The date of the referendum on Scottish independence moves closer and tensions rise. For now it is the “Better Together” campaign that is in trouble. There are briefings against its leader, Alistair Darling. Separately, an anonymous minister from Westminster undermines the pivotal argument that an independent Scotland could not keep the pound. Yes it could, suggests the minister, echoing Alex Salmond. The polls narrow a little, giving momentum to the campaign for independence. Momentum, even a perception of momentum, is what matters in a campaign.
The anxieties whirling around the Better Together campaign are wholly understandable and yet irrational. They are understandable because the stakes are so high. If voters were to back independence there would be a volcanic eruption in British politics without precedent since 1945. In the short term it is possible that David Cameron would be forced to resign as the Prime Minister who oversaw the break-up of the UK against his wishes. This places Cameron in the weirdly contorted position of aching for a national opinion poll lead for his party while knowing that such a development could boost the independence campaign in anti-Tory Scotland more than any other factor. That is Darling’s view – that a Tory poll lead would be the best possible gift to Salmond. What an irony that what Cameron most wants could destroy him.
The Labour Party would also be plunged into crisis as it faced the prospect of losing an army of MPs at Westminster elected from Scotland. Assuming the 2015 election went ahead, the subsequent Westminster parliament would have no legitimacy, at least until it was purged of the MPs from a country that was soon to be separate from the rest of the UK. No wonder when opinion polls shift even a millimetre in the direction of independence there are shudders at the top of British politics.
But the small shifts are no reflection on the Better Together campaign. Darling is the ideal head of such a multi-party organisation. He is easy to get on with, not burdened by an oversized ego, and yet is passionate about the issue. On the Today programme yesterday he convincingly conveyed quite how much he cared about the campaign and its outcome. Others are happy to work with him and he is keen to bring them in.
Last week he had a meeting with Charles Kennedy to discuss a prominent role for the former Lib Dem leader and formidable campaigner. It was Darling who co-ordinated the rare outbreak of unity when Osborne, Alexander and Balls issued their warning about the currency. The move was criticised unfairly. Should they not have advanced the most powerful argument of the lot – that currency union works only under political union? They might as well do so in the most forceful way possible, which is what happened.
There are some tensions within the campaign, but they were inevitable and unavoidable. Gordon Brown makes his moves separately, but better he makes them than remains silent. The polling guru John Curtice tells me that Brown has framed some of the most effective arguments in targeting the “don’t knows” – the decisive battleground in the campaign. Brown was never going to work closely with Darling.
The reason Better Together stumbles a little has nothing to do with the campaign, but the context in which it is fought. This should be of little comfort to those at the heart of the pro-union camp. They can change a campaign. They can do nothing about the context.
Scotland is already a different political country from England. Tony Blair’s devolution settlement, intended to be cautious and minimalist, was the trigger. The Edinburgh parliament acquired powers over key public services including health and education. The next trigger was the election in 2010 of a coalition of the radical right at Westminster, which was gripped above all by a hunger for further market-based reforms of the public services. As a result, England moved further away from Scotland as much as the other way around.
The reforms that transform England do not apply in Scotland. Contentious figures like Michael Gove, though Scottish, are irrelevant in Scotland. The NHS reforms that dominated the early phase of the Westminster parliament are not implemented in Scotland. When England thinks of a referendum, it is the one on Europe that may or may not happen. For Scotland it is the one on independence. Scotland wants to remain part of the EU. When Nigel Farage appears he is jeered rather than treated like the champion of the non-political class as he is in parts of England. England and Scotland are moving apart in front of our eyes. It is challenging in these circumstances for a campaign to argue about the benefits of the union. It is swimming against a tide.
I believe opinion polls. All of them still suggest that Darling and co will prevail. But the main party leaders at Westminster have promised to give Scotland greater powers once the referendum is out of the way. Whatever the result, the tide will continue to flow one way.
Better trains will benefit everyone
Network Rail has announced plans for £38bn of investment over the next five years. The additional cash – and the proposals – appear to be real and substantial. There will be bigger and more user-friendly stations, additional tracks, longer platforms, electric-powered trains, reopened railway lines and fewer level crossings. Separately, the plans for high-speed rail are still going ahead, at least they are in theory.
In an era when public investment is regarded on the whole as a waste of money and when even moderate Tory commentators argue (preposterously) that it is possible to return to pre-1997 spending levels while improving services, let us pause to celebrate the genuine and substantial improvements being planned.
The structure of our railways is bonkers and costly, with more agencies involved, it can seem, than it took to fight the Second World War. The fares are ludicrously expensive. It can take time-consuming negotiations just to get a bike on some trains. Services are unreliable to such an extent that Network Rail is being fined for poor punctuality just as it announces its investment plans.
Even so, people are turning to the joys of the train – where it is possible to work, read or watch a film – rather than be stuck in a traffic jam. Passenger numbers are soaring. Trains are becoming fashionable, and cars are starting to seem anachronistic. Almost by accident, austerity Britain is accompanied by a new age of the train. Hurrah!