The case for English independence

David Cameron and Ed Miliband don’t want to lose Scotland, but it’s losing England that really worries them.

Cameron and Miliband strongly oppose giving Scotland the option of ‘greater devolution’ within the UK [GALLO/GETTY]

London, United Kingdom – Last year the Scottish Nationalist Party won a majority of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. In their manifesto they set out proposals for a referendum “to determine the sorts of responsibilities our parliament and government should have in the years ahead”. They were clear that other parties in Scotland would have an opportunity to “bring forward a proposal for greater devolution”.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband are British politicians. Their opposition to Scottish independence is a given. But in recent weeks, both men have strongly opposed giving Scotland the option of “greater devolution” within a still-United Kingdom. Discussing plans for a referendum, Cameron told Sky News on January 9 that the Scottish people deserve “a fair, clear and decisive question”. On January 30, Ed Miliband told the Scottish Labour Party that a referendum should be “based on one fair question and one clear answer”. The similarity in the language is striking. Westminster is saying that the choice for Scotland should be between full independence and the status quo.

Scotland to launch independence referendum

But the nationalists want to present three options in a referendum that won’t be held until 2014. The Scots can leave things as they are, let’s call that the Miliband-Cameron preference. They can go for full independence, the Braveheart Option. Or they can choose a much greater degree of autonomy while remaining part of the United Kingdom, so-called “Devo Max”. Greater devolution would leave Scotland responsible for raising and spending its own revenues. The currency, the armed forces, the crown and some other bits and pieces would remain British matters.

Most Scots are still wary of full independence. But devolution has worked out reasonably well for them so far, so they may well decide that they want more of it. And while the nationalists will campaign for full independence, they clearly want “Devo Max” on the ballot paper. Given the state of the Eurozone, it makes sense to stay in the sterling area for a while yet.

Salmond says he wants a wide-ranging national debate in the years leading up to the referendum. He also says that he wants Scotland to become a “progressive beacon” to the rest of the British Isles. And that’s why Westminster’s politicians are nervous. The debate in Scotland threatens to make the rest of Britain aware of issues that Cameron and Miliband would rather keep wrapped in the Union Jack.

For example, if the Scottish Parliament takes responsibility for the country’s public institutions, then the country will have its own broadcaster – a Scottish Broadcasting Company. And the Scots probably won’t to create a scale model of the British original. After all, the BBC has a pretty poor record on investigative reporting. While it is proud of its investigation into alleged corruption at FIFA, it dropped the ball on Iraq, the financial crisis, the MPs’ expenses scandal and the criminal conspiracies at News International. The BBC is great at costume drama and nature documentaries. As a check on power it leaves something to be desired.

‘A progressive beacon’

A nation designing a new model of news and analysis will surely go for something better. The Scots may even decide that all the citizens of Scotland should have some say in how investigative journalists and researchers spend their time and the public’s money. The SBC could end up providing a venue for debate between citizens, as well as a platform for politicians. But if the Scots start discussing democratic reform of the media, the rest of Britain is going to notice. The English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish might want to have some effectual say in the form public opinion takes. A federalised BBC, in which the regions and devolved nations can challenge the metropolitan centre, spells disaster for the political establishment in Westminster.

The structure of decision-making at the state broadcaster is a matter of profound constitutional significance. And it is only one of many that a long debate about “Devo Max” will bring to light. A devolved administration could introduce a financial transactions tax and effective controls on corporate tax avoidance and evasion. And that’s before we start thinking about what “Devo Max” will do to British executive’s fondness for military intervention overseas.  

If the Scots create a polity where free citizens have the powers they need to secure prosperity and social justice, then the light of it will be visible to all her neighbours.

The Scots could reasonably call for formal representation on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Again, the rest of Britain will be stirred to ask why they can’t have the same. After all, if the North and the Midlands had a say in setting the interest rate, they might be able to ensure that the Bank of England didn’t save all its kisses for the city of London.

The British are meant to be content with the spectacles and dramas laid on for them. In the New Year, David Cameron told us with the pink suaveness of an ambitious young headmaster that this year we could look forward to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. Ed Miliband wants to put on a slightly different show; imagine a chorus line of crocodiles weeping while the financial sector gets everything it wants. But they are united in their desire to hog the national limelight and avoid discussion of what goes on backstage.

The Scots don’t want to be a miniature Britain, and never have done. In the years before 2014 they will decide for themselves what it means to be a great nation. A progressive beacon, Salmond says. If the Scots create a polity where free citizens have the powers they need to secure prosperity and social justice, then the light of it will be visible to all her neighbours. And that is the last thing that anyone in Westminster, or the City of London, wants.

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year’s winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize. 

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.