We have won a reprieve – we should use it to refurbish the British state

Image of Philip Stephens

Think of it as a reprieve. Scotland has reaffirmed its Britishness. Politicians and business leaders, friends and allies, have thanked the Scots for their wisdom. Alex Salmond, Scottish National party leader, has announced he will resign as first minister; David Cameron remains safe, for now, in Downing Street. This vote for the union, though, was strictly conditional. Its meaning will endure only if it produces a fresh political settlement that recasts the contours of the British state.

Britain has spent the past half-century worrying about its relative decline in the world. Each new prime minister grapples with the question posed by former American statesman Dean Acheson in a wounding aside about Britain’s search for a post-imperial role.

Events in Scotland these past few years have been a wake-up call. Britain’s prestige and influence, and its capacity to pursue its interests abroad, cannot be separated from the way it governs itself. Nothing, after all, would diminish Britain more than its break-up.

Edinburgh in recent days has been filled to the brim with foreign journalists: American and Japanese, Slovakian and Czech, Spanish and Indian. North Korea has shown an interest. A Scottish politician told me that Barack Obama has sent operatives from the CIA. I am not sure he was joking. Only China stayed away – obsessed as it is by the threat from its own secessionists. A Chinese friend said the referendum had been hardly reported in the domestic media. Out of sight, out of mind.

The journalists were there to witness what might have been an act of wanton self-destruction that would have given Acheson his answer: a broken Britain no longer had a role. As it was, 55 per cent backed the union against the 45 per cent who wanted Scotland to go it alone.

So the palpable relief on the morning after was not hard to explain. Of course, those who had campaigned for independence were disappointed, deeply so. Yet even among these Yes voters you find some who admit it would have been a dangerous leap into the dark.

Scotland has been spared the political upheaval and economic recession that would surely have followed an unprepared lurch to independence. On the very eve of the vote the SNP could still not answer the most basic of questions about the economic management, security and foreign policy of the new state.

Britain has held on to its most precious commodity, Britishness – an inclusive identity that had united four proud nations in shared endeavour. The secessionists demanded that voters choose between their British and Scottish identities. A majority decided that they would prefer to keep both.

There were moments during the campaign when it seemed it might be otherwise. The darkest came only two weeks ago when the polls showed the Yes camp pulling ahead. One senior No figure recalls that it felt for a time as if Scotland had fallen into a fever. People stopped listening to rational argument, preferring the raw emotional pull of nationalism. Such is the force of populist politics grounded in identity and grievance.

Perhaps, though, Mr Salmond overplayed his hand. The ugly tactics of abuse and intimidation deployed by a sizeable minority of separatists – unionists were labelled traitors and worse – may have worked against them. It looks as if the absence of No posters in sitting room windows understated the grit of those backing Scotland’s place in the UK.

The rest of Britain – and England, above all – has been spared the profound shock and humiliation that would have greeted the loss of 30 per cent of the UK’s land mass and nearly 10 per cent of its population. The impact would have been psychological as well as political and economic. “What are we to think,” one US official remarked before the votes were counted, “of an ally that cannot even keep itself together?”

The powerful interventions of Gordon Brown, a Scot and Mr Cameron’s predecessor as UK prime minister, were a reminder that the history, institutions and culture have never been the sole property of the English. The Enlightenment was led by Scots. What was it George Bernard Shaw said? “God help England if she had no Scots to think for her.”

So what of the political refurbishment now required to return this 307-year-old enterprise to health? Wisdom begins with a recognition that the independence campaign harnessed an impulse reaching beyond any loathing for Westminster or Braveheart romanticism. The demand for closer, more accountable government spanned the Yes-No divide. This is ground being tilled by populist movements across Europe.

In the end, the unionists won by promising that Scotland could have both: a stronger parliament at Holyrood equipped with the vital powers to tax and spend alongside the solidarity and security afforded by its Britishness.

And why not? The pledges of more devolution made by the politicians at Westminster should now be redeemed with enthusiasm rather than with the resentment that has crept into the discourse of English Tories. Devolution in Scotland makes the case for more democracy in England. Wales, too, has need of more self-rule. The mistake would be to see constitutional fiddling as a substitute for the remedies needed to answer popular disenchantment.

Mr Cameron is right to say a more powerful Holyrood will require adjustment in the way Westminster MPs vote on Westminster legislation. England has its own narrow nationalists in the guise of the United Kingdom Independence party. Mr Salmond has channelled Scottish disenchantment towards Westminster; Nigel Farage, the UKip leader, finds his enemy in Brussels but he will doubtless seek to exploit Tory divisions about the terms of Scottish devolution.

Scotland’s decision must be a catalyst for a shake-up in the governance of Britain that reaches well beyond the details of the division of power between London and Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. What is needed is a fundamental disavowal of the mindset that has created a centralised, Napoleonic state unique among modern European democracies.

This is the suffocating state that allows a third-rate minister in London to tell politicians running great English cities such as Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester not just precisely how much money they can spend but – and I am not exaggerating – how often to collect household garbage.

Britain does not fit any classic template for federal government. England is too preponderant to allow for a neat reallocation of authority among nations and regions. It will have to live with such awkwardnesses but they are trivial against the iron grip of a Treasury in London determined to smother local democracy by setting Liverpool’s budget for paper clips.

Mr Cameron says he wants a revival of local democracy. Much more important than an arid debate about who votes when at Westminster would be the restoration to the cities, towns and shires of England of the control over local revenues and spending that was taken from them when Margaret Thatcher introduced her madcap poll tax. At a stroke that would do more to re-engage English voters than any manner of schemes for regional assemblies or development agencies. Let cities flourish by making their own decisions, and democracy will flourish within them.

There were other lessons to be drawn from the referendum. To watch the nastier side of Mr Salmond’s campaign was to be reminded just how thin the line can be between the democracy of the plebiscite and mob rule. There is a reason for preferring representative democracy.

Then there is Mr Cameron’s promised referendum on British membership of the EU. If it happens, and the prospect seems more reckless as every week passes, it will provide another festival for populism and prejudice. No one could be sure of the outcome.

What worries me is that memories of what has happened in Scotland will quickly fade; that politicians at Westminster, jostling for position ahead of next year’s general election, will return to business as usual. And next time Britons may well wake up to find there is no longer a Britain in which to live.


philip.stephens@ft.com

Twitter: @philipstephens


Letter in response to this column:

Democracy is the winner if it can shake off populist rhetoric / From Ms Stella Hughes

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