in Edinburgh.

The Lib Dems are paying a price for throwing in their lot with Mr Cameron. Mr Clegg wants to show that the party can shoulder responsibility at Westminster. A noble ambition. But there are better ways to win friends in Scotland.

None of this is to deny Mr Salmond’s achievement in taking nationalism from the margins to the mainstream of Scottish politics. Not too long ago much of polite society in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen saw the SNP as a collection of leftish cranks. Now it has begun to look like the party of the establishment.

This is not to say the business and professional classes have embraced separatism. My Scottish friends always draw an important distinction. They can vote for the SNP in Scotland while backing unionist parties in British general elections. Mr Salmond cannot be sure of winning if the choice posed in his promised referendum is a straightforward one between the status quo and independence.

Now, though, we know that there will be a third option. Mr Salmond used his conference speech to throw his weight behind a three-question plebiscite – with the third option providing for what is called “devolution max”. The implication is that the return to Scotland of full control over the economy, spending, taxation and borrowing would represent a moderate third way.

It would be nothing of the sort. Devolution max would put Scotland on the threshold of independence. It would demand a rewriting of the constitutional settlement that would inevitably leave many Scots asking why not independence. The fact that such an arrangement is presented as a “sensible compromise” speaks to Mr Salmond’s political genius in reframing the debate.

For many in Mr Cameron’s party, however, it seems that severing ties with Brussels is more important than preserving them with Edinburgh. Before they know it, the sceptics may find themselves demanding England’s rather than Britain’s departure from the European Union. Perhaps they will call themselves Little Englanders.

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