I’m writing this from the south coast of England. According to Google I could be in Germany more quickly than I could be in Scotland (it’d take 6 hours to drive to Duisburg, 6.5 to get to Gretna Green without stopping). The country I am writing this in – let’s call it England again – is in two unions. It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and it is in the European Union. On Friday morning it may wake up to discover that one of those unions has just been cleft in twain.
I used to live much nearer to Scotland. One of the many places I called home was about a twenty minute drive from the border. I used to watch Queen of the South in the flesh and BBC Scotland from the sofa. I liked that Scotland was very recognisably the same country as England and yet also very recognisably not the same country. The similarities don’t need repeating really but those differences from dialect to ‘Not Proven’ seemed on occasion to be greater than the differences between New Hampshire and New Mexico. The first flight I took after getting married was to Aberdeen and we then spent our honeymoon on the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney. As one old bloke put it to us, “Edinburgh’s as remote as London, really. We just get on with it.”
Scotland by then had a devolved parliament and, at some point, acquired that god ugly parliament building to go with it. Its politics, at least measured by representation if not necessarily by public opinion or actual votes, drifted more towards the left than England’s and its nationalism changed from something that seemed content to be different within a union to something that would be satisfied only with independence. Even then, though, only a quarter of the eligible population voted SNP at the Holyrood election – the overall disaffection with the political class reflected in the fact that 45% didn’t vote at all.
And yet, somehow, here we are. That political class seems to have completely misjudged the contempt in which its held by virtually everyone not actually a part of it. I include within that class pretty much every journalist and commentator in the English media as they all seem to emerge from the same pool. What should have been an easy victory for the union is now too close to call – although it seems that a the union is the slight favourite. Every shout from the ‘No’ lobby, so much of it either English accented or from those Scots who do well out of sounding a bit English, seems almost calculated to have enthused the independence supporters.
Salmond, the SNP leader, hasn’t even had to play a particularly smart campaign. The man who overrides local wishes to make sure Donald Trump gets a golf course, manges to play the same role that teflon-coated Nigel Farage does for Ukip. And the argument is much the same: under independence Scotland will be led by Scots who know Scotland’s unique circumstances and who will thus act for the good of Scotland. Don’t trust politicians, says this politician, but vote to give more power to your local politicians.
I call bullshit – but I’d probably still vote for independence. The United Kingdom is sick and its body politic is perverse. Its most deprived areas receive the least. London, the richest area, receives the most public subsidy in all aspects of its life, and has a devolved government to lobby for more public and private investment. The rest of England gets shat on and fights, without any power, for scraps. Wales and Scotland are devolved to confusingly different degrees and have used that devolution to create client states. The least said about a Northern Ireland assembly the better but at least by and large they’re not shooting each other.
And this has all been done because the political class do not trust the people. We are a union of four nations and countless communities but we are ruled as if we are one giant constituency. Except for the bits where we’re not which have not been integrated into the whole. Federalism, which would ensure at least some pretence of democratic representation, is rejected because its fiddly and, worse, European. So we end up with these bizarre situations where to make the union stronger it is necessary to give bits of it more and more whilst hoping the others don’t get too bitter about it. And all the while the numbers voting fall because there becomes less and less point. The UK as it is set up now is unmanageable.
One would have hoped that somebody would have grasped this. That somebody, not the nationalists tied to their flags and whimsical notions of destiny, might have twigged that sorting things out for everyone within a union within a bigger union might have been a better option than umm and ahhing at the sidelines. But better to shake fists at Brussels or get angry that Aberdeen doesn’t seem very grateful or that that London is a right bastard.
So were I Scottish in Scotland, I’d vote yes. I’d do so reluctantly. I’d think about the promises and realise that none of them could be kept in the form they’d been made. I’d think over the number of times the Scottish (and devolved London) leaders seem to find themselves shaking the hands of disagreeable people. I’d think that the future would lie in being fit for business and I’d be aware that that will screw over a lot of people. I’d know all that and I’d still vote yes. Because, frankly, at the end of the day I’d rather have some semblance of democratic control than none at all.
So, on Friday, morning I may wake up on the south coast to find myself in something called rUK and switch on the news to find people cheering iScotland. I don’t think I will. And I don’t think it will matter for us down here. Our politicians will still not grasp what needs to be done – they will cover up cracks and hope nobody notices. They may give more powers to Scotland and throw some crumbs Wales’s way. And come the general election they will care more about drowning out Ukip than on untangling the mess. And half the country won’t vote, and the sneering columnists will wonder why, some may even tweet a photo of a Pankhurst to make a point.
But the point, after all this waffle is this: whatever Scotland votes the issues that affect the majority in this country called England run a lot deeper than whether I’ll need a passport after my 6.5 hour drive to Gretna Green – and whether Scotland is attached or not the political set-up in the United Kingdom is in no state to meet those issues.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the car. I hear Duisburg calling.