Scotland talks up a divorce

By Jenny Hjul (THE TIMES, 14/01/07):

The English could be forgiven for thinking the Scots an ungrateful bunch. For 300 years they have been joined with England, enjoying the fruits that marriage brings, asking for and receiving generous gifts (home rule, for instance) while not losing their sense of identity.

Yet instead of marking their approaching anniversary with an affirmation of love or a renewal of vows, the Scots seem to be toying with divorce.

The Act of Union of January 16, 1707, brought prosperity to Scotland and pre-empted the intellectual flowering of the Enlightenment. (The English didn’t do too badly, either.) But the celebrations will be muted because the Scots can’t make up their minds whether they want to celebrate the union or whether they even want to remain a part of it.

Opinion polls over the past six months, including one for this newspaper today, show that support for independence has grown and the assumption has been that stirrings of rampant anti-Englishness are to blame.

Stories abound of Scottish chippiness, of football passions running amok, of Argentine strips outselling English ones 10 to one in Edinburgh when Argentina is playing against England.

The letters pages of Scottish newspapers have bubbled over with separatist fury, and online debates regularly draw crowds of correspondents when the subject is independence.

Meanwhile the English, long regarded as phlegmatic towards the Scots, have begun to question the disproportionate influence Scottish politicians have over English affairs. As Scottish disappointment with their devolved lot grows so does English resentment of Scottish disappointment. And as the English become more vocal in their irritation, the Scots become more irritated.

In this of all years, the relationship has hit a low. But has it? The only thing that is certain in Scotland today is uncertainty.

What today’s poll confirms is that Scottish opinion, if examined rigorously, is not quite as seduced by the snake-oil-salesman charm of Alex Salmond, the Scottish National party leader, as he would like us to believe.

No more than 30% of Scots have ever voted for independence in any election and the last time that level was reached was in a general election 30 years ago. Backing for the SNP slumped to 19% in the European elections only three years ago.

It is always advisable to treat with caution tales of unbridled nationalist fervour; if there is to be a shift in voting habits it will be more gradual. In the first four years of devolution, support for independence remained steady at about 25%, and only now, with less than four months before the Scottish parliamentary elections, has the SNP established a clear lead over Labour.

Recently Salmond has lured a number of high-profile turncoats who have publicly denounced the union and then shared a platform with their grinning compatriot as if they could scent victory.

The nationalists often polled well in the run-up to previous elections: in 1998 and 1999 support for independence was as high as 56%, but Labour was popular then and the separatist bandwagon was stopped.

The obvious differences between then and now in Scotland are the Blair factor, the Iraq factor, and the Jack McConnell (Scotland’s first minister) factor. Labour has never been so loathed in its historic heartlands. The party even looks like losing its dominance over local authorities, thanks to proportional representation, with opinion polls suggesting it might keep majority control of just three of Scotland’s 32 councils.

Voters north of the border have more reason than most to be disgruntled because they have two tiers of Labour government, at Westminster and at Holyrood, and still hospital waiting times lengthen, education standards slip and youth crime rises.

Instead of finding Scottish solutions for Scottish problems, the devolved parliament has devoted its energies to class-based obsessions, such as land reform, and squandered vast public funds on the devolution industry.

Life expectancy in parts of Glasgow is lower than in many Third World countries but the health department wastes money on campaigns emphasising the importance of handwashing. There is not enough cash for cancer drugs but NHS bosses have racked up £8.6m on their taxi bills. Political ineptitude, not the English, lies at the heart of Scottish nationalist resurgence and Salmond has been quick to capitalise on this. In England a discredited Labour party tends to be beaten by the Tories, but in Scotland the nationalists are the main party of opposition.

Devolution was not meant to stoke the fires of nationalism but that is what it has done — largely by dashing all expectations of what devolution could achieve.

The SNP is unlikely to win an outright majority in the May ballot but it could be the biggest party and form the next administration. Then Salmond will use his considerable political skills to show that he can be a better first minister than McConnell (not too difficult) and that the SNP can govern Scotland efficiently.

Little by little, he will make a case for more powers for the Scottish parliament until the notion of a complete break appears natural. However, there is hope for the union yet: 50% of the English and 55% of Scots told pollsters they thought it was worth keeping. If the nationalists win the Scottish elections they have promised to hold a referendum on independence.

Once a protest vote has been registered, enthusiasm for constitutional upheaval will probably ebb away. Deep down, the Scots remain ambivalent about independence, as the poll findings prove, and distrust the economic arguments.

On a personal level they make affable enemies. Besides, the Scots tend to hate each other as much as they say they hate the English. A third of Scots think too many Scots have a chip on their shoulder and drink too much; a quarter believe their countrymen are benefit bludgers.

As an expat Scot from north Ayrshire commented during a website discussion on independence: what is this Scotland people are talking about as if it’s a homogenous society? “I wouldn’t want anyone mixing me up with backward Highlanders, petty Dundonians, mean, snobbish Edinbuggers or loutish Glasgow keelies.”

Take away the union and the Scots would eventually tear themselves apart.