Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel Enduring Love begins with a hot air balloon that gets out of control. Half a dozen people cling on to its ropes, hoping to use their combined weight to drag it back to the ground; but gradually, it begins to lift and one by one, each fearing the danger of hanging on too long, they let go. The last to do so falls a very long way.
I’ve not really expressed any opinion on the Scottish independence vote before now. I’m entirely English; most of my time in Scotland has been spent in Edinburgh in August, making me the very worst kind of Englishman; and, more to the point, nobody cares what I think. The whole thing feels like it’s nothing to do with me.
But recently I’ve realised two things. One is that most English people were acting like it wasn’t anything to do with them either, treating the referendum as simply a quarrel in a far-away country.
This is silly: it is, after all, our country that could conceivably get dismembered. More than that, though, it’s insulting. By declining to offer a UK-wide broadcast of the first debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, ITV managed to imply that the whole affair was nothing more than a matter of local politics. (In 2012, ITV1 did manage to broadcast the London mayoral debate, albeit only on its HD channel.) If I lived in Scotland, I suspect this would have pushed me to jump ship and take my chances with Salmond all by itself.
The other thing I’ve realised is that, actually, I do care what happens on 18 September. I care very much. I desperately want Scotland to vote no, not because of any misty-eyed attachment to nation or flag, but because of real, boring, practical reasons. The independence lot are letting go of the balloon.
There’s an argument I keep hearing from Yessers, that’s become ever louder the longer the campaign has gone on: vote yes, and never have a Tory government again. Vote yes and be free of those bastards. Even if the idea that an independent Scotland would never again elect a right-wing government looks ever so slightly delusional, I can sort of see how it might be seductive to those of a certain viewpoint.
And yet, from a purely selfish point of view, it pisses me right off. It feels – this may be irrational of me, but it’s the right word nonetheless – like a betrayal.
Because there are those – there are many – in the rest of the UK who are not nuts about the modern Conservative party either. I like the NHS, and the BBC, and the welfare state, and not picking fights with our closest trading partners just to prove how hard we are. I’d like to keep those things. And until the Conservative party recovers from the psychotic episode it’s been going through for most of the last 30 years, I don’t think I can trust it to protect them.
Scottish independence would make Tory majorities in the rest of the UK a damn sight more likely. It would gut the Labour party, and take out a big source of its talent over the last few decades. It’d deprive us of a helpful reminder that there are alternatives to the lingering post-Thatcher consensus, and they can work even within the UK. It’d move the whole centre of gravity of British politics three notches further to the right.
I’m sure it’ll be lovely in the socialist paradise north of the border (actually I’m not, I think it’ll be a disaster, but that’s a whole different thing). Those of us still down here, though, will get totally and utterly screwed.
I’m aware that this must sound massively selfish – it is utterly selfish. But so, frankly, is the Scottish left’s plan to cut and run, and to hell with the neighbours. So, with apologies for all the other shitty things the English have done down the years, just this once I reckon I’m on safe ground.
Here, then, is my shamelessly self-interested plea to Scotland: don’t do it. Vote no. With you here, it’s easier to win the argument for social democratic policies. With you here, it’s easier to persuade Westminster that not all financial or political power can or should reside in London. Stick around, and we’ll work out how to push more power out of the capital – not just to Edinburgh, but to Cardiff and Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds. Please, don’t go.
Because, we are stronger together than we are apart. And every time someone lets go of the balloon things get a little bit worse for those of us who are still hanging on.