The temperature is steadily rising in the debate over Scottish independence on 18 September this year. Today the three main Westminster parties will say no to a currency union between an independent Scotland and rump Britain. Last week the UK Prime Minister David Cameron made an emotional appeal for the union. But still not enough searching questions are being asked by the English on what this all means for them.
At least Mr Cameron’s remarks were directed towards the English, though the British media ignored this and only sought reaction from Scottish politicians and voters. He urged the English to support the union and tell their Scottish contacts that they did not want them to go. Unlike Mr Cameron, I have no Scottish family heritage. But I love Scotland and, like him, feel that if it went its own way an important part of my national identity would be diminished. But if such sentiments are to cut any ice north of the border, we English have to ask some searching questions as to how it has come to all this.
The problem is that Mr Cameron’s (and my) feelings don’t seem to be shared by many of our fellow English. Many seem to have a rather sour attitude towards the Scots, who should be less hostile and more grateful. This is all of a piece with hostility towards the European Union. Many English want to blame foreigners for their problems, and to inhabit a world where the English can ignore them except to the extent that they provide beach holidays (not something that Scotland scores on…). This reveals a paradox at the heart of the English identity. We see ourselves as an island nation, who should be control of our own destiny. And yet any greatness that the nation has aspired to has been achieved by the country playing a full part in the wider world.
We might ponder this as we approach the centenary of the 1914-18 war. There was a definite view in 1914 that we should just let the “Continentals” fight it out amongst themselves. And yet most people understood that German domination of Europe would imply German domination of Britain too. And so this country played a full part in a European continental war for the first time since the days of Marlborough 300 years ago (if you discount the largely naval and economic contribution o the Napoleonic wars), with results that can be seen in war memorials in practically every village in the country.
What has this got to do with the Scots? The Scots have always shown a better understanding of their place in the wider world – a sensitivity that comes from being a smaller nation, no doubt. They have contributed to the British nation as a whole, and still do. Can a lesser Britain, without Scotland, aspire to be treated as equals with France and Germany? Or will we take our place with the next tier, Spain and Poland? Or just be lame duck major power like Italy? It would not just be a loss of resources that would diminish the country, but a loss of prestige.
And yet Scotland is a very different place to England, with a separate identity that far outweighs that of any region of England, and which is more coherent than that of other parts of the Union: Wales and Northern Ireland. (Even if some Scots nationalists exaggerate these differences and their own coherence). The English nevertheless have a tendency to treat the place as a simple extension of England. This was at its most egregious under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and 1990s, when she used Scotland to pilot her pet Poll Tax idea. This problem persists, as we see from the imposition of the Coalition government’s benefit reforms (aka benefit cuts), to which Scots feel they have not consented.
Devolution has not a stable answer to this tension, though it has helped. The problem is that it is not symmetrical. There is no equivalent devolution of power to England, which is run directly by the UK government. Scottish (and Welsh) politicians aspire to run parts of the English government, like health and education, and they are thus drawn into English domestic politics rather than their own. This simply feeds English confusion and resentment as well as diminishing Scottish and Welsh domestic politics.
A new constitutional settlement is needed for the United Kingdom. I have already described what I think this should be (Time to Think of England: an English government and parliament meeting somewhere other than London). It is depressing that such ideas are not getting an airing. The biggest threat to our union is English complacency and conservatism.