Last Thursday’s cover story makes alarming reading, Alex Massie arguing that Alex Salmond may come close to achieving victory in September’s vote.
Alex wrote: ‘It is beginning to be appreciated, even in London, that Alex Salmond might just win his independence referendum in September. The break-up of Britain will have begun, David Cameron will have to contemplate being Prime Minister of a rump country — and HMS Britannia will be sunk, not with a bang but a whimper. It will be due as much to English indifference as Scottish agitation.’
I would still put my pound sterling on a No vote, and current odds for independence are around 7/2; but I suspect that ultimate victory will probably go to the SNP. There a number of reasons why the union is doomed.
Firstly, as Alex Massie has said before, even if Salmond wins 40 per cent of the vote, that is a moral victory and will lead to demands for a new referendum at some point soon. Two-thirds is usually the minimum requirement for constitutional changes in countries with written constitutions, because it suggests a consensus; any society in which more than a third of the population supports a change in the status quo is a divided one.
People generally don’t like living in divided societies, which is why they will tend to move towards one mainstream view; what normally happens is that once a rising idea has reached a tipping point it then becomes accepted as orthodoxy. Although some ideas do grow and then recede, Scottish independence, which has risen from a single-figures idea to one closing in on half the population, may well reach that tipping point.
It will also benefit by cascades; people think that it will eventually happen, so they get behind it in expectation. In England there is a feeling that since the split is inevitable, it’s best to end uncertainty and acrimony by getting it over and done with.
Meanwhile south of the border a psychological change has taken place since devolution, so that people no longer pay as much attention to what’s going on in Scotland, any more than they do to what happens in Ireland, which is not foreign, not even semi-foreign but certainly quarti-foreign (my declaration here: I’m half-Irish).
The semantics have also changed. I noticed the other day that Archbishop Vincent Nichols, commenting on the Queen’s trip to Rome to see the Pope, welcomed it as great news for ‘our nations’. I don’t think people would have used the plural 20 years ago. I wonder if there has been any study of the terminology in Scotland; politicians seem to talk about the ‘union’, not the ‘British nation’. The BBC stopped calling Britain ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’ about a decade ago.
Another small, but significant, factor is that because of the way our education system is set up, our young people are not going to university together, as Hugo Rifkind, a London-based Scot, mentioned in the magazine a few weeks ago. That is pretty sad.
However there are two major drivers of a split, neither of which are much commented on; one has to do with the Tory Party in Scotland. In any sort of federal, multi-ethnic state with a two-party system it is necessary for both parties to receive significant support in each section; otherwise the likelihood of one section separating becomes much greater. The Tories, who won Scotland outright in 1951, now have fewer than 10 per cent of seats in the Edinburgh Parliament, and just one Scottish MP in Westminster. It is effectively an English party now, as much as the Republicans were a northern party in the US of the 1850s. If that continues the union cannot hold.
But the biggest reason has to do with multiculturalism. In the past few decades England has gone through a demographic revolution that has transformed its cities, while Scotland has not. Our national stories and our societies are now very, very different, and this has affected the way the English see themselves.
In the past 15 years or so there has been a huge increase in the number of people who identify as English, but this has less to do with the disproportionately subsidised and powerful people across the Tweed than with mass immigration.
Not only is this identification almost entirely among people who the census calls ‘white British’, but there is a strong correlation between people who identify as English and those with negative views towards diversity. Being English is a statement of identity in a multicultural society in which ‘British’ has become a much more neutral, and weaker, term. The only people these days who identify primarily as British are London liberals, ethnic minorities and Ulster Protestants.
But by ceasing to identify with Britain, the English have also become apathetic about what is happening to the north. The truth is that many Englishmen, when warned that Salmond’s victory could mean the end of the country they know and love, would simply point to a London high street and say something about stable doors and horses.
But hey, the good news is that George Osborne is up today, the Englishman who most resembles an 18th century Hanoverian aristocrat who enjoys nothing more than a day kicking crofters off their land before going home for some port and spanking. Or perhaps he’ll remind them of the gay one from Braveheart. Either way it’s likely to resurrect lots of painful, if largely made-up, ancestral memories. Britain is doomed!
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.