By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 27/11/06):
The current prime minister could hardly have put it more starkly. Nationalism “is … the basest metal of politics, the politics of grievance”. And, for once, the prime minister we are about to get agrees. Sever the ties that bind and “it’s not only bad for economics, but bad for the solidarity that should exist … across countries in the world”.Are they belabouring Sinn Féin, the Daily Mail, some dodgy new government in Warsaw? No: it’s that time of year again – conference season for the Scottish Labour party. And this time there’s an edge of desperation to the Oban attack. Here’s a remarkably interesting ICM poll (for the Sunday Telegraph) showing that 52% of Scots want their independence – and that 59% of the English would like Scotland gone.
Perhaps London hasn’t quite registered the problem yet. Many London-based papers, indeed, have barely reported it. But when Tony Blair – launching his tartan tirade – starts trading oil-price futures (£36 a barrel to fuel the Nats’ spending plans or £18 to leave the coffers bare?) then fear is back on top of the menu. And when Gordon Brown talks about one in six Scots living south of the border and 400,000 English taking their places, there’s a whiff of ethnic cleansing out among the heather. This is rough, tough, visceral stuff: and it will grow ever more brutal as May 3 draws nearer, because the extent of the crisis is ever more evident.
It isn’t just that the Nationalists are running level or better than that in opinion polls, giving themselves a real chance of being the biggest single party in the Edinburgh parliament next spring. It’s how one glum thing slots in with another. Blair will either have just left the stage or be preparing to leave it. Brown will finally be grasping his inheritance. But where’s the lustre to that if he starts out a loser – the Scot who couldn’t deliver his home turf for Labour, the Scot forced to deal with a Nationalist-led regime at Holyrood that delights in humiliating its fiercest Labour foe?
You can bet that, then, all the London papers will be clearing their front pages. You can be sure that the Cameron clan will be dancing a jig – for, as Brown told the conference: “They don’t care about the union and about Britain: they are fighting a policy of English voters for English laws.” Labour is battling not just for Scotland, but for its long-term hopes of a Westminster majority. Fear and loot have worked before: try them again.
Yet the old timber-shiverers seem to have lost much of their potency. Voters aren’t stupid. They have absorbed the lessons of European union, of Czech and Slovak plumbers, and seen national borders and currencies lose their old salience. Of course, Scotland may endure a bumpy ride, but not an impossible one. If the Scots want to push off, let them, because they can’t go far. And meanwhile England would like some of its money back, as well as a decent answer to the West Lothian question.
The debate may petrify the political classes, but it barely makes it through the door of the saloon bar. Quite simply, we have ceased to care as much as we did. A free Scotland? Sure, if they vote for it. A united Ireland? Why not, on the same terms? The world is a more malleable place.
Which is Brown’s inescapable challenge. He must see now that this devolution – untidy, unfinished – is a staging post, not a solution. He must privately realise that one day in one May the iron law of democracy – that exhausted, discredited governments change – will pitch Labour into Holyrood opposition and give the SNP their chance. He must reconcile Scottish impatience with English resentment. In short, he must turn a spatchcock series of stumbles into crafted, durable federation. So London had forgotten about Scotland, you say? So wake up and begin to remember.