I doubt I’m alone among English readers of this magazine in having felt uncomfortable with our last issue. ‘Please stay with us’ was a plea I found faintly offensive to us English. Not only did it have a plaintive ring, but there seemed to be something grovelling, almost self-abasing, in the pitch. Why beg? A great many Scots have wanted to leave the Union; and by arranging a referendum Westminster has asked Scotland to make up her mind. Let her, then. When did England become a petitioner in this affair?
‘Please stay’ implied that the Scots were minded to go and we were pleading with them to relent of their intention. Yet I haven’t thought of this referendum as a bid to change Scotland’s mind, but as an exercise to discover a nation’s wishes. Any moment now, we shall know what these were.
Within a short time of the publication of this issue, a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ will be announced. If the verdict is for separation then so be it. England, Wales and Northern Ireland would have made it very clear that Scotland was welcome in the Union; but in the event the Scots would have decided to leave. That’s their prerogative. Now the terms of the divorce must be agreed.
In this negotiation, we in the rest of the UK would have to try not to be vindictive, and to be as fair and helpful as we reasonably can; but we won’t owe Scotland anything; we won’t any longer be trying to persuade her of anything; and we won’t be pleading with her any more. I would look forward to the honesty and the straight-talking with which we could approach this negotiation. We should be treading on eggshells no longer.
But if the result is a ‘no’ and Scotland decides — perhaps by quite a narrow margin — to stay, I think it’s important the rest of the Union is not thereafter infected by some misplaced sense of gratitude. I hope there will not be a special ‘Oh thank you, Scotland!’ issue of The Spectator. Scotland will not have done the rest of us a favour, and should not be given to believe the rest of the Union owes her gratitude, or anything else, in return.
Wiser heads in the Better Together campaign have always allowed that Scotland could manage perfectly well as an independent country. Perhaps the rest of Union should remind ourselves that we could too. Instead, behaving as though we all faced doom, leading politicians in the three main Westminster parties — intent more on saving their own skins than in leaving Scotland to decide — began to panic when it seemed possible Scots might give the wrong answer. Dignity was cast aside, and many hostages to fortune offered, in a scramble to talk Scots out of their possible decision to leave.
With all respect to my senior Spectator colleagues (and pace the almost humiliating desperation in the tone of our ‘please stay’ anthology), I have not found that this sense of panicky impending loss has found much echo among many of my fellow English outside the worlds of politics and journalism. Almost all the voices raised for the ‘no’ campaign in England with any real passion have come either from the kind of Englishman who hunts, sails or skis in the Highlands and Islands, or from talented Scots who have migrated south in search of a larger arena for their talents. This is a group well-represented among the commanding heights of British journalism and politics, and a distinctive and distinguished demographic. But it is not, I’m afraid, a representative one; nor does it carry the force of numbers.
Most English people I speak to have seemed rather relaxed about the referendum, and many alienated by all the fuss. Most would feel a little hurt to be rejected, but few have been having sleepless nights. A comfortable majority have had a preference — though a mild one — for Scotland to stay, but only if that’s what Scots themselves really want. ‘Well it’s up to them’ would be typical of the response. It happens to be mine.
I do now wonder whether the result would have been any worse for the Union — and whether it might even have been better — if Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and co had adopted from the start the approach that, while they’d personally be relieved and happy if Scotland decided to stay, this was entirely for Scotland to decide; and they wouldn’t want to talk that nation into or out of any change that might appeal to her. ‘Over to you’ might have made a better slogan than ‘Better together’.
In the wheedling abasement of England that I think has crept into the campaign to persuade a nation that plainly does not love us to put up with us at least, there lurks a danger. Whatever the result of the referendum, it assuredly leaves the English a bit less fond of Scotland, and the Scots no fonder of England, than before all this started.
We English have seen our politicians and journalists on their knees on our behalf, even as we’ve watched campaigners for a ‘yes’ vote carelessly tossing out insults and false accusations that have sometimes seemed little short of racist. That ghastly second debate in Glasgow organised by the BBC left me within a hair’s breadth of shouting ‘Oh for pity’s sake, go then. Get out of our hair.’ Our patience and our unionism have been tested. In my case, and I suspect that of many others, both have faltered. Everything has soured.
So if it’s ‘yes’ this weekend, the independence negotiations will be handled on the Union side by politicians who feel pretty sore about what has happened, and know their voters feel mildly sore too.
And if it’s a ‘no’, the paradox will be that even as Scotland cleaves to its union with the rest of the United Kingdom, the rest of the United Kingdom turns a little bitterly away. ‘Yes’ or ‘no’ — unless it’s an overwhelming ‘no’ — I as an Englishman will have never felt less affectionately towards Scotland than this weekend.