For a country and people that likes to take its history seriously, Britain seems not to have fully absorbed the massive political events that have taken place this year.
While never missing the chance to remind various continental types of their losses at the hands of Her Majesty’s forces over the years, the constituent people of the United Kingdom seem unperturbed that the very political union that made the four disparate nations of the islands lying off the north-west coast of France the most powerful nation in the world is on the verge of dissolving.
It started with Blair being questioned by the Metropolitan Police over the cash-for-honours affair. This is big news. If it had happened 150 years ago, it would now be the subject of a four-part multi-million pound BBC 1 costume drama. But in 2007, outside of the opinion pages, it doesn’t seem to have gained much traction. Whether Blair dunnit or not is yet to be proven, but the very fact that the Old Bill is having a chat with him about the matter is hardly seemly. In times of yore, angry mobs would have formed baying for the blood of a corrupt prime minister.
Then Gerry Adams sat down with the good Reverend Ian Paisley. Ten years ago, the very notion would have been laughable. But it happened and by and large, Northern Ireland is at peace. Sure, there is still the odd riot, but nothing worse than you’d get at a Sydney beach on a hot day. Property prices, even in west Belfast, are rising and the province can now boast the ultimate indicator of prosperity in today’s British Isles — the sudden presence of very large numbers of young Polish people where it seemed that only yesterday, there were none.
And in Scotland, the Nationalists — the Scottish National Party — are not only leading in the polls, but looking like they might actually be able to form government in the devolved parliament at Holyrood. The Nats leading in the polls is nothing new, but what is surprising commentators both north and south of the border is that their vote is holding up, and even increasing, in this final week of the election campaign. Normally Nationalist surges — they still wince when reminded of their ‘Free by 93’ slogan — break well before polling day arrives.
The Nationalists have been helped by Labour’s campaign under the feckless First Minister Jack McConnell, which has chosen to run a relentlessly negative campaign portraying an SNP victory in the 3 May election as marking the immediate and irreversible creation of a penniless independent Scotland caught in a hostile relationship with its English neighbour. Scottish Labour politicians like Gordon Brown, John Reid and Tony Blair (though he is loath to admit it) have shamelessly pretended that an independent Scotland would see border controls established at Carlisle and tear families with members living both north and south of the border apart.
Of course, none of this is true. The SNP have been cagey about making a formal commitment to a date for any referendum on independence, a necessity when the structure of Holyrood, which uses a combination of first-past-the-post constituency votes and multi-member-seat-proportional voting, means they will most likely need the support of the anti-independence Liberal Democrats to form a government even if they do win the 35 — 40 seats (there 129 seats in total) they are aiming for. And there is a strong view within the Nationalists that they would do well to prove their mettle in government by serving a full term before taking their chances in an independence referendum that if held tomorrow, opinion polls show they would lose by a big margin.
But even if the SNP did win government on May 3, and hold a referendum the very next day that gives a clear mandate for independence, what would change? The answer is very little. There would be a brief period of confusion while arrangements over Royal Navy and Royal Air Force bases were sorted out — and despite the apocalyptic warnings of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair there is no reason why an independent Scotland could not still rent out military institutions like the submarine base at Faslane to the rump of the UK, just as the UK and USA maintain military installations in a large number of foreign countries — but essentially, Scotland would be a member of the EU using a Westminster system of government and legal system very similar to that of the other Commonwealth countries. And there would be no passport controls at the border with England, just as there are no passport controls between France and Germany.
Of course, all this talk presumes that even if the Nationalists do win on Thursday, the people of Scotland support any independence referendum they hold. Paradoxically, support for the party of independence is far higher than support for independence itself. More likely is a scenario similar to that seen in places like Quebec and Catalonia where pro-independence parties govern and seek to extract power from the central, federal system gradually, rather than seeking full independence in one fell swoop.
Casting a giant shadow over the Scottish elections is the great Labour chieftain north of the border, Gordon Brown himself. Never the most cheery of chaps, Brown must be growing increasingly nervous at taking over the premiership from Blair only to find his own backyard suddenly filled with uninvited guests pitching their tents and making as much noise as possible. While there is no current serious challenger to Brown for the prime ministership, if Scottish Labour falls to the Nats, there may be some in cabinet who seize the chance to kick the wounded giant while he’s down.