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13 June 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 12:01pm

Alex Salmond’s leap of faith

Why the left should defend the British Union.

By Jason Cowley

In the spring of 1995, I spent a week on assignment in Edinburgh. The weather was unusually settled, and during long, radiant days of sunshine I explored the city on foot, meeting writers and artists to talk about the renaissance in Scottish culture.

I returned home charmed by Edinburgh – by its architectural grandeur, its civility and its history. It was obvious to me that this was the capital city of a proud nation that was deprived, because of the centralisation of power in Britain at Westminster, of statehood. Scotland had its own separate education and legal systems, but the Scottish people were being ruled from London by a government for which most Scots did not vote. The status quo was unsatisfactory. The British state felt antiquated; it was creaking. The Scots were restless.

Those were the dying days of the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland, and most of the young people I spoke to had little sense of a larger British identity. They were proudly, defiantly, Scottish. To them Britain was inseparable from England and English expansionism. In May 1997, Tony Blair’s New Labour Party swept to power promising devolution for Scotland and Wales. The Conservatives, the party of empire and of the Union, opposed devolution, and were routed, winning none of 72 seats in Scotland.

The Tories opposed devolution perhaps because they feared it would signal the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom, with its old associations of empire, Protestantism and war. Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP first for West Lothian and then Linlithgow, spoke for many unionists when, in a resonant phrase, he described devolution as a “motorway to independence with no exits”. Is that how it will turn out now that the “Yes Scotland” campaign on independence has been launched?

When the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999 at Holyrood, a proportional voting system was introduced with the implicit intention of preventing any one party from winning an overall majority. In effect, the voting system was rigged against the Scottish National Party, whose mission it is to break the British state.

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The first Scottish government in 1999 was a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, with Donald Dewar as first minister. In 2007, after two successive Labour-led coalitions, Alex Salmond’s SNP won power and ruled for four years as a minority government. Then, in May last year, the SNP won an astounding landslide victory against an exhausted and complacent Labour Party.  (It exploited the collapse in support for the Lib Dems, who are close to death as a party in Scotland and in all likelihood will end up with only one or two MPs there after the next general election.)

Salmond, perhaps the canniest and most relentless politician in Britain, had at last won a mandate to hold a referendum on independence. His intention is to hold it in the autumn of 2014, which coincides with the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn and with the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup being held in Scotland.

Salmond is in no hurry. As a gradualist, he knows that a majority of Scots oppose independence, though they would welcome more devolution, and even full fiscal autonomy. One senses that, for all his populism and bluster, Salmond’s preferred option would be for a form of “devo max”, hence his demand for a third question on the ballot paper.

“I think one of the things that is wrong about devolution just now is that it is not right that you have a parliament that spends money but has no political responsibility for raising it,” Alistair Darling told me recently. “That needs to be sorted.”

The former chancellor and Edinburgh MP is among the most convincing advocates of the Union among Labour MPs. He understands what a dangerous opponent Salmond is, but also how Scotland has benefitted from the Union with England, signed in 1707.

I support greater devolution for Scotland, whether it is devolution-plus, as the Basques have in Spain, or devolution-max, or full fiscal autonomy, as operates in Catalonia. Of course Scotland, with a population of five million, with oil and gas reserves and a GDP per capita that is only slightly below the UK average, is a viable independent nation. But I’m also a believer in Britain and Britishness, which is a civic identity and has nothing to do with blood and soil nationalism.

Britain is one of the most successful multinational states in history. The Scottish enlightenment – Hume, Boswell, Adam Smith, and so on – together with the English Industrial Revolution powered the emergence of Britain as the world’s superpower. Today, in an age of globalisation, when capital and people are so mobile, and we are used to sharing sovereignties in supranational institutions such as the European Union, we have become comfortable with compound or hyphenated identities: Black-British, Asian-British, Scottish and British, and so on.

At present, Alex Salmond is master of all he surveys. He has the political momentum. But his opponents are beginning to mobilise, motivated by Darling and Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary and one of the most articulate defenders of the Union.

The SNP leader keeps on shifting position: from wanting to join the eurozone, he now says that he would want an independent Scotland to remain part of what he calls the “sterling zone”. But what of an independent Scotland’s borrowing costs and debt burdens? How affordable is the SNP’s social democratic programme? Would Scottish gilts retain a AAA credit rating? Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, for one, thinks not.

Salmond wants to keep the Queen as head of state, to the irritation to those on the left of his party. And there have been mumblings to the effect that he might even renounce the SNP’s historic commitment to unilateralism and to the removal of Trident from Scottish waters, and seek to join Nato.

“Why would we need such a strong defence?” one of his supporters asked me earlier this year. “Who would we fight a war with?”

“What about a scarcity war with England?” I said.

He looked genuinely astonished.

The Queen, the pound, the BBC, the NHS, even nuclear weapons – what kind of independence is this that the great leader of the SNP is asking for?

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