Are the English more convinced about independence than Scots?

The Scotsman, by Lesley Riddoch 

12.08.19

It seems that many south of the Border are surprisingly clear-sighted about independence, writes Lesley Riddoch.

The “good riddance” message came loud and clear mid-June when a YouGov poll found 63 per cent of Tory party members want Brexit even if that leads to Scottish independence. But now that Lord Ashcroft’s poll has confirmed that the feeling is (almost) mutual, there’s been a tidal wave of influential opinion pieces from the English left, urging Scots to launch the lifeboats and save ourselves.

According to Matthew Norman in the Independent: “Were I Scottish, I would be mad for independence. I’d say sod the crude oil price [and] sod the Barnett formula.”

Last week John McDonnell’s surprise revelation that Labour will not block a second independent referendum prompted the Guardian’s John Harris to promise: “If another independence vote materialised … I would be back there [Scotland] in a flash, to see if at least one part of these islands can leave behind the current wretchedness, and find something better.”

Yesterday the Observer carried a long piece from Aberdeenshire, where 60 per cent voted No in 2014. Harriet Sherwood observed: “In Inverurie’s market square, most willing to express a view appeared to favour independence. But many who declined to discuss their political leanings may be supporters of the Union.”

That’s perfectly true, but Sherwood’s piece is full of quotes from No voters ready to publicly admit they’ve changed their minds or at least are open to argument.

Simon Jenkins’ no-holds-barred Comment is Free column last week was the most widely circulated on social media. Clearly no heartfelt supporter of independence, Jenkins surveyed the long history of English indifference to first Irish and then Scottish Home Rule campaigns, compared Scotland’s flatlining GDP with that of soaring Denmark and suggested “separatists” should thank Boris and Brexit for hammering the final nails into the Union’s coffin: “If I were a Scot, I would vote for independence tomorrow. I would want nothing more to do with the shambles of today’s Westminster Parliament.”

Scots-born Times’ columnist Iain Martin insists the end of the Union isn’t preordained but admits the “most ominous news for unionists” was that only 30 per cent of Ashcroft’s poll sample thought Scotland would vote to stay in the UK in a second independence poll. Actually the truly ominous news was probably already known. The UK Government’s private polling has remained unpublished in Scotland for obvious reasons – but Boris Johnson would be well aware of its contents. So, everything from the “do or die” Brexit declaration to the ridiculous 50 pence coin “celebration” has occurred in the full knowledge they are driving Scots towards independence. Clearly the Minister for the Union believes that’s a price worth paying.

Martin’s solution has already been outlined by others without the capacity to enact it: “A commission devolving maximum powers across Britain, on taxation, for example, and something closer to a federal collection of states, pooling defence and foreign affairs [with] an elected replacement for the Lords in the shape of a Britain-wide senate.”

Friend, it ain’t gonna happen and everyone knows it.

Gordon Brown’s weekend intervention ironically confirms that the F-option is stone dead. Five years after his fateful Vow, the former Labour leader insists that, “to prevent the rise and rise of dysfunctional nationalism, the first step is to stop no-deal in its tracks”.

Really.

Quite apart from the Ashcroft poll’s revelation that 40 per cent of Scottish Labour voters also back “dysfunctional nationalism” (whatever that means), SNP politicians have been highly visible in the legal action that won the right for MPs to revoke Article 50 and will be part of this week’s court bid to stop Johnson suspending parliament. Despite taking pelters for their troubles, Nicola Sturgeon and her MPs are trying to stop no-deal in its tracks far more constructively than the party Brown once led.

In fact, his stale rhetoric only serves to remind voters that “a system of government as close to federalism as you can have” never materialised. Instead the Brexit power grab and new Westminster plans to spend cash directly in Scotland mean the Vow is meaningless and its architect is lost in time.

Still, the intervention of the English Left and prominent Remainers is strange, given that Scotland’s departure would leave them with a near-permanent Tory majority – or whatever worse fate awaits once Brexit delivers economic disaster. Are they motivated by a selfless “you go, because we can’t” sentiment or by enlightened self-interest – “you create a sane, social democracy because we may need escape north soon”?

A friend went south last month to visit English relatives who were quite hostile to independence first time around. Now they want to know if their kids will get passports in the new independent state if they attend Scottish universities now.

It certainly seems that many English people are surprisingly clear-sighted and decisive about independence – either from a “glad to see the back of the whining Jocks” perspective or from an honest acknowledgment that Scots “didn’t vote for this mess”.

My guess is that important strands of English opinion have never been sentimental about the Union. It’s just been an arrangement that has now run its course – in the view of prominent players on both sides. South of the Border, the Union has been a calculation, not a calling – however overwrought English politicians sometimes contrive to appear.

Former Labour MP Tom Harris told Radio Scotland last weekend that the “hard Left” of his party “always regarded the Union as a colonial construct. That’s why Jeremy Corbyn stayed at home on his allotment when Labour MPs came up in 2014.”

Perhaps. In Scotland, though, that colonial construct has been much more than a calculation. It’s been cloaked with sentiment, studded with power and fuelled by the chronic fear of failure that bedevils the disempowered.

Thanks to Johnson and Brexit, that cloak is slipping to reveal the intractable problems that blight the once gilded Union path. Opinion here is taking a while to turn, but that’s understandable.

Folk are detaching from the authority of Westminster and considering the idea of a new independent country without a blueprint to hand. But make no mistake. Quiet consideration is a crucial part of any change process. A final decision needs a final focus – a deadline. And several are fast approaching.