The real wreckers of the Union

What has driven the prosperous folk of Perth to reject the Tories and turn to nationalism?
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The Independent Online
By-elections, in general, have become irrelevant to real politics. They are ritual government-kicking festivals, great entertainment for everybody except the poor sap who happens to be the Tory candidate. So visiting the Perth and Kinross one, which covers my home village, was meant to be a bit of fun. But in the event, it rammed home one big fact: the Major government is making a historic mistake about Scotland, possibly its biggest mistake of the Nineties.

This is solid conservative country. Perth itself is a well-doing farming and insurance town, though with pockets of poverty. Around it stretches some of the most quietly alluring countryside in Scotland, from the raspberry- growing land of the Tay valley in the East to the soft green and pink hills round St Fillans which lead up to the first snaggle-toothed ridges of the Highland line itself.

It is a world of neat hedges, home baking, commuters and pensioners. It is land covered by hill farms and arable farmers, where distilleries nestle, salmon spawn and real men spend their days on the golf course. It is Pringle-wearing, scone-eating country - there is more home-made pastry and fudge on sale in Perthshire than anywhere else I know.

The last by-election here was in 1963 when Alec Douglas-Home, having resigned his peerage, was returned to become prime minister. Plenty of people remember it well: there were huge crowds and marches, packed meeting halls, and glorious sunshine. For the Scottish Tories, it was almost a Royal progress.

Consider then, the almost surreal oddity of this: Perth and Kinross looks set not just to reject the Tory candidate but to reject the Labour man too as being, apparently, a bit too right-wing. Instead, the tweed-suited, quiet folk here are plumping in their thousands for a left-wing Scottish Nationalist republican, a woman attacked by the Tory minister Michael Forsyth as a ''Bolshevik''. And this is Perth.

Some of the reason is non-specific to Scotland; the hatred of this Government you find everywhere. Ex-Tory voters I spoke to were brimming with fury about sleaze. But here, hostility to the London government and hostility to London fuse easily.

Many people were voting SNP on clear, pro-independence grounds, but more merely wanted to send a message of pain and anger to the South. Typical was a man whose firm, which made whisky labels, had been taken over by an English company and closed down at Christmas. Such people are not ready for the end of the Union; but, if pushed into a corner, are readier than ever before to accept that outcome. John Godfrey, the Tory by-election candidate, told one lady voter that it was either a vote for him, or for ''a leap in the dark''. She thought for a moment then politely said she thought she would prefer the leap in the dark.

This is the atmosphere that the Conservative Party needs to ponder when it tells the country that devolution is not an option - that it must be the status quo or independence.

For the effect of Major's rhetoric is now clear. In Scotland, it comes across as a slap across the chops. A middle way, as supported by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and many Scottish Nationalist voters is, according to the Prime Minster, ''the most cynical policy of modern times''. If so, this is a cynicism very widely shared. The problem for Tory Unionists is that if they succeed in making this a take-it-or-leave it issue, then sooner or later, it is likely that Scotland will leave it. If it's ''like it or lump it'', then the sound of lumping will echo through the land.

The reasons are deep and well beyond the reach of mere politicians. Those things which forged the British Union are today less important than at any stage in our common history as a nation-state. The historian Linda Colley has described them brilliantly in her book Britons - the Protestantism, the riches and trading opportunities of the new Empire, the shared French enemy, the monarchy, the Parliament.

If these were the ties that bound us together, they are today like withered straw. Even the influence of the Second World War, the most recent source of militant British pride, is dwindling. That ''good war'' revived many of the original 17th- and 18th-century images of Britain as a unique, plucky and beseiged land, chosen by God or fate to stand against barbarism. Today's Tory anti-Europeanism picks up on the wartime memory of continental threat but has nothing of its immediacy or potency. There will be, God willing, no return to a British patriotism fired by a fear of invasion.

This leaves little of the old Britishness untouched. The Royal Family is a fast-drying source of national unity; the demise of the Scottish- born Queen Mother will mark another important break in the national imagination. The VE Day celebrations carried a nostalgic undertone. The nation that fought is not the nation we inhabit today, and every death of a soldier or widow of the Forties takes it further away.

All of which may seem a long way removed from a by-election. But when the Tory candidate was asked to explain the importance of the Union, he began his list with, ''our national security, our safety, our defence ...'' This sounded lame. It lacked resonance. And when a minister called on Scots to go out and vote for ''Queen and Country'', he too seemed to be appealing to another age.

The withering of old bonds of Britishness need not mean that the British state is doomed. There are other ties. The large number of English living in Scotland and Scots in London; the common British market; all these matter. Economics remains something of a binding force; today's Tories make much of the higher taxes that Scots would have to pay to govern themselves.

But the Union is, at the very least, fragile and covered with hairline cracks. If it is to be held together then both sides are going to have to show that they are flexible and well-meaning and want it to work.

This is what Labour's devolution plan - however flawed - is about. To say it is the halfway house to independence, as Mr Major does, is true enough. But it takes the argument nowhere. Politically, we all live in halfway houses because so many final destinations would be intolerable. Socialism is a halfway house to Communism. High Toryism is a half-way- house to fascism. And so what? Socialists aren't communists; Tories aren't fascists; and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament wouldn't make the place (as Major says it would) ''a 1950s Albania''.

Today, it is the Conservative and Unionist Party which claims to be desperately concerned about the Union, and which has always regarded itself as pragmatic, which seems recklessly inflexible. Perhaps it's the mixture of hurt and belligerence which comes from being so unpopular that prevents them being shrewd. But from their own point of view, these Tories are playing a dangerous game. Perth and Kinross is just another by-election. But the Conservatives tell us it is ''about the Union''. So what do they say if, as seems likely later this week, they are hammered?

The same applies, only much more so, to the general election. Finally, and belatedly, an urgent search is going on among senior Cabinet ministers to come up with policies to pacify Scotland. Businessmen are being talked to and various wheezes short of a Scottish Parliament are being discussed. The trouble is that it is likely to be too little, too late: anything substantial enough to make an impact on Scottish voters will contradict the Prime Minister's own apocalyptic rhetoric about the evils of devolution.

Yet for the Conservatives, the questions won't go away. If they really regard a Scottish Parliament as so abominable, so incompatible with Britain, how would they react to one being established? Would they stand for it? Having stood, would they try to wreck it?

If so, a combination of militantly anti-Scottish Home Rule Toryism in London (which can sound merely anti-Scottish) and Scottish Nationalism (which can sound anti-English) could well provide the double force which finally pulls the Union apart.

It needn't be a disaster. It would lessen London's influence on the world stage and cause a bit of disruption in both countries, but life would go on. It's just that for a Unionist party to be embarking on a political game which is likely to hasten the end of Britain is ... well, simply not very clever.

There is still time for them to stop and think. And read. For instance, that devolution "involves an act of faith in the common sense, objectivity and tolerance of the Scottish people" but offers the only alternative to "continued agitation'' and the breakup of the United Kingdom. Said whom? Well, Lord Home, actually - old Sir Alec himself, the last Tory to win a by-election in the villages of Perthshire.