Magazine article The Spectator

Union in Peril

Magazine article The Spectator

Union in Peril

Article excerpt


A century ago, with Britain in peril, Lord Kitchener's stern countenance demanded that every stout-hearted Briton do their bit for King and Country.

'Your country needs you' rallied hundreds of thousands to khaki and the Kaiser's War.

Today, with Britain in peril again, you could be forgiven for asking where Kitchener's successor is. A new recruiting poster might cry:

'Britons: Wake up! Pay attention! Your country really is at risk!' The threat, of course, is domestic rather than foreign (for now, at least). 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.

The battle for Britain is being conducted on a wavelength which unionist politicians in London struggle to pick up. The nationalists have been preparing for this vote all of their political lives - and know that it is a fight like no other.

The unionists seem rather worse prepared. Like hockey players sent on to play a game of rugby, they have a rough idea of the game - but many, especially those based in London, don't properly understand its rules. The unionists can babble on about the Barnett formula and a hundred other details but, in the end, these are mere details. Salmond's nationalists offer a tryst with destiny. And the future.

It is easy to assume, in England, that Salmond is sunk. After all, aren't all other major political parties uniting against him? It is less appreciated that the other parties are the same ones Salmond has outmanoeuvred at every turn since 2011, when the SNP first won an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament. As referendum day draws closer, a formerly formidable unionist advantage is being whittled away. Since Salmond published his 'white paper on independence', six successive opinion polls have shown a swing towards a 'yes' vote. At present, more than 40 per cent of decided voters plan to vote for independence. It does not take a psephologist to work out that Salmond may win.

If momentum is with the nationalists, so is organisational muscle. 'Yes Scotland' groups have sprung up in almost every small town in the land. Every night, somewhere in Scotland, nationalists meet to plot their strategy - with a morale and determination not to be found among the grassroots of any Westminster party. Last week, for example, the second issue of a nationalist propaganda newspaper - imaginatively called YES - was delivered to thousands of households. Even now, Alistair Darling's 'Better Together' campaign seems quieter than a Stornoway playground on the Sabbath.

Unionists raise procedural, legalistic difficulties such as the precise nature of an independent Scotland's relationship with the European Union, or how much representation, if any, Salmond should expect on the board of the Bank of England. These concerns, while real, can seem tangential to the greater issues: what kind of Scotland is being fought for? And what kind of Britain, too?

Salmond assures Scots that technical difficulties should certainly not be used to bar the march of the nation. Or, as he put it recently, 'Let's not wake up on the morning of September 19th and think to ourselves what might have been'. .

Real Scots vote 'yes'; timid Scots vote 'no' - and doubtless, in time, will fill a coward's grave. This might seem a form of emotional blackmail, but it is a mightily effective one.

At the same time, Salmond argues that very little will change. The nationalist campaign might be subtitled 'Project Reassurance'. Nevertheless, despite presenting his case as a question of fiscal accountancy and common sense, the true appeal of independence is still emotional. What kind of country, Salmond and his colleagues will ask, rejects the chance to govern itself? …

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