David Aaronivitch Column

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The Independent Online
It won't be long now before an incoming Labour administration, red eyes gleaming, begins its malign job of breaking up the United Kingdom. I know this because I have been all week with the Tories in Bournemouth, and they told me about it. First Labour will give the Scots a parliament and the Welsh an assembly. The Scots parliament will fall out with Westminster and demand independence, and the sons of Cymru will follow suit. London will clamour for self-governance, Yorkshire will secede, Cornwall will demand enosis with Brittany. Fini.

On the face of it, this is a dreadful prospect. Are not the things we have in common (language, culture, hatred of Michael Howard, self-pity) greater than the things which divide us? I thought so until Thursday, when this newspaper carried a report on Family Spending (Stationery Office, pounds 35.95). What this volume reveals has shattered my easy assumptions about our shared characteristics.

It is not so much the "what". This indicates that there are great differences in the way that the inhabitants of the various regions and nations of this, our island home, spend their money: 83 per cent of West Midlanders have video recorders, compared with an average of 79 per cent. Yes? And?

It's the why that matters. What explains, for instance, why Northern Irish women spend vastly more on "outer garments" than anyone else? Why do those from Devon and Cornwall favour pets so much more and fizzy drinks so much less than their compatriots in other parts? How come that Yorkshire folk top the washing machine league but have fewer tumble dryers than the rest of us? Does this tell us something rather fundamental about identity and behaviour?

Let us take these examples in turn. It cannot be true that the Ulster outer garment orgy is attributable to climate alone. The Scottish weather is arguably more inclement for more of the year. Are the daughters of the province somehow less careful with their coats, always leaving them on the Giant's Causeway or something? Personally, I think it is down to chronic church attendance, and the desire to look good in front of the priest, vicar and congregation.

What about the pet lovers of the West Country? I am taken with an image of a stout Devonian entering a sweet shop, examining the cans of Coke and Sprite, and saying, "Sod it, I'll have a cat instead". Does Fanta taste bad in Taunton, or fur feel softer?

A better explanation might lie in the well-ordered bungalows of the English Riviera, whose elderly inhabitants are more likely to find Lucozade giving them wind, and Tiddles giving them companionship.

Yorkshire's washing habits, I must confess, are a bigger problem to solve. A desire not to waste electricity cannot be the explanation for the aversion to tumble dryers; if it were, then Yorkshire folk would be less keen on washing machines. Is it because the wind to rain ratio is uniquely favourable, allowing clothes to be better dried in the open? Or is it a combination of large gardens and tiny houses that leads to this, an inheritance from Yorkshire's mining past, perhaps?

The one that I am not prepared to speculate about is the statistic showing that the Welsh spend less on cosmetics and hair products. My in-laws live just north of Cardiff, part of a vast extended family, and always look as though they have invested more than adequately in cleansing products.

Given these disparities, and the psychologies that lie behind them, the question must at least be asked whether the attempt to hold together these various different parts is as doomed to failure as is European federalism, as was the Soviet empire, and as will be the United States of America. Cards on the table: I, for one, do not really want to live in a society that loves pets, hates tumble dryers and can't look after its coats.