Allan Massie: I was wrong, Salmond was right - this is a more contented country

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The Independent Online

Some of us who opposed devolution 10 years ago are feeling a bit foolish today, and should have the grace to admit it. The Scottish Parliament hasn't of course delivered all that its advocates promised, but it hasn't been the disaster we feared either.

Scotland may not have been been transformed into a land flowing with milk and honey, but it's a more contented place than it was and we seem a people more at ease with ourselves. We have a SNP minority government and the roof hasn't fallen in. Instead, Alex Salmond is proving himself a First Minister we can admire. Few of our social and economic problems have been solved, but that could be said of most countries in the Western world. Some of the old defensiveness is disappearing.

We may not class banks among our favourite institutions, but the sight of the Royal Bank of Scotland mounting from its Edinburgh headquarters the biggest takeover in banking history was invigorating. A quarter of a century ago a rearguard action was necessary to prevent that bank from being swallowed up by the Standard Chartered or taken over by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank; now here it is displaying the acquisitive aggression that characterised 19th-century Scottish capitalism.

Scottish culture is confident and outward looking. Even our national football team is doing well, after years of being a matter for lugubrious comedy rather than pride. If our rugby XV didn't set the World Cup alight, it maintained our record of never failing to reach the quarter-final and did better than the Welsh and Irish. Indeed, we are seemingly so relaxed about ourselves that we were even able to applaud England's heroic recovery in the tournament – something inconceivable a few years back.

Attitudes have changed since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999. Previously, many Scots resented England, while the English were generally indifferent to Scotland. Now the resentment is simmering south of the border. Devolution, it seems, suits us well enough, while raising hackles within the M25.

Nothing will persuade the English that the Scottish Parliament doesn't indulge in high public spending at their expense. It is true that Holyrood's budget has doubled since 1999, but the greater part of it goes on health and education, and UK spending on these things has also risen sharply.

Recent figures suggest that revenue raised in Scotland and public expenditure here are more or less in balance – and this is without taking into account North Sea oil revenues. The areas of the UK heavily dependent on the south-east of England are Northern Ireland, Wales, and the north-east and north-west of England; not Scotland.

In these matters, however, perception weighs more heavily than fact, and the English perception is that Scotland flourishes at their expense. No wonder resentment festers, especially when the Prime Minister is a Scot and the man in charge of the money is another one, Alistair Darling.

Of course the Scottish Government tries to extract as much from the Treasury as it can, just as every government department and local authority does. Scottish demands may infuriate the English, all the more so because of the Scottish predominance in the British Government. The day may come when England says "no". Perhaps a Tory government would do so. What then?

The Scottish National Party has its answer ready: a fair share of the oil revenues and full fiscal autonomy – that is to say, money spent in Scotland to be raised in Scotland. The prospect alarms many Scots, but a diminishing number of us. Some of younger Scottish Tories rather like the idea, though it frightens the Labour Party.

Is Scotland heading for independence or, if you prefer, the UK for partition? It's too early to say. There's been a strange development north of the border. Support for independence used to run ahead of support for the SNP. This position, too, has been reversed. Opinion polls now show more support for the SNP than for the party's goal of independence. People are happy with devolution – although perhaps with more powers for Holyrood. Granting Holyrood full fiscal autonomy might be good for Scotland; and it would be good for England because it would remove one of their grievances.

But another, unquestionably legitimate, grievance would remain. The Labour Government enacted devolution for Scotland (and for Wales and Northern Ireland) without any consideration being given to its consequences for England and, in particular, for the House of Commons. The West Lothian Question, which allows Scottish MPs to vote on English measures relating to matters for which Westminster has ceded responsibility in Scotland to the Scottish parliament, was blithely ignored. Yet the present situation is manifestly unfair to the English; it is wrong that Scots MPs should have a say in legislation concerning the NHS and schools in English, while English ones are debarred from any involvement in these matters in Scotland.

Britain has been transformed by constitutional change. It need not lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom. That may of course come about. Scotland may opt for independence. England may decide it would prefer that the Scots go their own way. But with good will and good sense, a looser Union may be preserved, one which might satisfy us all by removing English grievances and allowing or, if you like, compelling Scotland to take responsibility for raising its own revenue to fund its own public spending.

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