Alex Massie

Alex Salmond’s Southern Helpers

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Sometimes it is useful to be reminded that the English are often barely more knowledgeable about Scotland than Americans are about Canada.Today's Guardian piece "Life Without Scotland" is by turns juvenile, irritating, superficial, irritating and ignorant. It's meant to be tongue-in-cheek funny but it misses each and every one of its targets.

Nonetheless, the most interesting element of the piece is that it was published at all. It is rather odd to see the English slowly waking up to the fact that Scotland is now officially a semi-detached member of the Union. They don't seem to like it much.

Complaints about lavish spending on health and education north of the border  fail to recognise that these policies could have been pursued by the old Scottish Office in the pre-devolution era without anyone noticing at all. If Scotland spends more on health that's partly because it spends less on policing. And so on.

Equally it's useful to remember that Scotland's public-spending advantage is refers only to the 85% of UK government that is considered "identifiable". It is a reasonable supposition that most of the remaining 15% is spent in England generally and London and the south-east particularly.

That's by the by. John Swinney delivered the SNP's first ever budget this week. It's a characteristically sober document, neither especially dispiriting nor terribly uplifting. That's probably sensible.  There's little need for the Nationalists to poke the English lion any more at this stage; not when the English are doing their best to inspire Scots to say to hell with it all perhaps even by Salmond's predicted date of 2017).

Still, if Salmond wanted to be truly bold he'd wait a year or two and then use - or try to anyway, given his minority administration's wobbly status - the parliament's power to vary income taxes. The amount of revenue returned to citizens by a 3 pence in the pound cut in the basic rate of income tax would not be the point of the ploy (welcome though it would be). No, the point would be to further enrage the English so that a comprehensive reform of the Barnett Formula became inevitable. Of course, any such revision is unlikely to be favourable to Scotland.

That would be, despite what you may think, a victory for the Nationalists of course since it further dents the economic case for maintaining the Union. If the bribe advantage of extra spending is off the table that's one less reason to be afraid of filing for separation.

If English Unionists want to save the Union then, they should be careful. Getting what they seem to want - a revision of the arrangement governing Scottish representation at Westminster and recalculating funding formulae - will further increase the distance between London and Edinburgh. That's a pyrhhic victory for Unionism.

Unionists may find it unpalatable, but they need to pipe down and, however reluctantly, accept the current constitutional and financial anomalies. These may be an affront to reason, logic and that famous English sense of fair play. But then so are many things, including much of the (unwritten) constitution in the first place. Grumbling should be a private not a public matter - unless that is these self-proclaimed Unionists are actually carrying water for Alex Salmond. Ruthless consistency and logic are much more likely to bleed the Union to death than bind its wounds. They may not like the alternatives but they'd be advised to lump them.

A tax-cutting gambit might have been a step too far this year, but it's a secret weapon I would deploy at some point in the future if I were Alex Salmond.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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