Scottish independence: Do Scots want to break up Britain?

The vote could be closer than you think
July 18, 2013
Supporters rally for Scottish independence in Edinburgh last year, during one of the largest pro-independence marches the city has seen © Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/Press Association Images

I am a Scot by upbringing, education and sentiment, who lives in England, or rather in London, which is not quite the same thing. Whenever London Scots get together and talk about independence, there is a general assumption that the people back home will never actually vote for it; the opinion polls have been quite strongly in favour of the Union, and the general assumption that a vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Holyrood is simply the latest wheeze to put pressure on London for financial favours is blandly repeated in bars and television studios. “They willnae.” During the very late spring of 2013, as I have started to pay more attention, I have become less certain: next September, they micht.

But whether it happens or not, I have become increasingly frustrated by the lack of understanding of the Scottish impulse to self-government and some kind of independence. People talk as if it is a new thing, conjured out of nowhere, by a political magician called Alex Salmond—more Game of Thrones than ordinary modern politics. This shows profound ignorance; a blind spot to an aspect of the British story that has been with us since Edwardian times, at the very least.

If Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom, it would certainly be an enormous shock. It would go against the opinion polling predictions, the settled predictions of the London party leaders and the betting companies. But life would go on, wouldn’t it? There would be no riots, no violence. Ordinary families would carry on, shopping, squabbling, worshipping, and collecting pensions and benefits. For Scots, who would remain inside the sterling zone, using notes produced by the Bank of Scotland and RBS, and who already watch devolved news programmes and read home-produced newspapers about their own political scandals, life might carry on feeling surprisingly the same.

Yet should the Scots’ vote for independence happen, they will shake the rest of Britain rather more than we are generally told. The remaining UK would have less punch inside Europe and in international terms, quite possibly losing her seat on the United Nations Security Council. The fleet of nuclear submarines on which Britain’s claim to “world power” status rests would be decommissioned and dismantled: the SNP have made it clear that they want closure of the Faslane nuclear base, and the Ministry of Defence is equally clear that building a new nuclear facility in the south of England would be prohibitively expensive.

The disappearance of more than 50 Scottish MPs would have a dramatic effect on the balance of power between the Tories and the left-leaning parties of England; a Scotland-less UK election in 2010 would have given David Cameron a clear majority. This, of course, might rebalance itself over time. The change to the status of national politicians in Westminster may not seem to matter very much to daily life. Yet, from the evening weather map to arrangements for post, taxes, the armed forces, and the prevalent politics of England, the whole of post-independence Britain would feel different. An international border 400 miles north of London and about 80 miles south of Edinburgh would sunder businesses. Individuals, including myself, would have to choose which passport to carry. Scottish negotiations with Brussels over issues such as fishing rights, open borders and petroleum rights would be watched with anxiety from London. This would be quite a big deal.

No one can be sure, of course, about which way Scotland will vote: there has never been a referendum like this—the two on devolution were smaller beer, and with less at stake. But this will be the closest Scotland has come since the Act of Union in 1707 and the disappearance of the original parliament then to reclaiming her independence. Even the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, while it originated in Scotland, was a religious and dynastic crusade, not a nationalist one. What follows is my attempt to investigate why this vote could be closer than most people have so far assumed.

In 1992, I published a book entitled The Battle for Scotland. I was writing after the long dominance of Margaret Thatcher, with little idea of how Tony Blair would change the British political landscape, for good or ill. New Labour, pursuing some policies which followed on from Thatcherism (crucially, City deregulation, the withdrawal of the state from industrial strategy, and staunch support for the United States in the Middle East), was still young and untested. In Scotland a genteel, moderate form of old Labour was majestically and somewhat complacently enthroned. It seemed like a craggy sandstone fortress against which the SNP broke in foamy waves, falling back time and time again. That is, until the tower suddenly, dramatically, collapsed in 2011. Long-time critics of devolution such as the former MP Tam Dalyell, who warned about the “break-up of Britain” during the 1970s, have the right to say: “I told you so.”


At the heart of the story, there is a paradox which has not gone away. The more distinctive and nationalist Scottish public opinion seems to be, the more it turns out to be affected by what happens in London, rather than anywhere in Scotland. The narrative of the rise of Scottish nationalist agitation and sentiment is a home-made tale—of poets, mass movements and unusual individuals, including borderline terrorists, challenging the preconceptions of the British state at Westminster. Yet the way Scotland actually votes seems to depend, rather embarrassingly, on exactly what is going on down in the House of Commons.

Why did Scotland get her parliament eventually? Because so many Scots voted for it; between 1979, when around 2.3m Scots (51 per cent of the total voting) said “yes” to a Scottish parliament, and 1997, in the wake of the New Labour victory, when around 2.77m Scots (around 73 per cent) voted for a new parliament, there had clearly been a substantial shift in allegiance. But again, why? Very roughly, half a million people seemed to have changed their minds. They had done so because of what had been going on at Westminster. A long-standing distaste for Thatcherite politics, more pronounced in Scotland than in England, was quite clearly the dominant political happening of the intervening years. This was a shift not based on emotional nationalism, but on a preference for mildly left-wing and pro-welfare social democratic politics. The SNP may not be the Socialist republican party it once seemed to be, but its programme is still well to the left of any other major parliamentary party in the UK.

It was possible to exploit this hostility to a British Prime Minister in a new way because Labour had won its historic 1997 general election promising to legislate for a second Home Rule referendum. Why did that happen? Because of the actions of another British Prime Minister, not enormously popular in Scotland. Many Scots may disdain Blair for all sorts of reasons, but they have to accept that it was his decision to honour a promise made by his deceased Scottish predecessor, John Smith, that led directly to the new parliament at Holyrood. To call Blair the prime mover behind the rise of Salmond’s SNP is to be equally offensive to both sides; and yet there is truth in it, too.

But this is also a story of the unexpected, in which chance plays an important part. We don’t often think of death as a factor in the course of democratic politics, but this story was dominated by a series of early, sudden deaths, removing three of the dominant figures of the Scottish Labour establishment. (This is not entirely coincidental: Scotland has had the worst adult mortality rates in western Europe since the 1970s.) First, on the morning of 12th May 1994, Smith, then party leader, had a massive heart attack in his London flat, and died. There was widespread shock and public mourning, but not everybody thought Smith a political genius.

Very shortly before his death, I happened to have been in company in a Scottish pub with Blair. He believed that Smith, for all his moral integrity and popularity, never understood the English south and was therefore likely to be a failure in the forthcoming general election. I recall him bitterly bemoaning Labour’s condition, and wondering about whether he, Blair, had made the right decision to enter politics at all and perhaps should have stayed as a lawyer. Yet, remarkably soon after that conversation, the young Blair was the party leader and Prime Minister in waiting, after another Scot who felt he was entitled to the job, Gordon Brown, had reluctantly stood aside. So perhaps, when it came to devolution, Blair felt that he owed Smith a debt of honour; certainly, Scottish Home Rule was never something he cared about much himself or, it might be said, really understood in an emotional way.

Six years later, Scotland lost the man credited as the father of her new parliament. Smith’s best friend in politics, Donald Dewar, slipped in the streets of Edinburgh and suffered a brain haemorrhage which killed him. By then, he had led the Labour campaign for a yes vote, had overseen the opening ceremony of the Scottish parliament and had become Scotland’s first First Minister. A dry, dyspeptic and aggressively anti-nationalist intellectual from Glasgow, Dewar seemed the ultimate safe pair of hands and had been all but canonised in the media, a fate which made him squirm. His death left a huge gap.

Next, in August 2005, the most radical and peppery of leading Scottish Labour politicians, Robin Cook, who had led Labour opposition to the Iraq war and could well have emerged in Edinburgh as the SNP’s most formidable opponent, collapsed while walking down a mountain. He fell eight feet on a remote hillside and died of heart disease, despite the arrival of a helicopter ambulance.

Labour, of course, had other talented figures. But there was nobody at that time of really high stature and esteem who would choose to vacate Westminster to pursue a political career in Edinburgh. Later, when pro-unionist parties complained that Salmond dominated the Scottish battlefield, they should have blamed fate and their own lack of ambition. Too many of the leading unionists had been picked off before the fight really started, and too few others volunteered to take their place.

So what kind of country was this Scotland that was to be fought over now? Proud, certainly, and quick to take offence, even today. If you listen to Salmond’s speeches and interviews, in which he rarely lets an opportunity slip to praise the English people and promise good neighbourly relations, you would assume that the ancient, almost racist Anglophobia of earlier periods in nationalist politics had mercifully declined. Though if you watched some of the pro-independence videos available on the internet, which tend to feature blood-spattered medieval helmets and, in the middle distance, crowds of kilted men running with broadswords and screaming, you might be less sure.

The dominant modern political mood in Scotland could be described as northern European welfarist and in favour of a strong state—Scotland has a larger proportion of her economy and housing stock in the public sector. This puts her more in line with Scandinavian countries, Iceland and Canada (latitude is an underestimated political influence). Inside this political culture, the biggest recent event has been the collapse of Labour as the dominant Scottish party, and the parallel growth of the SNP. Labour only really rose to dominance in the 1960s, when the Conservative Unionists took the brunt of Scottish hostility to Margaret Thatcher. Then, in a parallel movement, like a foursome reel, it was Labour’s turn. Political positions taken in Islington and Millbank by the Thames had a huge impact on how people voted in Dumbarton and on the banks of the Forth. Blair, despite his Scottish name, was never much appreciated, or perhaps understood, by what he described as “Middle Scotland.” There, opposition to new Labour reforms, a greater social conservatism and, in particular, hostility to the Iraq war made his government steadily less popular. To put it brutally, radical Blairism trashed the Scottish Labour brand almost as effectively as Thatcher had trashed the Scottish Tory one.


When it finally came, the official opening of the first Scottish parliament for 300 years, on 1st July 1999, was emphatically a British state occasion. With the Queen arriving by carriage and surrounded by clattering, scarlet-tunicked Life Guards from London, it seemed clear that this was another example of the British constitution evolving through continuity. The message was that ultimately power remained where it always had been. There were dissonant voices—a major march against the tuition fees policy that had made Labour particularly unpopular was led by the Scottish Socialist Party, while Alex Salmond warned that this was not the end of the journey—but it seemed, overall, a reassuringly traditional event. The loudest cheers were still reserved for the angular, reassuring figure of Donald Dewar.

Yet the new parliament being celebrated was very different from any institution seen in the UK before. It had almost been designed as a criticism of the ancient imperial parliament. Westminster runs on two houses, and a strong system of party whips who can see everyone voting in person. Its representation is based upon a single, first-past-the-post voting system. The British parliament has no right to appoint a prime minister or government—that is reserved for the monarch. It is, in short, a complex series of compromises made over hundreds of years.

The Edinburgh parliament, designed from scratch, is elected on a proportional voting system, divided between first-past-the-post constituency members and others based on a regional party list, to smooth out disparities in support. This has led to Green, Scottish Socialist and independent members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) gaining seats alongside the bigger parties. Second, without any revising or upper chamber, it allows much more power to parliamentary committees. Third, it consciously distances itself from Westminster rituals: voting on key measures takes place each day at the same time and is mostly done electronically, with MSPs sitting in their seats. Unlike the House of Commons, the Scottish parliament directly votes for the First Minister.

In policy terms, the most controversial measures the new parliament legislated for have been free tuition for Scottish students, plus a much more generous health and care system for pensioners, including free prescriptions. To English politicians, this seemed a classic case of Scotland irresponsibly spending without making the tough choices to raise money: the Scottish parliament had been given powers to vary the rate of income tax by up to three pence in the pound, but declined to use them.

Constitutionally, however, what followed for the first few years was undramatic. The new parliament met in the old Assembly Rooms of the Church of Scotland, overlooked not by some socialist or nationalist hero but by the grim figure of John Knox. Indeed, this was entirely appropriate as temporary accommodation, while the new building was being argued about and erected; the Kirk had been the nearest thing Scotland had to a national voice during the centuries without parliament. After Donald Dewar’s death, his right-hand man in Scotland, Henry McLeish, succeeded as First Minister. After embarrassing details of attacks on colleagues emerged, followed by a minor scandal over the rental of his constituency offices, he resigned quite quickly, to be followed by Jack McConnell, a man he had just defeated for the top job.

McConnell, a more robust figure, continued the early Labour hegemony. His most notable achievements as First Minister included Scotland’s smoking ban—controversial at the time, but which has saved many lives—and an energetic attempt to lure more people to come and live in the country. Again, there was no sense of a political earthquake having taken place. McConnell at any rate failed to capture the national imagination and, despite implementing modest reforms, Labour narrowly lost out to the Scottish Nationalists during the 2007 election. This was quite a shock at the time, though much worse was to follow. Under Salmond, the Scottish Nationalists were able to form their first minority coalition government with the Scottish Green Party.

That was a political risk by the SNP leader, and at this point we must turn directly to the enigmatic, provocative and (to some) highly charismatic figure of Salmond himself. Once a wiry, leftist dissident who worked as a highly effective oil economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland, he always enjoyed provocation: he used to keep a bust of Lenin on the mantelpiece of his stately Edinburgh New Town office. The left-wing republican fire may have disappeared, but underneath his favoured dark blue business suits and conservative ties, he remains a radical and tactically ruthless figure. He wooed Rupert Murdoch and won the support of the Scottish Sun. Scottish journalists found him “good for copy” and have followed him as the best story they are likely to see in their working lives.

Like other leaders who began on the left, Salmond’s historic achievement was to move to the centre, bringing others with him, and thereby changing the dynamics of Scottish politics. He lost some friends but he managed to reconcile many formerly hard-line Nationalists who had wanted nothing to do with devolution, to a programme of what might be called Fabian nationalism, moving stealthily and in stages towards ultimate independence.

This check on his natural impulsiveness had been slowly learned. He had first emerged as leader in 1990, replacing the rather grey, gloomy figure of Gordon Wilson, and led the SNP through some bleak years when they failed to make any kind of breakthrough. This period of leadership saw a bitter falling out with his old ally, the rumbustious and outspoken Jim Sillars, as Salmond ditched some of his previous leftism and was portrayed by Sillars as a slippery turncoat, no true nationalist at all. Small parties, like small villages, tend to enjoy particularly vicious personal feuds. The Scottish Labour Party has boasted some vendettas, but the SNP has generally been able to trump them.

Salmond next pursued his career at Westminster, where he led the Scottish Nationalist MPs and made a name for himself in London as one of the most outspoken and relentless critics of Blair and his foreign wars. His enemies, even then, thought him a dangerous demagogue, but he had a cheerful, rubbery self-confidence which many Scots, watching at home, adored. Dissident left-wing Labour MPs also admired him as a cocky provocateur. Self-abasement has never been his thing.

By the time he returned in 2004 to stand as SNP leader for a second time—something he had virtually ruled out before—Salmond was head and shoulders above any rival as the country’s best-known nationalist. Taking office in Scotland at the head of a minority administration, which seemed to be unlikely to do much or last for long, was a characteristic gamble by the horse-racing addict. And, in truth, that first SNP-led administration was pretty dull. With hindsight, the most important thing was that Salmond was able to make himself a symbol of cheekily unrelenting opposition to the Blair–Brown government as it entered its least popular phase in power at Westminster. His reward was the election landslide of 2011, winning 69 seats to Labour’s 47, with the Scottish Liberal Democrats crashing down to just five MSPs.

This changed everything. From now on, for the first time, the Scottish Nationalists had real power north of the border and a mandate for their long-standing aim of independence. If Salmond is able to achieve this final step, his policy of softly-softly will be triumphantly vindicated and he will emerge as one of the most significant leaders of any small country in Europe. Before any of this, of course, there has to be another referendum. Salmond has got his way on the preferred timing of it—2014 is an anniversary of Scotland’s famous victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in in 1314—and over the expansion of the electorate, extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds, who are (marginally) more in favour of independence than their elders.

If we trust the opinion polls, there is still a clear and consistent majority against independence in Scotland. Only around a third of Scottish voters seem in favour. Yet Labour was doing quite well in the polls before being smashed in that 2011 Scottish election, and nobody can be entirely sure of what will happen next. Salmond is a canny gambler, as we have seen, and is still enjoying what looks like a spectacular run of good fortune. He may, or may not, have a cunning plan: he works as much by bold opportunism as by strategy.

In choosing former Chancellor Alistair Darling as a leader of the “Better Together” pro-UK campaign, Labour has found somebody about as unlike Salmond as it is possible to be in public life: a naturally cautious, drily witty and somewhat pessimistic figure, with a rare reputation for cool economic management, won during the banking crisis. This promises to be, among other things, a contest about which of the two is the favoured caricature of modern Scottishness: the bouncy and demagogic upstart rebel or the furrow-browed man of authority; or as Scots will understand it, Wee Eck or Pa Broon.

The biggest single question is over the condition and future of the Scottish economy. Unionists portray it as weak, and likely to collapse after independence under the weight of much higher taxation, and a flight of capital. For nationalists, Scotland is a huge potential growth area, which has been under-invested in—a rainy El Dorado, brimming with new energy resources, forests and clean water. Both of these exaggerated prospectuses should be taken with a handful of salt. Not just in Britain but throughout the western world we have recently seen enough economic shocks to make us cautious about grand financial extrapolations.

But in many ways this goes to the heart of the case for independence: how independent can any country, apart from the largest, be from the huge and fast-moving global forces of 21st-century capitalism? If Scotland’s future is to be compared to that of Greece, Cyprus, Ireland or Iceland, then the “What’s the point?” question becomes hard to evade. The SNP, rightly, cite the example of small countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark; though the original “arc of prosperity” they identified included both Ireland and Iceland, now ravaged by the banking crisis. This became a soundbite to forget.

By most measures, Scotland remains more dependent on the public sector than the UK generally—23 per cent of Scottish jobs are public sector jobs, for instance, as against 20 per cent in the UK as a whole. In hard economic times, with countries across Europe implementing public spending cuts, and without a big personal tax base, this is clearly a potential worry. Scotland’s most famous and politically contentious economic resource is of course North Sea oil and gas, which as early as the late 1960s inspired the SNP’s first really successful campaign, “It’s Scotland’s oil.” Today, Scotland remains Europe’s largest producer of petroleum, and the SNP case for independence still leans heavily on the assumption that a decade or more of high oil revenues, based on new discoveries and new technologies, could be better used by a Scottish parliament to provide for the long-term health of the Scottish economy.

This depends on many unknowables: the ease of recovery of new reserves; world energy prices at a time when shale gas and renewables are changing the game; and the exact negotiation about the seabed boundary following the break-up of the UK. It also assumes that this bonanza would be used for significant long-term investment, not for mitigating the politically critical pain of public spending austerity. It has all become an argument hopelessly entangled in politics: Nationalists tend to an ebullient optimism about oil reserves and prices, almost as a matter of faith, while Unionists are constitutionally depressive and head-shaking about them, more or less for the same reason.

The other great strength of the Scottish economy, whisky aside, had been the financial services industry, mostly based in Edinburgh. Scotland retains formidable investment trust and life assurance companies but was devastated by the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland and failures almost as serious in HBOS—the merger between the Halifax building society and the Bank of Scotland. Similar errors of a similar magnitude had been made by banks in many other places, including the US and across Europe, but Edinburgh had something special to lose. For a long time, it had retained the reputation of a particularly sober, hard-headed and shrewd financial culture, and indeed liked to contrast itself to the freewheeling and greedy City of London. Many in Scotland pointed out that if this was a failure of regulation, regulation was still run by Westminster, not Scotland. Yet the damage to Scotland’s prized financial reputation was terrible. Salmond himself, who had once worked for RBS and championed its boss Fred Goodwin, was obliged to apologise and admit that, with hindsight, “I’d do things differently.”

Yet the Scottish economy, down, was not out: Scotland retains some impressive manufacturing output and the vestiges of the once-overpraised “Silicon Glen’” as well as important whisky, tourism and forestry sectors. And despite the collapse of heavy industry, Scottish unemployment as of June this year is lower, at 7.1 per cent, than that of the UK as a whole, and Scottish wealth per head compares favourably with most parts of England, outside London and the southeast. Yet Scotland, with a relatively sparse population spread over a large area and a very poor history of health, seems fated to require larger quantities of public spending than England: with 8.4 per cent of the UK population, Scotland takes 9.3 per cent of public spending. Since Scottish pensioners and students, among others, get a more generous deal from the state, this is resented by many English politicians and voters, who would like to impose a serious financial penalty if Scotland voted for full independence.


We should not get too hung up about percentages: economic statistics are the daily media pegs on which baggier questions of belonging, values and the nature of political power hang. Let’s start with belonging. The nationalist case has, on the face of it, changed enormously: no more Braveheart dissing of the English, but instead an optimistic and inclusive vision of a more self-confident Scotland. Yet you don’t have to scratch very deeply to find darker, emotional resentment of the English. A confrontation that took place on the streets of Edinburgh in May went to the roots of one of the problems of nationalist politics.

Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip, was barracked and abused by Scottish nationalist protesters outside a pub. Presumably referring to his hostility to mass immigration, they chanted “Nazi, Nazi” at him. One of the banners of the Radical Independence group invited Farage to stick his Union Jack up his bottom (they used another word) and return with all due speed to England. He responded by calling them “fascist swine” who were extremely anti-English, adding that there were parts of the independence movement “that are deeply, deeply unpleasant. Everybody knows it, but nobody dare say it.” Salmond then weighed in against Farage, calling his politics “obnoxious.”

Though one should not make too much of a single small fracas, it was hard not to notice two rival nationalisms, each resorting to Second World War terminology to abuse the other. In one important area, however, the modern Scottish nationalists have taken the old argument on: “Scottish” now simply means anyone living in Scotland, of whatever background. In terms of the right to vote in the referendum, it does not include people who are Scottish by blood but live in England or elsewhere—like me. My family had virtually no non-Scottish members going back for four or five generations, with the single exception, so far as I know, of a French academic. But I left Scotland to work in London 30 years ago, married an Englishwoman, and my children are more English than Scottish, if I’m honest. In gatherings of London Scots, there is much grumbling about the fact that none of us has the right to vote on the future of our country. Personally, I would find having to choose between a Scottish and a British passport agonising—my own past and cultural baggage versus my current family. However, I infinitely prefer a notion of Scottishness which downplays heredity, with its emphasis on “breeding” and racial purity. Much better an identity based on geography, which classes a first-generation Croatian immigrant in Perth as Scottish but does not class me or Alex Ferguson as Scottish, than a “blood and soil” belief in race and the superiority of certain strains of DNA.

Yet once you pull at that thread, much more follows. One might suspect that refusing a vote to Scots living in England simply removes from the electoral equation an anti-nationalist segment of Scots. But once you deny Scottishness as a blood or race issue, you have to confront the question of whether the Scottish people as such are in any sense special. Do the Battle of Bannockburn, the declaration of Arbroath or the Edinburgh Enlightenment have any significance at all in modern Scotland, or or any place in modern politics?

It’s very hard to imagine the SNP without its patriotic history; but if blood doesn’t matter, why should anyone living in Scotland now feel any particular pride in the behaviour of long-dead armies or philosophers? Scots have always been history-soaked, and the old stories of resistance against the larger and better-armed English have a proximity to the present that few outside Scotland can perhaps understand. The impression given by modern nationalism is that immigrant outsiders, if they have the right “attitude,” can be quickly marinated in it and therefore teach themselves to be Scottish, even down to the prickliness. The trouble is that that itself is an exclusive rather than an inclusive notion of identity: it requires much more of the incomer than, for instance, Britishness does.

My concern is less about what happens in the referendum than the kind of society Scotland becomes. Historically, nationalism has been an exclusive and divisive force; the notion of an inclusive, binding-it together nationalism is an odder one. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But it does mean that the journey still to travel by Nationalists and their supporters is a long and complex one—in essence, they must invent a new kind of politics with a new idea about how the politics of small countries can re-shape their destinies in a fruitful way. This requires, I would suggest, a lot more thought and a bit more vision to make it take off.

What about the broader question of values? This seems likely to be the main ground on which the referendum will be contested. Are the English and the Scots so politically different that they are better governing themselves separately than together? It is certainly hard to deny that there is a large slice of the English electorate which has become profoundly hostile to the European project, and would prefer tax cuts and deep spending cuts to an extension of welfare rights; and that this is not nearly as popular a view in the more left-wing Scottish political environment. But there is a serious danger of each side unfairly caricaturing the other: Scots libelling the English as selfish, short-term xenophobes, while the English smear the modern Scots as hypocritical welfare junkies, sucking on the teat of English prosperity. The evidence is patchy but does point to interesting differences of emphasis. A YouGov opinion poll for the Sunday Times carried out in November 2012 found that just 17 per cent of Scots polled favoured tax cuts for the rich and for business, against 30 per cent of Londoners and 26 per cent of people polled in the rest of the south of England. (But note that even in the richest parts of the UK, this is still a minority view.) On the question of an EU referendum, 62 per cent of southern Englanders wanted one; but then again 47 per cent of Scots did too. There are real differences and the SNP are not cooking up evidence from nothing; yet perhaps the differences are not quite as large as is generally assumed.

Not just in the UK, but across the west, the political consequence of economic decline has been widespread cynicism about politics generally, and in particular the ability of the state to alter life for the better. Scottish public opinion seems not much different from that found anywhere else in this regard. Yet the most significant political strength of Salmond’s SNP is its exuberant optimism about the ability of national government to change society. This is an exhilarating but profoundly unfashionable view of politics, for we live in an age when politics as a potent force, as distinct from the market, has been in headlong retreat.

Isn’t it interesting that a nationalist programme which assumes just the opposite, that traditional political power matters more than anything else, is getting a hearing at all? The danger from the unionist point of view is precisely that exhilaration. Perhaps, by playing the fear card—asking whether an independent Scotland could afford to pay proper pensions, and harping on the size of its share of the UK national debt—unionists are making a mistake.

The real question, given all the undoubted risks of independence, is whether a separate Scottish state can make enough difference to ordinary life to justify the gamble. So far we have heard surprisingly little about exactly how an independent Scotland would differ from a Scotland inside the UK, run by a more congenial centre-left government. Where is the distinctive tax system? Scotland, which used to be known around the world for the brilliance of its education, is these days pretty average: where is the ambitious programme of school and university reform, designed to make Scotland one of the toughest, gold-standard systems in the world? Where is the industrial policy which shows how to fund a system of incentives that could lure major companies to Scotland, without bankrupting the government?

Can we envisage a society in which the values of the Church of Scotland, and the scant Scottish Catholic Church, have a stronger role, as clerics protest against the secular and liberal agenda set by metropolitan London? Would Scots English be promoted as the national language, with Gaelic being aggressively revived, as Irish and Welsh have been? Would this be a pacifist country? In short, where is the foreground of the vision, alongside the blur of purple hills and blue seas in the distance? Meanwhile, the SNP champions the vision of a Scotland proud of its National Health Service, its welfare state and its environmental energy policy—all of which arrived thanks to the work of Labour politicians and Liberal Democrats during the 20th century.

The people who would be most radically affected by independence are the political and media elite, which is perhaps why they are so obsessed by constitutional change. For journalists and ambitious politicians working in Edinburgh, independence would be Christmas and a lottery payout gift-wrapped together. For Westminster politicians, it would be a big bump down.

We may be about to see a new country—indeed, two new countries—emerging on these islands. Half a lifetime ago, I sat down to write a book as a work of history. It has become current affairs.

This is an extract from the new introduction to “The Battle for Scotland” by Andrew Marr, reissued by Penguin at £8.99