The time is right for a velvet divorce

As Scottish voices get louder and the two Irelands grow closer, can the United Kingdom survive?; Mr Major's position remained clear for quite a few minutes. Then Malcolm Rifkind got involved
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The small problem facing John Major is the small problem that would face any Vandal of yore, addressing any ancient public and saying that from now on he is going to be out and about among the people, listening to their grievances, or saying to the Scottish Vandals Party that from now on every one of them is going to have a say in policy-making. If he is a Vandal, and if he looks like a Vandal and dresses like one, the chances are we are going to expect him to be one.

If he sports a strange helmet, straw-coloured pigtails, blood-drenched tunic and complex cross-gartering, that sounds like a Vandal, or at any rate some version of the unwelcome intruder, to us. If he stands at the end of a trail of rape and pillage and burnt-out hovels, and talks about consultation, while we can see, as it were, our wives and daughters piled, trussed and gagged, on the wagons that are heading north, are we liable to be convinced, or convinced for long?

Mr Major was a change from Margaret Thatcher, but the Tories are not in any way a change from the Tories. Gillian Shephard may have been a change from John Gummer, and a change from John Patten, and may go on to be a change from Virginia Bottomley, but the Cabinet itself is not a change, the Government is not a change, the party is not a change. Vandals are not a change from Vandals.

If Mr Major had stood up in front of the Scottish Tories and said, "By the way, in future, the last thing I'm going to do is listen to what you lot want," that would have been a novelty, although not, to tell the truth, a genuine change since the party's conferences have never been consultative.

Still, one thing he did say comes as a novelty to me: the idea that it is so deeply cynical of the Labour Party to support Scottish devolution.

One thinks back to the last Labour government, to the end of the Jim Callaghan years and the unsuccessful struggle for devolution then. It monopolised the attention and the efforts of the government. It caused bitterness and division. It was fought for at length and, when the fight failed, that whole period came to seem wasted and beside the point.

So if Labour now says this problem has not gone away and must be addressed, my reaction is to believe that they mean what they say, because, if they did not, they certainly would not want to go through all that again. And so, whether you buy the whole deal or not, whether you believe in Scotland plus Wales, or even a regionally devolved England, too, you have to believe there is a purpose to this, even if the purpose is misguided. It is too much to be asked to believe that this is one of those lessons Labour has not learnt from history.

Last week Mr Major rested on the advantage of distinctiveness: he was clearly against any dilution of the Union, which he called on the party to defend at all costs. That position remained perfectly clear for quite a few minutes after he had spoken.

And then, equally clearly, Malcolm Rifkind threw his spanner in the works, making it quite plain that he was sympathetic to Scottish ambitions for devolution. The problem was the lack of substance to plans for an English equivalent, and the lack of support for it in England.

That was what I understood him to say, and I see from the newspapers that that is what he did say: "I have no problem about the principle of devolution, or of constitutional change, if there are proposals which can apply throughout the United Kingdom and create a stable structure."

Whichever way you look at it (despite Mr Rifkind's shirtiness afterwards with John Humphrys, and his menacing remark that "the BBC are becoming a real menace"), this opens the door which Mr Major is trying to close.

My own feeling is that the semi-pragmatism of Mr Rifkind's initial remarks is far more in tune with popular perception than Mr Major's evangelical defence of the Union at all costs. Just as you would have to go to a specialised section of the community - Bedlam, for instance - to find a type of person opposed to the independence of the Republic of Ireland, so, on mainland Britain, you would have to look to special-interest groups in order to find opposition to the idea that there should be some new agreement between Northern Ireland and the south.

What Willy Brandt said about Germany after the Berlin Wall came down - "What belongs together will grow together" - covers a widespread feeling about Ireland, both in the political parties and in the population at large. There is a lot of support for this "dilution of the Union", because it is seen as having the important purpose of peace.

Nor can I see that in England and Wales there is a great horror at Scottish ambitions for some kind of home rule. The forces arguing for it have been with us a long time, long enough to prove it no fad. One might take the converse of Brandt's formulation - "What belongs apart will grow apart" - as representing the comparable widespread feeling.

Sentiment, on this issue, might jump either way. One might be thrilled, being English, at the thought of Scotland becoming more Scottish. There is absolutely no reason why English national feeling should be understood to be the same as British Unionism.

As for the desire of the Labour Party to make some kind of symmetrical arrangement for all parts of the Union, and Mr Rifkind's insistence that this cannot be done and that there is no support for it, anyway: surely popular feeling is assymetrical? We know that what holds true of Northern Ireland does not necessarily apply to Scotland, and that what is true of Scotland does not necessarily apply in Wales. To oppose Scottish devolution on the slogan "Symmetry cannot be achieved" does not begin to answer the demands of Scots who could not care less about symmetry, but happen to want home rule for Scotland.

No one wants to vote in some system that lacks any basis in political reality, but political reality is the complex product of past coercions. I feel perfectly entitled to support Scottish devolution while remaining, in different degrees, agnostic about a national assembly in Wales and regional assemblies in England.

If Scottish devolution has something of the nature of a "trial separation", then I am all in favour. Roll on, the Velvet Divorce.