Friday, 15 July 2011

Why I think it would be a shame if Scotland left the UK

In May the Scottish National Party (SNP) triumphed in the Scottish Parliament elections, obtaining an unprecedented majority that will allow it to hold a referendum to determine whether the Scottish population wants to separate itself from the United Kingdom. The SNP’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to break up the union and allow Scotland to govern itself without interference from the Westminster government.

Except the latter is pretty much what it’s already doing. Thanks to devolution, which I support, a Scottish Parliament was created (as were Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies) to allow the people of Scotland to elect their own representatives, their own leader (First Minister) and to make a number of decisions without using the UK Parliament in Westminster.

The Scots have received considerably more powers than the Welsh and Northern Irish, hence their ‘Parliament’ rather than ‘Assembly’. As well as the legislative powers the Welsh have – to decide where the money they receive from London goes to – the Scottish government has tax-varying powers, so can raise or lower taxes to have more or less money to spend on public services. Sure, it can’t decide exactly how much money it gets from the UK government, but by all accounts Scotland has got a pretty good deal. So much so that a party (the English Democrats) was created claiming the English were being ‘discriminated against’ because the Scots received more money and more political power.

As it turns out, the English Democrats are (in my view) a bunch of buffoons, but that they exist and have been praised by senior Lib Dem Norman Lamb underlines just how nicely devolution has worked out for the Scots. Indeed, the Scotland Bill currently going through Parliament is to devolve yet more powers to the Scottish Parliament (which I'm in favour of).

Despite all this, the hugely charismatic SNP leader Alex Salmond, re-elected as First Minister in May, wants to leave the UK and create an independent Scottish state that retains the Pound and has Queen Elizabeth as a head of state but ceases to be part of the union. Why? He seems to think and is trying to persuade them that the Scots are superior to their English counterparts and would be better off separate. I’m not so sure they would be.

For a start, how does Salmond think Scotland would cope financially? Not so long ago he said it would join the ‘arc of prosperity’ with Ireland and Iceland. I wonder why he hasn't mentioned that recently... 

Salmond is already able to raise and lower tuition fees according to nationality, while entry requirements for Scottish universities are notoriously high for non-Scottish students. A friend of mine calls this ‘racist’, which I think is a bit strong, but it certainly does seem unfair and characteristic of the SNP’s divisiveness. Would he be able to keep Scottish students from paying tuition fees without the subsidies from Westminster? I doubt it.

Not only do I think the Scots would lose out economically from separating themselves from the UK, I think it would be a shame to lose our cultural ties.

It’s not easy to explain why it matters so much to be part of the same country and why it would be a shame for the union to be broken. Rory Stewart did a pretty good job of it on Newsnight last Monday. Not everyone will share my somewhat utopian view, but I see the union and indeed Parliament (and the shared issues discussed inside it) as bonding UK citizens from Cornwall to Inverness. Hearing a Glaswegian, a Scouser and a Londoner debating the same issue on the radio... things like this would rarely happen anymore. Devolution has allowed the home nations to celebrate their own nationalities within the union. I just don’t see how making Scotland separate would help anyone.

Don’t forget, if the SNP won the referendum and Scotland became independent, there would still be a large proportion of the Scottish electorate who’d wanted to remain in the union. As Camus said: ‘democracy is not majority rule but the protection of the minority’. I’m not saying Salmond would do a Gaddafi and vow to 'cleanse the country house by house’, but I fear opponents of independence could be marginalised should he win.

Personally, I’ve never felt patriotic or particularly proud to be English. I do feel a small amount of pride, however, to be British, in large part because of the multiculturalism we have today. The UK by definition is uniting four different nations and cultures, even before you add in all the many cultures, religions and ethnicities that have integrated into society over the last century. It's the co-existence of families and communities in the UK who've arrived from all over the world alongside Scots, the Welsh, the English and the Northern Irish that makes me proud to live in what is (in spite of the xenophobic tabloid press) a tolerant society. Successive Prime Ministers (up to Cameron’s infamous Munich speech) have celebrated this multiculturalism. I fear the SNP’s divisive agenda would put an end to this to an extent north of the border as well as depriving others in the UK of one of the cultures that makes it so diverse.

Sport epitomises how the home nations today can still be a part of the UK while celebrating their own nationalities. In tennis, we'll all get behind Andy Murray; in golf everyone who watched it was rooting for Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy in the Open. Yet in rugby's Six Nations we'll each don our own colours, sing our own national anthems and get behind either Scotland, Wales, England or Ireland. (Not me, mind; I support Italy.)

Of course, it’s not for me to decide, and if the referendum is held and the Scots vote ‘Yes’ to independence, who am I to argue with the outcome? I won’t. I will, however, regret what has happened, as – I feel – many who voted in favour of secession will come to as well.

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