My old cobber, Iain Martin, wrote an interesting column for the Telegraph yesterday arguing that the success of the British Olympic team in Beijing demonstrates that there's life in the old Union yet. There may be something to that. At least there may be right now, this week, this month. Certainly, he is right to argue that:
Too often of late, Unionists have made their case in cold and exclusively economic terms, as though this were simply a matter of totting up various columns of pounds, shillings and pence, until a definitive answer on the constitution is arrived at. It is not always just the "economy, stupid".
Indeed so. A Unionism based solely upon the notion that Scotland benefits economically from its partnership with the other parts of the UK is, in the end, a negative, timorous Unionism. In the end it casts the Union as a kind of material bribe, rather than something that is worth having in and of itself. Basing the Unionist case exclusively on fiscal concerns does two other things. First, it insults the Scots, suggesting they're too poor, too stupid, too incompetent to manage their own affairs. Secondly it implicitly acknowledges - and comes close to conceding - the case for independence.
"Why yes", this form of Unionist argument suggests, "of course self-determination and the nationalist cause is perfectly sensible, even attractive; certainly I understand why you find it appealing. But let's face the truth: it cannae work." Defending the Union in fiscal terms - making it just about the economy, stupid - implicitly concedes that if the numbers were calculated differently so it could be shown - beyond all reasonable doubt, or at least to voters' satisfaction - that an independent Scotland would thrive then logic would demand the break-up of Britain.
The fiscal argument for the Union is a narrow, grasping argument that simultaneously patronises and belittles the Scots while conceding that, should circumstances change, independence would be in the national interest. It is a Unionism predicated upon poverty; the poverty of Scotland and a poverty of ambition. In the end it requires that Scotland be - and indeed remain - a hapless subordinate partner, not a confident and equal player.
It actually requires that Scotland be subsidised by London. End those subsidies (though of course the extent of the subsidy is itself a matter of debate) and you actually weaken the case for the Union. This fiscal Unionism requires the Scottish economy to continue to under-perform the UK economy as a whole. If it didn't, if Scotland were richer than England, then what would be the point of the Union? What's in it for us? Quite a lot at the moment, fiscal Unionists say, but what if that changes? And what if these English subsidies no longer existed? What would be in it for us then? In other words, English Tories may have to put a price on the Union. Unionists - north and south of the border - have made a rod for their own backs: complaining about subsidising Scotland is one thing, but complaining about subsidising Scotland while simultaneously basing the argument for the Union upon the existence of those subsidies is quite another.
So Iain is right that the case for Unionism must rest on more than numbers.