First the good news. Thanks to last night’s “No” vote in the Scottish referendum Britain has been spared the following: a run on the pound; the hasty exodus of Scotland’s finance industry; the premature death of UKIP; the gloating of Alex Salmond; a Red-Wedding-style outbreak of backstabbing and bloodletting among Tories and Labour alike; a collapse in the markets; at least two years of procedural sclerosis in the British and Scottish parliaments; the entirely unnecessary and utterly ill-considered rupture of a the greatest Union between nations the world has ever known; waking up this morning to find ourselves no longer in bed with cherished (if fractious) friends, allies, partners and comrades alongside whom we’ve fought, loved and prospered for over 300 years.
Now the bad: it’s all over anyway.
What Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP) insurgency achieved in Scotland last night is equivalent to what the Viet Cong and NVA achieved during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Yes they may have lost the battle. But it was their stepping stone towards ultimately winning the war.
Just as the speed and aggression and co-ordination of the Tet Offensive caught the complacent US military and political establishment on the hop, so were David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and all the other “Better Together” campaigners completely wrong-footed by the Saltire insurgency of Alex Salmond and his woad-painted nationalists.
With hindsight, we can all tell ourselves that last night’s victory for the “No” vote was inevitable. With almost the entire British political establishment – including three prime ministers – behind it, not to mention an excedingly rare and unlikely union of the left and right media (and The Daily Mail shall lie down with The Guardian and the BBC…), as well as three hundred years of history, the continuation of the Union ought to have been a foregone conclusion.
But that is certainly not how it has felt in the last fortnight. Hence the unseemly scramble we witnessed in the last few days as Cameron and co headed north to grovel and abase themselves on broken glass promising Scotland anything and everything just so long as it remained in the Union.
And so it has come to pass: a small tactical victory has been gained at the expense of a massive strategic defeat.
Salmond – or whoever replaces him – and his nationalist insurgency are hardly going to view that 45 per cent they gained at the ballot box as a loss. Rather they will draw the conclusion that nearly half of Scotland’s population yearns for independence and that all they have to do now is press on with their guerilla war until eventually, inevitably, their opposition’s will to keep on fighting is spent.
Their unlikely allies in this will be all those people in the rest of Britain driven to apoplexy by the concessions that have been made by the “Westminster government” in order to appease Salmond. How can it possibly be fair, they’ll want to know, that under the Barnett Formula, Scottish residents will continue to receive more than £1000 per capita per year of taxpayer-funded handouts than people in the rest of the United Kingdom? And how, with all these extra powers that Scotland’s parliament has been granted, can it be right that the 59 Scottish MPs at Westminster get to vote on matters exclusive to England, Wales and Northern Ireland (rUK) when their rUK counterparts are denied any say on Scotland?
The answers to both questions, of course, is that it isn’t. Which is why, in its desperate attempts to engender national unity by shoring up the Union, what the Westminster political class has actually ended up doing is sow the seeds for still further, deeper national division. Already, there are calls from English MPs for an English parliament, which Cameron is trying to offset by promising that Scottish MPs will be excluded from voting on English affairs. Wales and Northern Ireland, meanwhile, will be looking on enviously at what Salmond has won his people by playing the shyster demagogue and asking themselves: why not us, too?
In theory, you might argue, this can only be a good thing. Great Britain could emulate the federal system of the US, with its newly Balkanised states granted the freedom to set their own local tax levels, either running themselves into the ground on the high-tax, overregulated, socialistic California model or emulating the can-do spirit of Texas and become thriving models of free-market capitalism.
In reality, what we’ll end up with is just a more extreme, sclerotic and expensive version of the system we have now: Mickey Mouse parliaments in the regions (you think MPs are useless? Clearly you’ve never met a Scottish MSP or a Welsh AM) squandering a fortune on bureaucratic mismanagement and politically correct social engineering; an increasingly powerless parliament in Westminster picking up the tab.
It didn’t have to be this way. The incompetence and complacency of the Westminster class made it that way. Which is doubly ironic, when you think about it, because it was precisely this incompetence and complacency which led nearly half of Scotland’s population to look at the mendacious, slippery, xenophobic, economically illiterate demagogue Salmond and his ugly crew and say to themselves: “Well they’ve surely got to be an improvement on that bunch of bawbags down South…”