No to Nigel: anti Ukip protestors demonstrating in Edinburgh, 9 May. Photo: Getty
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Seeing the UK from a Scottish perspective has made me feel British for the first time

Something changed in me during my trip to Edinburgh. It is hard to articulate the subtle, often contradictory emotions that constitute a sense of national identity.

The debate about Scottish indepen­dence reminds me of a traumatic experience suffered by a friend of mine. Tidying her flat one day, she found a surprising scrap of paper. Two lists, roughly equal in length, were separated by a neatly lined centre margin. The first list was headed “Reasons to leave my girlfriend”. The second was entitled “Reasons to stay with my girlfriend”. As she was the girlfriend in question, it did not make for comfortable reading.

As an Englishman travelling to Scotland recently, I felt renewed sympathy for my friend. It persuaded me to invert the usual journalistic convention. Instead of travelling north, canvassing opinion randomly, then arbitrarily trying to “summarise the mood in Scotland”, I became drawn to a more difficult question. The No campaign is routinely criticised for not making its case with emotional force, as though it cannot muster a compelling and romantic message. Yet is it within the power of Britain, especially the English, to do anything about Scottish attitudes to independence? Might not protestations of devotion and affection prove counterproductive? After all, since when has “Please don’t go!” worked as a strategy for wooing back a disenchanted partner? All this coexisted with a second question, no easier to resolve: how do we feel about Scotland anyway?

Setting out from Edinburgh Castle before breakfast on a cold May morning, I took about 25 minutes – a decent run and a short scramble up stony steps – to get to the top of Arthur’s Seat. Along the route, which was dotted with monuments to Scottish and British history, I tried to work out how it felt as an Englishman to visit British Edinburgh, perhaps for the last time.

Having spent most of my adult life in central London, I must confess to a splash of envy. At the top of Arthur’s Seat, no further from the centre of the city than Regent’s Park is from Trafalgar Square, I could scarcely have felt less penned in. To the south lie the Pentland Hills; to the west stands the city with its abundant parklands; the north and east are framed by the grey-blue water of the Firth of Forth. And you don’t have to climb to the highest point to feel a sense of geographical freedom – Edinburgh offers escape routes at every turn.

With a population of just under half a million, Edinburgh is magnificently proportioned – about the size of Boston and a good deal smaller than Munich. In scale, it is little more than a regional city; in feel, it is far greater. No other British city is like it.

Running back to the centre, I dropped down towards Holyrood, then gradually went up the Royal Mile, passing the high- and low-water marks of Edinburgh’s fin­ancial reputation: a magisterial statue of Adam Smith stands 50 yards or so from the neoclassical façade of the Bank of Scotland, bailed out during the financial crisis.

You sense the hand of government in more mundane ways. The streets of central Edinburgh seem to house a greater proportion of government agencies than their London equivalents. Even the prime shopping streets are peppered with municipal-looking typefaces. The state is not only bigger here but also more visible.

In the afternoon, I meandered in the opposite direction towards the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a classical mansion set in landscaped gardens. A brisk, enjoyable exhibition featured the works of J D Fergusson (1874-1961), one of the Scottish colourists.

It turned out to be an appropriate show. Born in Leith, Fergusson escaped to Paris as soon as he could. Drenched in colour and often richly sensual, his paintings were overwhelmingly influenced by France, especially the warm south. Some are paeans to Frenchness more than reflections of it. I was hard-pushed, at first glance, to discern anything particularly Scottish about the overall impression.

Fergusson did not see it that way and he carefully honed his Scottish persona as a Highland Gael. He added an extra “s” to his surname to give it a more Scottish sheen and claimed that his father had farmed the soil when, in reality, he had been a spirit merchant in Leith.

The artist rationalised his decampment to France in terms of the old Celtic alliance, united by the esprit gaulois. If England can exist as a phantom oppressor even to a man who is cheerfully painting beautiful nude models in the unbuttoned Cap d’Antibes, you sense the depth and flexibility of Scottish antipathy to Englishness.

It is an antipathy that, apparently, may march towards full independence on 18 September. Until now, I had not been drawn to the debate. My indifference was sustained by the feeling that Scotland would not quite do it, not when the moment comes. Indifference is usually a reliable emotion: if you don’t feel strongly, it’s best not to fake it. But what if comfortable indifference is culpable complacency?

Something changed in me during my trip to Edinburgh. It is hard to articulate the subtle, often contradictory emotions that constitute a sense of national identity. No rational argument can quite explain how a person ends up defining himself as both English and British, or Scottish and British. It relies on differing shades of belonging. Part outsider, part native – that was my experience of Scotland. I enjoyed the complexity and uncertainty. I felt as much British as English, perhaps for the first time, and I didn’t want to lose the dual yet overlapping identity.

I have answered one question but not the other. I now know finally how I feel about the Union. However, I left Edinburgh no clearer about how to make the case to the people who will decide the matter. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR