Deborah Orr: Why struggle for Scottish independence when ironic detachment is just as good?

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The Independent Online

Devolution, in Scotland anyway, has turned out to be a lot more fun than anyone envisaged. Except for Labour, of course. The party that introduced devolution with such enthusiasm, breezily certain that it could do nothing but cement its popularity in the north, can do little but watch as the whole process turns into what can only be viewed from its perspective as a continuing farce.

Not that Labour can afford the luxury of laughter. That's a treat reserved only for pretty much everybody else. It was revealed last week, for example, that the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, English since the end of the 15th century, is now simply longing to become Scottish again.

The Scottish National Party are delighted by the story, of course, and, cannily, they are just as keen as everybody else to keep things up and light. The general strategy among SNP MSPs is to shrug in a good-natured fashion, concede modestly that, yes, it probably is the free prescriptions, free university tuition, frozen council tax, free personal care for the elderly, a general and genuine commitment to social justice and so on, that are luring the Berwickians, and who can blame them?

Otherwise, the SNP is scrupulously avoiding anything that might be seen as a serious consideration of the constitutional implications of Berwick's restlessness. The first minister, Alex Salmond, vaguely suggests that the people of the town should be allowed to decide their own future, while his lieutenant, Christine Grahame, also with resolute merriment, urges the town to stage a local referendum.

This stance, like much else in the strategy of the SNP, and indeed much else in the general attitude of Scots to questions of independence, can only be described as one of ironic detachment. It's what his party used to say about Scotland, after all, before it realised that it was more likely to win power by putting a little less emphasis on the party's central raison d'etre, and a little more emphasis on concrete policies that might entice a decent number of voters.

The Berwick-upon-Tweed question is pretty similar to the West Lothian Question, but more intractable. Truly serious examination of the West Lothian Question, whereby Scottish MPs get to have a say over policy in England, and even get to run the country, while the same courtesy is not extended to English MPs who have no say over devolved issues in Scotland, can only lead to increased independence for the Scots, and the eventual collapse of the Union.

Likewise, in reality, the easiest way of claiming Berwick-upon-Tweed for Scotland would be to secure independence for the country first, attempt to negotiate a diplomatic solution, then, if that fails, simply advance a Scottish army to take the town by force. All good fun – if only life really could be enacted from the script of an Ealing comedy – and so entirely unlikely that it does nothing at all to dispel the idea that those who mutter darkly about the Balkanisation of Britain are overstating the case just a bit.

Berwick-upon-Tweed is no Kosovo, even though there is some sport to be had in Scotland at the moment from reminding Salmond that while he supports Kosovo's declaration of independence now, he was scathing in his condemnation of the Nato intervention that set it on its rocky road. All that was back in the days when Salmond styled himself as an oppositional firebrand. These days he is much more keen to sit back and let events he is certain will play out in his favour unfold.

In truth, Berwickians are not Kosovans, and have no more access to any constitutional levers that could transform their nationhood than any other town in Britain. Reality, unfortunately, would be more likely to demand cumbersome and expensive referenda among all Scots and also among all English, and would have to provide a clear hunger from both nations for the redrawing of national borders, before the nitty-gritty could even begin to be attended to. It's not likely to happen soon. Ironic detachment, indeed, is the only civilised position to take.

Only one Scot, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is entirely unable to make light of Berwick-upon-Tweed's ambitions. He, instead, during the weekend that his Government announced the problematic nationalisation of Northern Rock, was forced to concede that he had changed his mind, and now believed that some measure of fiscal autonomy was desirable for Scotland. A constitutional review is in the works, which in the Brown universe can only signal that he has some sort of wheeze in mind already.

What Brown is really saying is that he is fed up with defending the Barnett formula, the controversial system of subsidy that inspires unionists to insist that Scotland could never survive alone, when it isn't even gaining votes for his friends in the north. They themselves are divided over the issue of increased fiscal powers for Scotland anyway, having woken up late to the fact that the Scottish Labour Party cannot remain a wholly-owned subsidiary of the British Labour party now that devolution has reached its stride.

Brown's changed position, as Douglas Fraser pointed out in yesterday's Glasgow Herald, can only be described as "churlish", whether you are pro-unionist or anti. He can now be seen as having acknowledged that Scotland is moving towards federalism at least, and Brown really ought to be saying whether he believes this to be a good thing or just a thing he cannot think of a way of stopping without doing damage to himself.

Certainly there is a sound argument for declaring that a greater measure of federalism, at the very least, is now inevitable. Alex Salmond's minority government is proving popular in Scotland, while the new leader of Scottish Labour, Wendy Alexander, is assisted neither by the Westminster allegiances of her Brownite brother Douglas, nor by her own recent troubles over an illegal donation to her leadership campaign.

Salmond recently threatened to resign if the SNP's first budget was not given approval by the Scottish Parliament. This seemed to have been considered a calamity worth avoiding, even though his is the only party that is unequivocally anti-union. The budget went through, with no party able to advance a convincing argument as to why it should not.

No one in Scotland knows how to stop Salmond, even though they don't have the foggiest idea where he may really be going. He is personally popular and his government has made the Scots feel better about themselves, even if it has not inspired them with a hunger for independence very much more lukewarm than it ever was. That, for the moment, is achievement enough to carry along unionist and nationalist alike, in a gently detaching drift that only a fool or a Scottish member in Westminster could find either terribly threatening or terribly frightening.