Scottish independence reared its head at my son’s fifth birthday party last Sunday. It was one of the party goers’ parents, rather than one of the five year-olds. My kids are not that precocious. The parent in question asked why the English were not getting a vote on Scottish independence, so we could say goodbye to the lot of them.
That’s not an extreme or bigoted view to hold. You don’t have to be a Little Englander or UKIP supporter. I know plenty of mainstream English voters who believe Scotland to be some kind of drag-anchor on the English economy. On Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 last week, the following exchange took place:
Frank Field: ‘if you are giving one part of the United Kingdom a vote to say damn you we are leaving, I think that should be a vote for all of us to decide. And I think we should be having actually a say on whether we want Scotland to stay with us. And I think that what we might well find is that England would vote for Scotland to leave and the Scotland would vote to actually stay.’
Jonathan Dimbleby: ‘How would you vote?’
Frank Field: ‘I would vote for them to leave.’
Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, is known for maverick views on most issues. On this he speaks for many other English people. His argument, as I understand it, is that Scotland is one of the last remaining English colonies, and would be better off casting off the colonial masters, like Ireland, Kenya or Singapore.
When I tell my many Scottish friends that most English people have never been to Scotland, know nobody Scottish, and consider Scotland a vaguely foreign country, they don’t believe me. If you’re in the Labour Party, you consider it normal and natural that you know Scots. Scottish people serve at every level of the movement, as union leaders and MPs. Two of our previous party leaders in the past 20 years have been Scottish. But for most English people, away from the northern cities, London (or Corby), Scottishness, like American-ness or Frenchness is something experienced largely via films and TV.
Opinion polls show that English people feel the Union gives them a raw deal. There is a perception that English money is redistributed northwards, and that the Scots get more money spent on them per head of population than the English. There is a growing sense of national English identity, with the ‘English question’ breaking out of the confines of think tanks and academia. Recent polls show that the English are supremely relaxed about Scottish independence; few believe England would be worse off. The socialist argument I hear the most – that Scottish independence would mean a permanent Tory government in England – causes a mere shrug of the shoulders in swathes of middle England.
This reality places a huge imperative on those of us who favour the Union to make the case, not merely amongst those Scots with a vote in September’s referendum, but with those English people who do not. The worst of all worlds is a solid vote to stay in the Union from Scotland, with growing resentment in England.
I should declare an interest. I’m fully behind the Kingdom staying United (although not as a Kingdom, obviously). If there is a sound economic case for Union, let us hear it in Harlow as well as Glasgow. Let us celebrate the Scottish contribution to our economy, our values, our culture and our politics. Let us laud the Scots, from Keir Hardie to John Smith who made our Labour Party; let us recognise the contribution of the Scottish regiments who safeguard our freedoms; let us work alongside the entrepreneurs and inventors who are shaping our shared economic future.
After September, when the ‘no’ campaigners reflect on their victory, they must act with humility to make the case in the rest of the UK, rather than crack open the champagne.