So it’s game on for the early rounds of the referendum campaign. The Westminster government says Alex Salmond can have a binding referendum provided he sticks to a Yes, No question on independence. No fudging over devo max. The UK parties are uniting to save the Union, although the others would like Cameron and the Tories to take a back seat according to the Guardian, for reasons which Alex Salmond himself makes clear in the Independent. They have all but conceded to the timing of the referendum to him. But it isn’t clear where Labour and the Lib Dems stand on Devo Max. That will continue to give Alex room for manoeuvre. There’s lots of heavy stuff about the technicalities and costs of severance, Scotland’s share of the trillions of the national debt, “Scotland’s Oil” and the Barnett formula, the RBS losses, even voting by 16 and 17 year olds. But Peter Oborne in the Telegraph sets a tone that will strike a chord on both sides of the familiar Irish debate. Will it catch on, or will they stick to the mundane ?
Alex Salmond, that most brilliant and attractive of modern British politicians, is capable of superbly articulating the sense of nobility, romance, mission and fierce patriotism felt by many SNP supporters. Nationalism and the cry for liberty can be an intoxicating cocktail, even at the start of the 21st century. So far his opponents have produced nothing to rival it.
They have played the politics of fear, warning Scots of the economic uncertainties that lurk outside the Union. It is not a very convincing message, and it is also an unworthy one. The United Kingdom richly deserves to survive – but only if it can conjure up its own poetry and romance, and embrace the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish on equal terms.
On their own, our composite parts have always been rather unimpressive and unattractive. Together, we have been amazing. Four hundred years ago, before the Act of Union, the nations that today make up Britain were piffling little places on the edge of the world, prone to regicides, civil disturbance, internecine strife and murder.
The fusion of those nations created something quite extraordinary. Here are some of Great Britain’s achievements following the Act of Union: we abolished slavery, founded an empire, produced some of the greatest literature the world has known, stood together alone against Nazi Germany in 1940, our finest hour. Of course, we have committed some terrible crimes, and they must be taken into account – but we do take them into account, normally with far more vigorous self-examination than is shown by other nations.
In doing all this we have produced something called Britishness. Nobody can exactly say what it means, but all the world knows what it is: tolerance, a sense of fairness and justice, humour, proportion, decency and good manners. I feel certain that Britain’s contribution – its solid, thoughtful, civilising presence at the top tables, the example that is set by the country’s very existence – is more necessary than ever in a formless world dominated by the rise of China and the slow, tormented decline of the United States.
I thought you’d all enjoy it.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London