A fear lurks in the coverage of David Cameron’s plea to the Scots to preserve the Union. Many people who long for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom fear voters north of the border will find the Prime Minister such an objectionable figure that they vote for independence in order to defy him. This fear is not illusory, and it certainly behoves Cameron to behave with all due tact.
But amid this anxious tactfulness, an elementary point is in danger of being forgotten. To preserve the Union, it is not necessary for the Scots and the English to find each other delightful. The Union came about because relations between Scotland and England were so bad. As G.M.Trevelyan wrote in his history of the event:
“It would be an error to suppose that the Union was passed in the reign of Anne because English and Scots were in a friendly mood. The opposite was the case. The badness of the terms on which the two nations were living was the motive of the Union. Statesmen on both sides of the Border saw the necessity of a union of the two Parliaments in one, as the only alternative to war, and as the only political machine strong enough to stand the shocks of the perpetually recurring antagonism of North and South Britain.
“Fortunately, the English were in no position at that moment to coerce the Scots into a Union, as they had done in the days of Cromwell. In Anne’s reign Union could only be obtained by consent, and consent had to be purchased by sacrifices made on both sides. The Scots were called on to sacrifice their independent Parliament; the English to admit them to the jealously guarded trade with the Colonies.”
There is a distant parallel here with the alliance between France and Germany after the Second World War. The French and the Germans did not love each other: they just wanted to stop fighting each other.
Alex Salmond wants to stir up ancient antagonisms, and to destroy an arrangement which for over three centuries has preserved peace between Scotland and England, and has enabled us to look outwards, rather than consume our energies in internal quarrels. It is for the Scots to decide whether to support Salmond’s venture. But dislike of a particular kind of Englishman is no reason to ignore the very strong arguments in favour of the Union. If Salmond were to destroy the Union, one suspects it would quite soon be necessary to reinvent it.