Much is being made of the development of a small lead for the SNP in the opinion polls ahead of next years election to Holyrood. In addition there is said to be small majorities in favour of independence on both sides of the border. The way some tell it, the United Kingdom is headed for inevitable dissolution.
So, it is a relief to see a much more balanced analysis from Magnus Linklater in The Times.
The key point is that while the idea of independence might be emotionally attractive, the practical realities would be deeply unpopular and as a result, even were the SNP to be able to form a government at Holyrood next year, they would be highly unlikely to win a referendum on independence. The support for the SNP is support for an opposition- and as the election draws nearer, even that lead in the polls may prove illusory.
To a certain extent the increase in the support for the SNP reflects the final despair of the Scottish Conservatives. The classically liberal elements of the Scottish Conservatives have seen the success of the liberal policies in the Baltic countries and now believe that Scotland could aspire to the same Über-Liberal nirvana- as an independent state. Unfortunately the economic policies of the SNP are based on the Social Democrat centre of gravity of Scottish politics. The radical nature of Liberal policies is not likely to be loved by the Socialist wing of the party, so ex-Tory entryism is unlikely to capture the heart of the SNP- despite their dreams.
The SNP stands for only one thing: independence; but against lots of things,including many things that provide Scotland with jobs. Even if they could gain power, they are likely to prove factional and unstable- defections and disagreements are the norm for the SNP. The fact is that separatist politics has a long way to go before it can mature enough to create stable economic or even constitutional policies for Scotland- it still can not decide whether Scotland would be a Republic or not. In short, it seems unlikely that the SNP alone could carry Scotland to independence without a significant change in the current conditions.
Of course one of these changes might be a backlash in England. There are two sources for discontent south of the Tweed- one is the question of local government and the other is a national question.
The grumbling about the perceived subsidy of Scotland has become a roar since the Holyrood Parliament was established. Of course the fact is that any constitutional settlement should take into account the whole of the UK, and the advent of assemblies or Parliaments for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has left a glaring omission: England.
Originally the idea was that English regional assemblies would fill the gap. However the primary identification for most English people remains with the county. Sports,especially cricket, remain organised by counties. "Eastern Region" masks intense rivalries between Norfolk and Suffolk; "South West Region", stretching from Gloucestershire to Cornwall, can barely be said to have a common identity at all. If local government is to have local roots, then there is a case for much stronger county governments, which can cooperate amongst themselves on an ad hoc basis where appropriate, rather than the devolution of Whitehall to regional bureaucratic hubs. Then a weaker "English Assembly" could sit as a committee of the House of Commons.
I put forward the idea, since it strikes me that the one size fits all approach to local government is clearly not appropriate. Most English counties have populations around a half a million- and several are over a million- a level that is greater than several individual member states of the European Union. Although the British civil service has split itself, to some degree, in order to work under unelected regional groupings, the fact is that the regions remain unpopular and regional assemblies have already been rejected in referenda.
The national question is bound up in sense of English grievance about the whole idea of the UK. Personally I find Conservative complaints about "the whinging Jocks" pretty irritating. It reflects the lack of confidence that repeated defeat is instilling into many Conservative minds. "Since we win a plurality of votes in England, should we not control England, and let Scotland separate?". I do not understand such weak minded self indulgence. The United Kingdom stands for many positive virtues- not least the idea that nations can work together harmoniously. Our long history together has seen lows- the slave trade, some aspects of colonialisation- but also enormous success- the rise of industry, liberal politics and a culture of liberty and tolerance. Our shared institutions include everything from the RNLI to the BBC, and this is social capital that takes years to build, but which can be destroyed all too easily.
Real leadership involves speaking up for those shared values- leaders of all political groups should remind the British people constantly of the value of our shared civic identity. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, supporters of devolution, have been far more forthright in supporting the UK than the Conservatives, who opposed it. This reflects a political calculation that is profoundly dangerous. The vacuum that the weakness of the Scottish Conservatives is creating is a window of opportunity for separatism- but with vision and leadership the separatist sirens can be beaten- on both sides of the border.