22nd August 2013
How good to see some real debate emerging over Scottish independence at last. But is this happening too late, when the result is all over bar the shouting, with the No vote 20 points ahead, as American polling guru Nate Silver has been telling them at the Edinburgh Festival? Not so with 44 % registering undecided, according to Ipsos Mori. Looking behind the stats, commentators warn against relentless negativity from the Better Together campaign, including Andrew Marr recovering from his stroke, as he nudges the debate wider. The remaining UK would be dealt a tremendous shock and would be much diminished. But according to economic commentator Hamish McRae the loss of the Scots would be made up by population growth in the remaining UK in a couple of decades’ time.
How different are Scotland and England already? Listening to the BBC news about politics, education and health and the information gathering that informs policy, I’m struck by the fact so much of it is about England and Wales with Scotland left out and apart ( and Northern Ireland is rarely mentioned). The news reader can’t always go on to say: “And in Scotland…” The News would never end. Try as they might in this asymmetric Union, it’s hard not to equate Britishness with Englishness with no more than a nod in another direction. This is the logic of the present state of separation.
Will the gap widen further? In a seminal piece in the Guardian Iain McWhirter argues that even if Scots reject independence next year, greater divergence is inevitable.
England is dismantling the traditional welfare state through marketisation of the NHS, welfare caps and free schools, while Scotland retains faith in the monolithic health service, social security and universal comprehensive education.
Scotland will likely evolve into a relatively high-tax, high-spend oil-rich Nordic state within the EU, emulating Denmark or Finland. England may seek its own form of independence, probably leaving the EU to become a finance-led market economy with low taxation and diminished social protections.
Eventually both sides will realise that these increasingly divergent political cultures should accept their differences and seek a new and looser constitutional arrangement.
On the one hand, the policy differences that have emerged exaggerate the differences in public opinion that exist, thereby raising questions about the degree to which devolution has necessarily resulted in a better fit between public policy and public opinion in different parts of the UK. On the other hand, devolution has not served to widen the gap between English and Scottish public opinion on some of the central issues facing governments today. To that extent at least, accommodating Scotland within the framework of the United Kingdom looks to be no more difficult a job now than it was a decade ago
The verdict will be delivered by the heart as much as the head, on broad sentiment more than narrow politics.