Alan Cochrane says that it’s not just Alex Salmond who is agitating for Scottish independence. There are forces on both sides of the border who hope for the break-up of the UK
If it’s August, it must be Scotland. Upwards of half a million people will descend on Edinburgh over the next month for the six festivals — International, Fringe, Book, Jazz/Blues, Television and now Politics — not to mention the ever successful Tattoo. Some will be other Scots but many will be from the rest of the United Kingdom, predominately England.
It’s amusing for anyone living north of the Cheviots to record the comments of visitors to our homeland, especially those of the English persuasion. They remark continually on the differences between the two countries as if they can’t quite get used to the fact that Scotland simply isn’t England, or to the fact that many of us talk a different language (well, almost). For a people who pride themselves on their cosmopolitan nature, it is incredible how little the English, especially in the south, know about what goes on in other parts of this archipelago.
This trait has escalated since devolution, celebrating its tenth birthday, and now there’s a seemingly inexorable drift towards separation — in both the legal and emotional sense — between Scotland and England
It is a separation that is being encouraged most obviously by Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party, whose minority administration has been in power at Holyrood since May 2007. But it is also being fostered, inadvertently perhaps, by those people — both politicians and others — who would declare that their allegiance is resolutely Unionist. Furthermore, it appears to be something for which some in England are hoping.
To start with Salmond, the most obvious sign is the name of his team. The first thing he did on winning (by one) the majority of the 129 seats in Holyrood was to order a small army of painters and scaffolders to change all the signs on public buildings in Edinburgh from ‘Scottish Executive’ — still his outfit’s legal name — to ‘Scottish Government’. It has been adopted by all of the indigenous Scottish media, none more so than BBC Scotland who confuse us in daily news bulletins with their talk of ‘the government’ — meaning whatever Mr Salmond’s up to — and then referring to the ‘Westminster government’ — nearly but not quite saying ‘that foreign lot down there’ — when reporting the doings of the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Strangely all the thanks that the Beeb gets for being so nice to Mr Salmond is to hear him declare that he wants to do away with London-produced UK network news programmes and have them replaced with Glasgow-produced bulletins, so as to give a ‘Scottish perspective’ on the news, whatever that is.
Still on constitutional matters, the Queen is now known formally — although not necessarily legally — as ‘Queen of Scots’ when she crosses the border. This is the ancient title of Scottish monarchs, as in Mary, Queen of Scots, but it had fallen into disuse until resurrected by Lord (David) Steel of Aikwood, the first presiding officer of the Scottish parliament. And it chimes perfectly with the ambitions of Mr Salmond who now talks grandly about maintaining the Union of the Crowns while dispensing with the political union.
There are perpetual rows between Edinburgh and London, mostly dreamed up by Mr Salmond and mostly about money, but instead of telling the First Minister where to go, the predisposition of Unionists north and south of the border seems to be to refrain from annoying the great man. So, instead, they dance to his tune. Egged on by Wendy Alexander, the then Scottish Labour leader, sister of the International Development Secretary and long-time friend of Gordon Brown, a commission was set up to examine the powers of the Scottish parliament, even though most Scots don’t know what powers it already has. The upshot was that the Calman Commission recommended some transfers of authority from Westminster to Holyrood, including giving the latter increased responsibility for raising and spending its own tax revenue. Denounced by Lord (Michael) Forsyth, the Thatcherite former Scottish secretary, as ‘appeasement’, the Calman recommendations gave renewed vigour to Salmond’s demands for a vote on independence.
Salmond says he’ll include questions on Calman’s recommendations as options on the ballot paper he plans for his referendum on separation, an offer that’s already been turned down. He needs approval from Holyrood for his referendum and the polls continue to show that separation is not wanted by most Scots. However, they may be duped by the question. Mr Salmond plans to ask not for approval for a completely separate state outside the UK — which is the reality — but merely for permission to open negotiations with Whitehall leading to independence for Scotland.
However, I suspect there might be more support in England than in Scotland for the break-up of the UK. Although we deserve brickbats after all the moaning from this neck of the woods over the years, I grow weary now of the bilge from London about the so-called ‘subsidy junkie Scots’. That infamous figure constantly trotted out that says that Scotland gets £1,500 per capita more per annum than England ignores the fact that if you break down the English regions, the North West (Liverpool area), the North East (Newcastle) and London get almost as much as Scotland, with only the South East’s allocation well down on the other regions. Everyone accepts that the Barnett Formula is outdated but a ‘needs’ assessment for Britain’s regions would still see Scotland (as well as Liverpool, Newcastle and London) getting more than the South East. As David Cameron has said, there is no pot of gold for England in scrapping Barnett.
And while the likes of the Telegraph, the Times and the Daily Mail have successful Scottish editions, it’s still possible to marvel at the insularity of Fleet Street. For instance, even though the first swine flu cases were reported in Scotland they were clearly not considered all that important a development until someone in England, or better still London, contracted the disease, allowing the Evening Standard to splash, on its front page on Wednesday, 29 April, ‘Now deadly flu hits British girl’. Absolutely true!
Everyone assumes, and the polls agree, that the Union is under no threat. I’m not so sure. There are forces, both active and passive, on both sides of the border that are undermining it and Unionists, of the Scottish and English variety, must work harder to preserve it. For one thing, they could stop tormenting each other. For another they could stop appeasing the separatists.
Alan Cochrane is Scottish editor of the Daily Telegraph.