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Sunbathing to independence?

In London last week the Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, told me that when he filed his copy from the Scottish election campaign, his desk editor him asked what dateline to put on it, as if it were a foreign report. A telling illustration, perhaps, of London’s attitude Scottish independence: a lot of people already seem to think Scotland is another country.

This may explain why most metropolitan political commentators were more interested in the French Presidential election last week than the Scottish one – even though the Holyrood outcome would arguably have greater impact on Britain. On the three hundredth anniversary of the Act of Union, Scotland appears to be on the verge of tearing it up by allowing the Scottish National Party to share power.

But if my observations are correct, England is unfazed – dreaming on in the long hot spring. The Prime Minister may believe that Britain itself is in danger, faced with an unscrupulous nationalist party leader, Alex Salmond, who is determined to foment trouble and strife. But London isn’t exactly donning hard hats and digging trenches. Constitutional crisis? What crisis?

There is, of course, that strand of rabid English nationalism on the internet, which believes a Scottish Raj is running England and draining it of treasure. They are looking to a fight as always. But most London people I spoke to last week aren’t antagonistic to Scotland; mostly, they just don’t care. And why should they? Scotland is a cold northern territory, with large landmass but few people, which doesn’t really have much to do with the South East of England. Even the climate is different now that global warming has really arrived.

The City of London was congratulating itself last week on becoming the world’s number one financial centre, having relegated even New York as the place to do the business. Billions are raised and spent on the stock-markets every day, and private equity houses are tearing up the corporate structures of the world. London is a global economic hub, with intergalactic house prices, and apparently limitless wealth. Why should it be bovvered about what happens in Scotland?

We have a strong financial sector in Edinburgh, but it isn’t in any obvious sense a rival. We don’t have any industry and the oil is generally assumed to be running out. We are not strategically important, except of course for Trident, and England doesn’t need Scots to fight colonial wars any more – they have Prince Harry to do that.

It’s often said that Scotland has reassessed the Union, now that the ties of Empire that bound these two nations together have weakened. That Scots don’t have a stake in the UK any longer. But the same is true for England. The sentimental attachments have gone, consumed in the fire of globalisation. If Scotland wants to be independent, as David Cameron himself put it recently, then it would be unfortunate, but no national disaster.

I still detected mild irritation at the Scottish propensity to consume public spending, but I think most people in England get this in proportion. The sums involved may seem large to us – perhaps a thousand pounds per head in public spending – but to a stupendously wealthy country like England, five billion is a drop in the bucket. Lost in the national accounts of one and a half trillion.

Anyway, as the Financial Times itself noted last week, if oil is taken into account, the deficit – or “Union Dividend” as Labour call it – shrinks dramatically to 1.2%, which is half the deficit that Gordon Brown is running for the UK. The Scottish press, true to form, reported the Financial Times analysis as a warning to Scotland that an independent Scotland would be unviable as the oil runs out. But the report was actually pretty potent propaganda for the SNP.

The FT concluded that: “the current high level of oil prices would allow Scotland to declare independence from the rest of the UK without having to cut public spending.” It went on to warn that oil is a declining resource, and that there may be little scope to build up a substantial oil fund in future. You can’t build an economy on one natural resource, and Scotland would have to diversify and grow its economy.

Incidentally, the FT also endorsed the SNP claims about Scotland’s poor performance under Labour. After adjusting for inflation, FT figures show that Scottish “gross value added” – workforce incomes and profits – grew 17 per cent between 1997 and 2005 against 25 per cent in England. And a lot of this was down to increased public spending. The Scottish private sector grew by only 11.6 per cent, a miserable annual rate of 1.6 per cent, against the English rate of 2.8 per cent.

But that’s Scotland’s problem. From a London point of view, the falling future oil wealth merely confirms Scotland’s marginality to the UK economy. I find that most people in England who know anything about the history of Scottish oil accept that the UK did pretty well out of it and that it more than justified any Barnett premiums on Scottish public spending.

But again, this all has the air of an old argument, an intellectual relic from the days before Scotland had its parliament, and when the failing UK economy depended on oil revenues. This is now, and whatever else happens, England is certainly not going to go to war over oil or Scottish demands for more autonomy.

Where conflict may break out over the SNP factor is in parliament, in the wake of the Gordon Brown coronation as Labour leader. An SNP victory in the Chancellor’s heartland would embolden the Tories to play the English card in Westminster. If the SNP is the largest party, the Tory leader David Cameron, will say Brown is fatally undermined by this rejection in his own home land.

The Conservative press will say that the new PM has no right to dictate policies to England when he sits for a seat in a ‘foreign’ country. The Conservatives will demand “English votes for English laws” – for Scottish MPs to withdraw from votes on purely English legislation. And Alex Salmond, if he is FM, will be egging them on.

This may lead to some constitutional wrangling, no doubt. There will have to be some kind of constitutional commission to review the situation in Westminster, West Lothian Question and all that. The Scottish parliament will certainly demand more powers if an SNP-LibDem coalition is formed. However, my own view is that the Tories will stop short of demanding that Scots MPs are thrown out of Westminster.

I believe they will see it as important to keep Scottish representation in what is becoming, de facto, a federal parliament in London. This is England, after all, and the English are too mature and sensible to want to provoke needless conflict over abstruse constitutional anomalies. A way will be found to muddle through. As the temperatures rise in the hottest April London has ever seen, it will be in everyone’s interest to cool it.

So, if my visit south is any guide, England is – right now – pretty sanguine about the rise of Scottish nationalism. Probably, like most Scots, they don’t really believe that Scotland will ever be independent in a formal sense. Fused at the hip on this island on the edge of Europe, Scotland and England have a common destiny which they cannot avoid. We are ‘in and out’ of Europe, speak the same language, share a common currency, have close family ties.

Many of those English families, who still have their sons living at dependent at home in their late twenties, can well understand the argument that it might be good for Scotland to go it alone economically. That you can’t live on subsidies forever. Doesn’t mean that the family is broken up or that they start going to war with each other. Both countries would just have to learn the art of living apart together.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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