David Cameron’s intervention yesterday in the debate on Scottish independence was craftily conceived. Conscious that his old Etonian English toffiness is electoral poison north of the border, he avoided going north of the border to deliver his speech. The rationale for delivering it from the Olympic Stadium in London, apart from stirring vestigial patriotism for the union, was that he was sending a message to friends of the union in the other parts of the UK – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – rather than Scotland as such.
To be fair to Mr Cameron, an English politician of any stripe would be wise to stay out of the arguments in Scotland. The hardly less posh-sounding Ed Miliband has also wisely devolved the campaign to Alistair Darling. Gordon Brown, cordially loathed across the south of England, can still gain a respectful hearing in his homeland and we expect him to be deployed strategically as the campaign goes on.
All of this leaves something of a paradox in Mr Cameron’s speech. Without doubt there are friends of Scotland right across the UK. Those who have married or partnered a Scot, those who work closely with them, those who have old friends and acquaintances – all are apparently being asked to make their own personal plea for the case that we are “better together”. And this means that there should be a national – British – debate on the future of the union, which affects almost every aspect of our lives. The disappearance of Scottish MPs at Westminster would hand a huge electoral advantage to the Conservative Party, for example. The notion of perpetual Tory rule ought to be something that attracts the interest of even the most apathetic. From the contribution of the Scots to Britain’s armed forces through medicine, finance, engineering and culture, not to mention Hogmanay on TV, the English would be incalculably the poorer without the Scots. That is what Mr Cameron was driving at.
At the same time, the paradox about the debate over Scottish independence is that while it is of vital importance to Scots, and will dominate their politics for the foreseeable future, it arouses comparatively little passion outside Scotland. The English, on the whole, are close to neutral on the notion of Scotland leaving the union. There were probably more heated rows in the pubs and clubs of England about the retreat from Empire in the 1950s in places such as Cyprus and Kenya than there are today about the dissolution of the United Kingdom itself. Whereas many Canadians and Spanish would almost physically fight to retain Quebec and Catalonia, for example, the English seem ready to mislay Scotland with almost casual disdain. It is odd.
One obvious reason why this is the case is that the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish have no vote in the matter, are barely consulted about their views and, as the Prime Minister’s speech indicates, can influence events only by proxy. Were the English, in particular, to be allowed a say, it would make it a truly British debate, if possibly the last one ever if the SNP got its way. It is a pity there was not some way to arrange this, if only to inform voters north of the border.
Mr Cameron’s speech is unlikely to change many minds or have much effect in Scotland. What is more worrying is that the referendum vote itself may settle nothing. As the Labour-inclined don’t knows in the campaign are pressured to make up their minds, there is some chance that they will swing towards the Yes camp, currently behind by something like a 60-40 margin. If so, then the referendum may end up giving both sides of the argument and both parts of the UK the worst of all worlds – a near 50-50 split, itself not unprecedented in plebiscites of this kind. It would be worse for Scotland than England, however, to have such perennial uncertainty clouding the Scottish scene. The English may have many more years to spend studiously ignoring the noise coming from their northern neighbours.