Strength in Unity
On Tuesday, the chamber was a quarter-full. The journalists were in the coffee-shops, gathering gossip on the Prime Minister’s forthcoming speech on Europe. And the television was investigating horsemeat in hamburgers. No-one it seems was listening to the debate in the main chamber. But the subject –a referendum for Scottish independence – was the most important political decision of our generation. The reason, I think, why no-one was listening is that they either believed independence was inconceivable, or that it was irrelevant. They were complacent or indifferent. And this suits the Scottish Nationalists. They like the fact that they are hungry and determined, and the other side is not. And they want the public to feel that it doesn’t really matter – that nothing would really change – that Scotland would get an independent parliament, but Scotland and England would remain just as close as they were before. The idea that nothing will change can be attractive in Cumbria where 10,000 people in the census said they were Scots, and where more than half the calls from Carlisle go North of the border.
But in fact, there is a good chance that Scotland will go independent in 2014. And if it does, our world will change profoundly. Borders – as we in Cumbria know more than anyone – are random and artificial lines, drawn along half-filled ditches, through forestry plantations, and rivers. But when they represent political divisions – two entirely separate parliaments and states – borders are stark and even dangerous.
The reason that the old Cumbria and Northumbria – in the middleland which stretched from Glasgow to the Tees – are no longer independent nations, is that we no longer have political borders, separate kings or parliament. The reason that the French and French-Swiss are separate people is because they have separate states. Britain has grown very quickly apart from the Commonwealth since we ceased to have common political institutions. And we see it in Scotland itself. The reason that the Norse, Irish Gaels, Picts, Cumbrian-Britons, and Angles, who occupied Scotland, became Scots, is precisely because they had no internal borders: they had one King, one state, one parliament. They called it the Community of the Realm. So why do the press and public so far seem unmoved? In the past, the stakes were more obvious: the border was the source of the worst horror that Britain has experienced. And Cumbria was the epicentre. The Border Reivers for three hundred years dominated a land of murder. Cumbria lacks a single unfortified house built before 1603 – because it was not safe. The Border then created a proxy war of exactly the sort we see in Afghanistan or the Congo, where tribes were simply paid by the English and the Scots to loot and destabilise the neighbouring Kingdom. The conflict vanished overnight, when James VI unified the two kingdoms, and abolished the border. But those times have passed: creating a modern border will not now lead to war.
Nor will it lead to state collapse. Both Scotland and England are well-established, stable nations with an educated population and world-class businesses. There would be economic costs – from readjustment, and uncertainty in the markets. But thereafter the long-term future would depend on the energy and the confidence of the individual citizens, their businesses, and governments. Each could find new terms, on which to flourish. Each would, of course, adjust and survive. It wouldn’t mean war, or anarchy. But it would be a tragedy; it would break our common – British – civilization, and tear a hole in our identity. Our common parliament is the glue: it is a formal process to compel consideration. Of course, the SNP are right, there is no logical reason why English parliamentarians representing English constituencies in an independent English parliament could not think carefully about the implications for Scotland before pushing for the abolition of agricultural subsidies; no logical reason why an independent Scottish parliament could not take very seriously English nuclear interests before banning their submarines. But it would rely simply on the generosity of unconnected individuals. A parliament forces consideration – it forces England and Scotland to learn about each other, negotiate with each other, adjust to each other and thrive alongside each other, day in and day out. MPs from both sides of the border debate and vote on legislation together, there are Scots and English on every parliamentary committee, they consider weekly how a particular department effects their nation, and both nationals serve as Ministers.
This brings Britain a broader range of talent. Gladstone was a Scot. Macmillan was a crofter’s grandson. It brings us ideas: the Scots did not just give us modern economics, they also shaped the NHS. It brings richness of culture: our strengths move round the island over time – in 1810 Scottish novels were better than English, in 1910 it was the other way round. In the 18th century, English art was better, today the Glasgow School of Art is the best on the island. But all this excellence remains within a single country. We have a hundred shared institutions, underpinned by a common state and parliament. And without these things, mutual consideration would depend only on the whim of individuals: we would begin to drift very rapidly apart.
The English or Scottish on our own can be pretty unbearable – but together we not only compensate for each others flaws, we in fact make each other better. We are a magical, mesmerising combination. Which is why, as I managed to squeeze in before the deputy speaker made me sit down, if an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishmen are a joke, then an Englishman and a Scotsman on their own would be a tragedy.