Johann Hari: Beware this tartan timebomb

Incredible as it sounds, a boy born in Glasgow today has a lower life expectancy than a boy born in Gaza
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Braveheart is back. Only this time, the hero of Scottish independence is not battling the Sassenach English with axe-wielding militias and the interminable wail of the bagpipe-player. No - instead he has quietly placed a timebomb under British politics, in the form of an opinion poll.

This weekend, 51 per cent of Scottish people told ICM pollsters they wanted to achieve the lost goal of William Wallace and turn Scotland into an independent nation. They now have a simple, bloodless way to achieve it. The Scottish National Party is on course to become the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament after the May elections, with around 30 per cent of the vote.

Provided they can persuade their necessary coalition partners - the Lib Dems and the Greens - they will swiftly hold a referendum of the Scottish people on independence. One tug, and they're out.

Of course, this involves a string of ifs. Would the Lib Dems and Greens really agree? Do the Scots really mean it? Confronted with the divorce papers, would they sign on the dotted line, or would they stay together for the sake of the subsidies?

But there is at least now a real possibility - I'd put it at around three-to-one - that next year's 300th anniversary of the 1707 Act of Union will turn into a wake. British politics would be suddenly, drastically redrawn. Gordon Brown would no longer be a Member of Parliament. He would be rendered a foreigner in England, along with a third of the Cabinet. The remaining half-union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be a perpetually Tory fiefdom under David Cameron. Remember - it is Scotland that has kept Britain in Labour governments since the war, providing six million reliably leftie voters. If they are stripped away, Westminster will become a wide blue oasis.

True, the much-rumoured right-wing instincts of England have been exaggerated: a majority of English people voted for tax-raising centre-left parties all through Thatcherism right up to the present day. (Add together the Labour and Liberal votes and you get a consistent 53 percent). But in our foolish first-past-the-post system, democratic will takes a second place. Without Scottish seats, the Tories would have won almost every single election of the twentieth century. If you are opposed to Conservatism, this is the time to beg the Scots to stay.

The ripples from Scottish independence would not only affect hard-politics, but also the wider culture. What would the resulting resurgence of English nationalism look like? True, there are some gentle chords in English nationalism, like the writings of G.K. Chesterton. But it's revealing that most ethnic minorities in this country refer to themselves as British, not English. Britishness is rare among nationalisms because it is already pluralistic, a blending of nations with enough space for varying identities.

They have an instinctive sense that Englishness is a narrower, whiter identity. Look at the people calling frenetically for an English Parliament. Scottish independence would force us to rethink our identities - and drag our national symbols closer to the custody of these people on the right.

How did it come to this? I was born in Glasgow to a Scottish mother, so I know how deeply the mental template of plucky Scots resisting the bullying English is stamped onto the Scottish psyche. My mother could watch Braveheart on a constant loop, and shake her fist in fury every time. But that has always been there; why independence now?

The drift to the right in British politics over the past 30 years has alienated Scotland. As both Labour and Tory have become narrowly focussed on appealing to a sliver of Middle England in the swing seats of the South, the Scottish people have found it harder to recognise the Governments in Westminster as speaking to them. Scots are more instinctively collectivist and high-spending than their Southern cousins. Many Scots now see Tony Blair as the strangest Tory ever sold.

Worse, Scotland has experienced Britain's increasing inequality - and the collapse of its manufacturing base - more severely than most of us. Incredible as it sounds, a boy born in Glasgow today has a lower life expectancy than a boy born in Gaza. When there were proposals recently to raise the retirement age to 67, Glasgow MPs pointed out this meant most of their constituents would die on the job.

There's a lot of nasty hyperbole about the SNP, comparing them to the nationalist parties in Europe, but in reality they are a soft social democratic party similar to those offered by Neil Kinnock at the 1987 election. If it wasn't for the wee matter of their commitment to independence, I'd happily vote for them myself - it's sadly not hard to see why Scots are seeking something more left-wing than New Labour.

So how do we avert the collapse of the Union? We are already trying bribery. Through the Barnett formula - drawn up in the 1970s - Scotland is guaranteed 25 percent higher spending on its public services than England. (Anybody who doubts extra cash creates better results should head North and look at the glistening hospitals). We are also giving them extra influence. Since devolution, there is a glitch in the House of Commons that has been dubbed the "West Lothian Question". The MP for West Lothian can vote on how schools and hospitals should be run in England, but an English MP cannot vote on how schools and hospitals should be run there.

I'm fairly relaxed about both of these anomalies. In almost every part of the world where a small country unites with a big country, the small country is given a package of inducements that might look unfair to people at the centre. Look at Catalonia, or Hawaii and Alaska. Besides, since the discovery of North Sea oil, Scots have a plausible case that their oil is paying for these subsidies anyway.

But if begging and electoral bribes won't do the job, what will? I never normally write about the eye-bleedingly trivial Blair-Brown arguments, never mind the row about precisely which month Tony Blair will leave Downing Street, but this is an instance in which the Blair's bye-bye date could make a real - and huge - difference. At the moment, the whispers from Downing Street are that Blair will stay until after the May elections, so he will take the blame for Labour losses and Brown can start with a clean slate.

But Labour can't afford to risk losing the Scottish parliament. It would mean risking not just their future Prime Minister, but their ability to hold power in England again except for in a freak once-every-fifty-years Brigadoon election. Gordon Brown speaks Scotland's political language, and Scots are less likely to jump ship when they can see that the Captain is one of their own. Blair needs to hand over to him in time for the Scottish elections - or his legacy might just be the break-up not only of Iraq, but of Britain.