Comment: Scotland will be the first skirmish in the battle for Britishness

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The Independent Culture
AS IT sometimes is when dreams threaten to come true, the unfulfilled desire suddenly seems a lot more reassuring than the real thing. Perhaps that is why Scottish nationalism is looking a lot less buoyant the closer it gets to any real power.

Six months ago, there were fears in New Labour that the SNP could run it close for dominance of the Parliament. At the head of the campaign, Donald Dewar and Helen Liddell were lacklustre and defensive. The best of the young Blairite stormtroopers from Millbank were inventive at finding any excuse for not being seconded to the Labour Party's colonial outpost of Keir Hardie House.

The SNP's leader, Alex Salmond, was motoring along nicely until he decided to change up a gear and denounce Nato's involvement in Kosovo. Given that the SNP has sought to avoid outright calls for Scottish independence during the campaign, it was an odd decision to stake the SNP's authority on foreign affairs, an area where its voice would be truly decisive only once it had already attained separation from Westminster. A poll slump followed, forcing Mr Salmond to concede that he had merely "spoken my mind". This is the last defence of politicians who know they have said too much and have no option but to resort to echoing Martin Luther's cry: "Here I stand, I can do no other." Luther wasn't in the middle of an election campaign at the time.

By opting against the Chancellor's 1p income tax cut and entering a row about tax cuts with Labour, Mr Salmond also repositioned the SNP as a nationalist party that has decided to be socialist until the day of glory arrives. That is a very confusing message and may well serve to shift SNP support into a left-wing niche, whereas a really persuasive democratic nationalism needs to develop its appeal right across the political spectrum.

Major ideological battles, such as the constitutional future of the UK, bear out Lenin's crude but convincing theory of power - that the group of people that will win is that which has a clear idea of where it wants to go. Numbers do not much matter. A small but dedicated band - be they of Communist revolutionaries in the dying days of the First World War in Russia or Blairites in the Labour Party of the early Nineties - can force through their vision, because no one else has an alternative coherent enough to set against it.

The SNP - having started with this advantage of a single, understandable goal - has allowed its aims to become fuzzy by venturing into other minefields. New Labour, by contrast, started out with a bleary idea of what would follow devolution and a certain fearfulness in its approach to Scotland. It was unsure about how often the Prime Minister should appear in Scotland during the campaign; the perception of the campaign being orchestrated by London might play to nationalist accusations of meddling. Yet Mr Blair was anxious not to feed the impression that he was ill at ease in Scotland by staying away. The war in Kosovo cut through the dilemma - Mr Blair has the perfect excuse to limit his forays north of the Border. He will probably go just once between now and the vote on 6 May.

The absence of the Prime Minister is doing no harm. Indeed, it has allowed Mr Dewar to show that he is not just Westminster-man on loan - although he is careful to preach an insistent gospel of brotherhood and harmony with London.

Scottish New Labour has a strong communitarian emphasis on fighting poverty and on the transfer of sporting estates to communal ownership. Indeed, catching the non-conformist whiff of the Parliament manifesto, the mischievous thought occurs: why not shuffle off those inconveniently adventurous pre- election pledges to Scotland? Its fortunate citizens could try out the promised Freedom of Information Bill, which the Government has no intention of delivering to the rest of us?

True, news from the Norwegian owners Kvaerner of the planned closure of the last of the big merchant shipyards on the Clyde is hardly guaranteed to have Glasgow voters breaking out in a chorus of "Things Can Only Get Better". But the fate of the remaining shipyards would be precarious no matter who ruled Scotland. Should Govan take its revenge at the next general election and vote SNP, the Labour party will hardly be inconsolable to see the back of its sitting MP, one Mohammed Sarwar. If there are questions to be asked about Govan and Clydebank, they are about regional development policies that allow injections of public money (in this case pounds 87m), after which the company can walk away at the drop of a restructuring plan. The cost-effectiveness of these publicly funded sweeteners demands far closer scrutiny than any government has given them.

The adaptation of New Labour to a more Scottish identity requires balance, and it is no accident, as the Leninists would add, that later this week Gordon Brown is to restate Labour's commitment to the principle of the Union in a major speech on Britishness. From the thickets of confusion, a new theme is beginning to emerge. The Government has seen that it must stand up for the Union, or risk the steady incursions of English and Scottish nationalism.

Britishness is the context in which the Scottish and Welsh devolutions belong, and in which they can thrive. The alternative to the Government taking the lead in defining what a UK identity means in post-devolutionary times is allowing others with opposing interests to make the running. Mr Salmond may not be making a roaring success of this campaign, but his party will gain in confidence and experience from its exposure in the Parliament. It will challenge the settlement again next time, and the time after that - a border skirmish New Labour will have to fight repeatedly. The potential for separatist movements to reinvent themselves in different conditions is the core of their strength.

It is ominous that a growing sector of English right-wing opinion believes that the battle is already lost. The case for formal divorce between the English and the Scots is most elegantly made in an intriguing polemic by the journalist Simon Heffer, entitled Nor Shall My Sword: The Reinvention of England. Mr Heffer thinks that the English should speed the Scots' path to independence, having nothing to lose thereby but their onerous fiscal transfers. Rid of the whinging Scots, England will be free to develop a humane nationalism, cut taxes and even bring back the Tories.

On the benefits of this last point and the likely lovability of an Albion stripped of its anchorage in the United Kingdom, I beg to differ with Mr Heffer. His England would not be mine. But his argument should put the rest of us on our mettle. The sure way to lose the battle for Britishness is to believe that it is not worth fighting.