‘Never go below the line’, friends tell me.
They mean don’t look at the comment sections on UK newspapers if you want to retain your sanity. But you would think the liberal Guardian would be an exception. After all, it is the organ of the thinking classes and supports constitutional reform and self determination for all nations. Not that you would know.
“Salmond and Sturgeon are just mouthy, groggy pub drunks who think they can make a point into fact by screaming it the loudest…” was one typical comment under a report on Alex Salmond’s continued insistence on currency union. Others prematurely celebrated “the demise of the Yes campaign [which] is setting up to be a must-watch bonfire of some preposterous vanities”. “Can we delay the referendum for a year and watch Salmond’s mental breakdown play out in glorious tartan Technicolor” said another.
The personalisation of the campaign, as if independence was just about Alex Salmond’s personal vanity, is typical of much conventional journalism. But what is jarring is the widespread assumption, even, it appears among many Guardian readers, that Scotland has been living of English taxpayers money and finally been found out.
“The sound of bleating and mewling was so loud coming from your end that we paid out just to shut you up …” said one correspondent demanding an end to Scottish subsidies. “They could always form their own Dollarisation Union with Panama and Zimbabwe”, said another. “Scotland soon to be known as ‘Greece of the North’.”
Well, everyone’s entitled to their views and these are moderate compared to the vituperative ejaculations in the English red top press’s comment section. And let’s not even mention social media where disturbed minds vent their hatred of Salmond Stugeon and Scotland as a whole. (look at BritNatAbuseBot if you still think this is just about cybernats). And we had better get used to it as I suspect it is going to become worse as we get closer to the referendum.
And no one should delude themselves that, if Scotland votes No, that we’ll be love-bombed with gratitude for saving the UK. There is a growing sense of indignation and impatience at Scots for putting the UK through this whole business in the first place.
That certainly is Nigel Farage’s take on things. He inevitably featured prominently in Andrew Neil’s recent documentary Scotland Votes on BBC2. “We see this man Salmond, on the telly”, said the Ukip leader, “his supporters are rude about us, they don’t like us, they don’t support our football team … ” Along with other interviewees in the programme he said there would have to be a reckoning after a No vote, not just on the West Lothian Question but on finances. No love-bombing here.
Scotland Votes was very much an establishment view of the dangers of Scottish independence for the UK. It avoided currency and economics and stressed Britain’s diminished footprint in the world if Scotland left, ejecting Trident; rather as if Scotland’s only real contribution to the UK has been as a repository for weapons of mass destruction. Neil’s thesis is that Britain is yet to wake up to the implications of losing a third of its landmass, five million citizens and all its nuclear weapons. It would no longer be a “great nation – a significant figure on the world stage”.
But many of his interviewees – Tory and otherwise – clearly did not take the threat of independence very seriously. They were more concerned with what Neil called the coming “constitutional revolution” if and when Scotland votes No. Now, optimists believe this will involve greater powers for Holyrood, some form of democratic decentralisation to the English regions and even full scale federalism. And I hope they are right – I really do.
However, the first issue on Westminster’s mind is clearly not federalism but curbing Scotland’s over-representation in Westminster and our alleged feather-bedding through the Barnett Formula. A succession of voices this week has been spelling this out.
The former Tory leadership candidate, John Redwood, in his McWhirter Lecture (no relation) to the Freedom Association called for an English parliament within Westminster with Scots excluded. Another former Tory leadership challenger, David Davis, said Scottish over-representation was untenable. There will have to be either a reduction in Scottish MPs or – more likely – a move to exclude them from votes on exclusively English issues.
I must say I find it hard to disagree with this on democratic grounds – though this “in-and-out” solution, as it was called in the days of Gladstone and Irish Home Rule, is not as easy as it looks. It is often difficult to define what is an exclusively “English” Bill even on devolved issues. “English” measures, like the various higher education Bills under Labour, often have implications north of the border, and involve Scottish taxpayers’ money.
This is why we need a proper written constitution, federal parliaments and a new upper house or Senate in Westminster based on regional representation. But don’t hold your breath.
As always, Boris Johnson has spoken the mind of most of his Tory colleagues. “Alex Salmond has been thrashed in these debates” he said recently. “But for some reason we are promising the Scots more tax raising powers. There’s no need. What has England ever got out of this devolution process?”
As mayor of London, Mr Johnson should know that a colossal amount of public spending has been poured into London infrastructure – more than all the other regions of Britain combined according to the Institute For Public Policy Research. But he has long argued Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending.
He is clearly after the Ukip vote, both on Europe and Scotland. As he edges closer to the centre of the Tory party power, Bullingdon Man will have a big say in the post-referendum world is ordered. He will be leading the non-conciliation party, which includes MPs of all political denominations, in seeking to cut Scotland’s cloth after a No. And he may strike a popular chord with English voters who think Scotland, its independence bluff called, should be appeased no more.
The historian Patrick Hennessey told Neil that many English voters think negatively. “Scots have done nothing but whinge for a generations, you can hear them say, all we hear is a constant drizzle of complaint.” The solution is for Scotland to have proper fiscal and economic autonomy and, as I say, there are optimists who keep telling me this is definitely on the cards. I really don’t see it short of a Yes vote in the referendum. But in or out of the Union, the drizzle will have to stop.