A POINT OF VIEW
By Brian Walden
To stay together or not - that is the question. But it's not so simple, as nothing in the United Kingdom is ever what it seems.
Praying hard for independence?
When I was at school I thought for a long time that Scotland was like Yorkshire. It was a place "up north" bleak and cold, but part of our country.
Eventually I was taught the Scots were a separate nation. Not that this made any difference, because nobody in my neck of the woods took minorities seriously. The Scots were forgiven for whatever they may have been in the distant past, in view of the fact that they were now British and probably glorying in it like the rest of us.
My ignorance wasn't corrected in the world of politics either. None of the people I knew warned me of the seething nationalism that lay beneath Scotland's apparently placid surface. Either because they hadn't spotted it, or because they thought nationalism was a prank devised by Scots who enjoyed dressing up in kilts and bonnets.
'Ladies from hell'
After all, in the 1966 general election the Scottish National Party polled only about 5% of the vote in Scotland. Then suddenly the Nationalists surged forward dramatically and in 1974 took 30% of the Scottish vote and won 11 seats in the House of Commons.
I was there when they arrived and there wasn't a bonnet in sight, or many kilts. The Nationalists were shrewd and street-wise, not a bunch of out-of-date romantics.
The SNP bobbed up and down in popularity in succeeding years, but its arrival on the scene revealed just how shaky the union between England and Scotland had become.
This came as a nasty surprise to me. I'd been raised in an atmosphere of uncritical, though perhaps patronising, affection for Scotland. One of my teachers jovially told me that in World War I the Germans called the kilted Scottish regiments "the ladies from hell".
My vulgar youthful enthusiasm for the Union is very far from the mood today, not only in Scotland but unexpectedly also in England. At the beginning of the week an ICM poll showed that a clear majority in both Scotland and England is in favour of full independence for Scotland.
A ladies skirt?
What is even more striking is that by nearly three to one the English want an English parliament. This amounts to breaking-up the United Kingdom and setting Scotland and England free as independent nations. Yet none of the major political parties supports independence for Scotland.
The possible break-up of the Union will soon become the biggest story around. There's a bit of a lull at the moment while nearly everybody waits to see whether the Nationalist vote holds up. So I'd like to seize the chance, before the fun starts, to say that nothing about the Union is quite what it seems.
When Harold Macmillan appointed Ted Heath as Lord Privy Seal he made one of his rare jokes. He said he wasn't a Lord, or a Privy, or a Seal. He added that English titles often obscure the reality. So it is with the Union.
In the first place, far from being beloved, when the English and the Scots grumpily agreed to a union in 1707 there was no enthusiasm anywhere for the deal. Scottish Jacobites sang the ballad: "We are bought and sold for English gold." Jonathan Swift wrote a bitter poem that included the lines: "Whoever yet a Union saw. Of Kingdoms without Faith or Law."
The Union came about because though everybody wanted a better solution nobody could think of one.
Scotland had had bad harvests and trade losses and was threatening to choose its own ruler when Queen Anne died.
England paid off Scotland's debt, but Scotland lost its parliament. In return for which Scotland was given gross over-representation in the House of Commons at Westminster. A state of affairs that persists to this day.
This is even more divisive than it looks, because the Conservative Party, though not quite stone dead in Scotland, is hardly breathing. It has only one Westminster seat in the whole country and lags behind not only the Labour Party, but also the Liberal Democrats as well as the Scottish Nationalists.
If there was any other big party in Scotland, say the Jacobites, or the Whigs, or the fundamentalists, the Conservative Party would be sure to finish behind it. Modern Scotland hates Tories.
But wait a moment; surely that doesn't make sense? Doesn't the Conservative Party love the Union? Even their leader David Cameron - who's been slaughtering the lame sacred cows - is a Unionist. He says: "We are stronger together than apart." And aren't the Tory newspapers, like the powerful Telegraph titles, blindly devoted to the Union?
Is independence for Yorkshire next?
Yes, that's all true and there's no insincerity about it. Tories take in love of the Union with their mother's milk. But if the worst comes to the worst and Scotland becomes an independent country, after it's wept into its whisky and soda the Conservative Party will pull itself together and discover that it's all set to become the government of England. Even at the last general election, which wasn't one of their better efforts, the Tories polled more votes in England than Labour did.
It's the Labour Party that is now passionate in its Unionism. Gordon Brown, John Reid and the other Scots in the government are busy telling Scotland what a grievous blunder it would make if it left the loving embrace of England and went out into a cold world all alone.
Gordon Brown, who is expected to become Prime Minister next summer, must feel like Thomas Jefferson would have felt if, just as he was about to become President of the United States, his home state of Virginia had seceded from the Federal Union.
It isn't as if the Labour Party in Scotland hasn't done its damnedest to scupper Scottish independence. There's a parliament in Edinburgh because Labour thought it would spike the Nationalists' guns.
Jim Callaghan once told a group of us: "You'll understand appeasement better as you get older." There's truth in that, because appeasement often works, but when it doesn't, the concessions you've made look foolish.
Tam Dalyell, the former member for West Lothian, asked the famous question: "Why can Scottish MP's at Westminster vote on matters like health and education in England, whereas English MP's don't have any say on these matters in Scotland because of the Edinburgh parliament?" The question is unanswerable and reveals a nonsensical constitutional position.
Incidentally, the Scottish Nationalist MPs at Westminster withhold their votes on English issues and jeer at the Labour Party saying that it wants to run England on Scottish votes.
Wallace fought for freedom of Scots
But let's not bury the Union too quickly. The Nationalists have some fences to jump before they're home and hosed. They have to beat Labour in the elections for the Scottish Parliament next May and then devise and win an independence referendum.
The other parties know what's at stake and will throw everything they have at them. I should guess the odds are against them this time around. But the issue is never going to go away and the Nationalists now know that the majority of the English wish Scotland well as an independent country. I'm pretty sure that's going to happen one day.
I said I used to think Scotland was like Yorkshire. Well I notice Michael Parkinson, the famous journalist, chat-show host and Yorkshireman, would welcome Scottish independence. He says: "Let them have it, and I think that Yorkshire should be independent too. It's bigger than Scotland and has produced more heroes." He's joking of course. Isn't he?
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