Sometimes it is easy to understand why countries break up. Some founder on the rocks of their internal contradictions. Others are historical conveniences that have simply run their course. Czechoslovakia was an artificial construct, a country with two languages and cultures, which split soon after the Iron Curtain fell. The division of Cyprus in 1974 marked the end of the fraternity between the island’s Turks and Greeks. The partition of India was driven by trouble between its Hindus and Muslims. It’s a constant, often tragic theme in history — people decide that what divides them is stronger than what unites them. So they split, often at great cost.
Until recently, the United Kingdom would have been seen as a safe bet for the long haul: a wealthy, law-based, highly integrated, mature democracy, the kind of country others aspire to be. Our component nations share the planet’s most influential language and its dominant culture, and provided the intellectual soil out of which the enlightened West grew.
Yet in a referendum on 18 September, Britain’s northern quarter may decide that its differences with the south have become irreconcilable, and choose to walk away. The days of double-digit opinion poll leads for the ‘Better Together’ campaign are long gone, and Alex Salmond has enough momentum to further close the gap. Those seeking to save the UK have spent too much time pointing out the pitfalls of independence, and not enough creating a compelling, optimistic case for staying in the Union. As a result, they now stand a very real chance of losing the argument.
The Scottish National Party has been in government in Edinburgh for the past seven years and, in that time, has used every lever at its disposal to emphasise the difference between Scotland and England — real or imagined. The strategy, while morally reprehensible, has been quite effective. An ever-growing range of services, such as prescriptions and university tuition, have been made ‘free’. Council tax has been frozen. Private-sector involvement in public services is denounced as the agenda of the profit-driven south. Education and welfare reforms are used as a stick with which to beat Westminster. All of it is intended to drive home a subliminal message: that Scotland simply cares more than England.
The Nats are aided by useful idiots in the Scottish media and cultural elite. From comfortable middle-class pads in the less affordable parts of Glasgow and Edinburgh, these socialist tub-thumpers promise that a left-wing tartan utopia is within grasp, and that a ‘yes’ vote can save the grimy-faced, honest-as-the-day-is-long Scots toiler from exploitation by effete Tory thieves in London. They advance the idea of Scots as being nicer, fairer, more attached to the brotherhood of man.
The SNP and its allies are playing a game that is still not properly understood in London: to them, the coming referendum is not really about oil, the pound or Brussels. It is cast as a battle of values — the caring vs the selfish. Quite some accomplishment, given that all this has as much basis in reality as does Brigadoon.
There is, in fact, almost no difference between the views of the average Scot and the average English person — as the research proves. Take the latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey, the single most authoritative survey of opinion on politics and policy. It found that 60 per cent of Scots want Britain either to leave the EU or at least to reduce its powers — up from 40 per cent ten years ago. So much for the myth of Scottish Europhilia.
Or what about the idea that Scots regard Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms as unduly harsh? In reality, just 21 per cent want more spending on benefits for unemployed people, while 43 per cent want to see it reduced. Hardly a world apart from England, where a similar poll found 52 per cent believe benefits to be so high that they discourage work.
And the notion that Scotland is more welcoming to newcomers than the xenophobic Little Englanders? More dewy-eyed nonsense. Some 47 per cent worry that the nation would begin to lose its identity ‘if more people from Eastern Europe came to live in Scotland’, and 49 per cent say the same about more Muslims. In England, 44 per cent believe that Britain’s cultural life is undermined by immigrants.
It’s certainly true that support for Ukip is far lower in Scotland — but it’s hard to argue that this is because Scots are mad keen on Europe, or relaxed about mass immigration. It might be because Scots have their own separatist party — which is rather good at playing the outsider and denigrating near-neighbours (all in the name of compassion and diversity, of course).
What little divergence there is comes down to a mix of rather obvious things — the cultural hangover of anti-Thatcherism, which keeps the Tories at a low ebb north of the border; a political culture that, since devolution, has become inward-looking and self-obsessed to an unsettling degree; an elite that relentlessly claims Scots are more compassionate, more egalitarian, less racist and kinder to babies than the English.
It has been a major failing of the Unionist campaign that this idea has gone largely unchallenged. At heart, Britain is not about the Barnett Formula or an optimal currency area; we inhabitants of these islands are the same people. It’s there in our culture and in our language — with its shared phrases and idioms and slang, and the ideals that they frame and shape. In the five months left until polling day, let’s remind Scots that we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns — even the English.
Chris Deerin is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail.