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“Why do you have to go and see the floods?” asked my son – “Can’t you just watch them on television, like everybody else?”
I responded with a pompous lecture about the journalist’s need to see things first-hand – and set off, intrepidly, down the M4, towards the waters now lapping at the edge of London. Just after Heathrow, I turned left towards the waterlogged town of Datchet and followed a van, bearing the jaunty slogan “Berkshire Drains – we’ve been in the poo since 1992”. (One of the nastier side-effects of the incessant rain is that sewer systems are now overflowing.)
The main insight I gained from visiting the Thames Valley is how patchy the flooding is. The outskirts of Datchet revealed nothing more alarming than a few puddles. But just as I began to wonder if this great national emergency was a hoax, the road dipped to reveal the village green. It was definitely flooded. A couple of locals were paddling down the high street in a canoe. Yet just outside the village, you are back on dry land and people are popping into the local Tesco as if nothing were happening.
Britain’s most famous school is two miles from Datchet. The fabled “playing fields of Eton” are now also submerged – with rugby posts and cricket pavilions standing forlornly in the middle of a newly formed lake. However, it is business as usual in the tea shops and tailors on the high street. Perhaps wisely, prime minister David Cameron has decided not to dwell on the misfortunes of his old school, instead visiting floods elsewhere in the country.
Reassured that my house in London was unlikely to disappear beneath the waves, I headed north to investigate another threat to the nation – the possibility that Scotland might vote for independence this year.
I would normally count myself as unperturbed by the prospect of Scottish independence. But, as I read nationalist tracts on the train to Edinburgh, I began to feel irritated. Campaigners for independence say they have rejected ethnic nationalism but, instead, seem to have embraced “holier-than-thou” nationalism. Iain Banks, the revered Scottish novelist who died last year, claimed to detect “a generosity of spirit in the Celts matched by a meanness of spirit in some, but not all, English people”. Many Scottish intellectuals, he added, “would vote for independence purely never to be part of any more illegal, immoral wars”.
If, like me, you come from the mean-spirited, warmongering south of England, this kind of stuff is guaranteed to annoy. By the time the train had crossed the Scottish border, I was so enraged that I was ready to nut the conductor. But then I realised that this was exactly the malign logic on which nationalism feeds. “They” say something horrible about us; “we” say something nasty back – and before you know it, there is a frontier post at Gretna Green.
Perhaps I should follow Cameron’s advice and love-bomb the Scots. The prime minister has urged the English to contact Scottish friends and plead with them to stay in the Union. It’s true that I did work briefly at BBC Scotland, years ago, and I suppose I could try to contact some of my old colleagues. But it’s hard to imagine how that conversation might go: “Ken, it’s Gideon. I know we haven’t spoken for 20 years. But I just wanted to say that I really like you, and I love Scotland. And please vote to stay in the Union.” If I were Ken, I think I’d hang up.
Once in Edinburgh, I found the pro-independence camp to be predictably scornful of the Cameron charm offensive. Over breakfast, an important member of the Yes campaign (as a backroom operative, he prefers to remain anonymous) sniffed that, “It seems to be all offensive, and no charm.” Just days after Cameron’s avowal of love for Scotland, he pointed out, the prime minister’s sidekick and chancellor, George Osborne, had visited Edinburgh sternly to inform the Scots that they could forget about plans to share a currency with England if they declare independence. My breakfast companion seemed confident that Scottish voters would see this as “Westminster bullying”. Maybe they will. But it seems odd to declare independence – then say you want to keep sharing a currency with the country you are separating from – and then, when that request is declined, to complain that you are being bullied. But that’s probably my mean-spirited side coming out.
In search of historical perspective, I headed to the University of Edinburgh to consult Tom Devine, who holds the chair in Scottish history. The corridors of the history department – with their seminar rooms, book-lined studies and fliers advertising lectures – brought back a pleasant nostalgia for my own days as a history student.
One legacy of that time is that I still tend to think in exam questions. After an hour talking to Professor Devine, I found myself framing a question for an exam paper of the future: “Was Scotland’s vote for independence in 2014 accidental or inevitable?” If Scotland does opt for separation, you could make a decent argument for either interpretation.
On the one hand, many of the ties that historically bound the Union together have disappeared or become less relevant over the decades: the empire, the threat of conquest from Europe, Protestantism. On the other, the recent events that have led Scotland to the point where it is considering a divorce do seem like a chapter of accidents: an industrial decline that was probably inevitable but that was precipitated by Thatcherism; the incompetence of the Scottish Labour party; the Iraq war; an unexpected nationalist victory in elections to the Scottish parliament; the UK government’s risky decision not to offer further devolution of powers to Edinburgh as an option in the referendum; the emergence of a charismatic leader in Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister.
But I am getting ahead of myself. If you look at opinion polls, the pro-independence campaign has been consistently behind for months. On the other hand, they are gaining ground and have many months to close the gap until the referendum in September. And, as I walked away from the university, I couldn’t help thinking that Edinburgh – with all its grandeur and history – would make a handsome capital for an independent state. What currency that state might use is, however, still something of a mystery.
Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator