Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
It’s Alex Salmond’s cleverest wheeze yet – a tactic of such audacious brilliance that even we dyed-in-the-wool Unionists should salute the man’s cunning. Having failed to turn Scottish voters against the Union, he proposes to turn English voters against it.
In the run-up to the independence vote, Nicola Sturgeon made very clear that “constitutional referenda are once-in-a-generation events”. She was right. There are two British characteristics which are, if anything, exaggerated in Scotland: stubbornness and fair-mindedness. Even some Yes voters might bristle at being asked the same question again. “Whit pairt of ‘Naw’ d’ye nae unnerstaund?”
Scottish voters, after all, have just settled the secession issue, on a record turnout and with a clear majority. But the same is not true of English voters. And it is south of the border that the SNP plans to change attitudes.
Even before the referendum, Salmond was goading the English by making them believe that they were paying for goodies in Scotland, such as free tuition fees and care for the elderly. He was able to do this while assuring Scottish voters that they were paying more into the system than they got out of it, largely because some English newspapers and politicians played along with him.
A large SNP bloc at Westminster would allow him to take this tactic to a whole new level. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Labour were reliant on SNP MPs for a majority – the scenario currently suggested by most opinion polls. Imagine that, in order to remain in office, Ed Miliband were obliged to concede key parts of the SNP programme: higher spending, higher taxes, higher borrowing. Nicola Sturgeon, after all, could hardly have made herself clearer during the debates: she believes that the best way to cut the deficit is to spend more. She also described the scrapping of Trident as “a red line”, a rather sad choice of phrase, when we recall that it was first used to describe the heroism of Scottish regiments in the British Army. How do you think English and Welsh voters would react to having a policy of unilateral disarmament foisted on them by a party with less than four per cent of the total national vote?
Salmond’s tactic is not without precedent. Irish nationalists won their most significant battles in London rather than Dublin. It’s a myth that Irish independence was secured militarily. More Southern Irish Catholics died in British uniforms on the first day of the Somme offensive than participated in the Easter Rising. But, by then, there had been a shift in opinion in Great Britain. People no longer believed in the legitimacy of the Union. And the reason they no longer believed it is that, working within the Westminster system, exploiting parliamentary process, Irish MPs, from Parnell’s time onward, had worn away their patience. By the early twentieth century, mainstream opinion in England had shifted: few were prepared to pay the high price required to keep Ireland in the Union against its will.
Salmond aims at something similar. He knows that in Ireland before 1916, as in Scotland now, the most popular option was Home Rule. In both countries, a minority favoured complete separation, and another minority favoured closer ties with England, but the majority was for more autonomy within a looser UK. In Ireland, that option was overtaken by events: the First World War interrupted Home Rule, and the heavy-handedness with which the 1916 rising was repressed pushed Irish opinion toward outright secession. Obviously, no one wants or expects violence today. Still, Salmond knows that his dream of independence depends on keeping grievances alive on both sides of the border. The last thing he wants is an amicable devo max settlement, possibly within a new federal framework for the UK, which might quell the argument for good.
Curiously enough, the Conservatives have gone far further than Labour on devolution. Long before the publication of “The Vow”, the Tories had proposed full fiscal autonomy for Scotland – an idea that Labour loathes. In theory, devo max might allow some kind of SNP-Conservative accommodation based on massive further decentralisation throughout the UK. But the SNP refuses to countenance such a deal because 1) it loathes the Tories; 2) it defines Scottish national identity, not by language, culture or any of the usual signifiers, but by Leftist politics; and 3) it would rather cling to its grudges than agree a devo max settlement that might permanently end the dream of Scotland sitting separately in the UN.
I’m afraid I can well imagine the English reaction to a Labour-SNP government. Many of my constituents would conclude, perhaps wistfully, that the price of the Union was now too high, and that maybe we’d all be better off going our own ways. It wouldn’t exactly be a new feeling. Although we have no opinion polls from that era, it seems clear that England was far more hostile than Scotland to the Union of Crowns in 1603. Many Englishmen of that era wrote as if they were being taken over by the landless Scottish knights and lairds who had swarmed south with their king, snapping up pensions and sinecures. The same was certainly true in 1707. Although MPs in both parliaments needed to be cajoled and bribed into merging, public resentment lasted for decades in England. The archetype of the Scotsman on the make dates from plays of this era, as Englishmen reacted to the large numbers of educated Scots taking plum jobs in London.
Such feelings died out from the late eighteenth-century onwards, as Englishmen came to think of Scots as their countrymen. But a clever and unscrupulous politician may well be able to stir them up again in a new form. If at first you don’t secede…