Whilst in principle, the idea that we can more effectively tackle problems collectively using the strength of the whole, is entirely credible, the notion is fatally undermined by the empirical evidence, which is that the problems are simply not being tackled. Staying together means being bound to an economy which is heavily biased towards the south east; and a mere change of government (Labour’s sub-text to this argument) doesn’t seem to make any difference in practice.
A variation on the argument is that put forward by Douglas Alexander last week, who said:
“The Nationalists peddle a misplaced cultural conceit that holds that everyone south of the Solway Firth is an austerity loving Tory. Our friends, family and comrades in Wales, Northern Ireland and in great cities like Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester find no place in this notion.”
Leaving aside the gratuitous reference to cultural conceit, the underlying point is a valid one – England is not a homogeneous austerity loving country. And perhaps nationalists should put up our hands to the occasional over-simplistic reference to ‘England’ as a whole, as though it was homogeneous. It isn’t – but then neither are Wales and Scotland – and it’s a mistake to pretend that it is. And there are plenty of supporters of austerity to be found easily enough in Wales and Scotland too.
What is true though is that, aggregated up to a total using the national boundaries within the UK, the English majority are rather more supportive of austerity than are the Welsh and Scottish majorities. And that is reflected in election results. It means that parts of the UK opposed to austerity can be, and are, outvoted by its supporters. Part of the price which any of the UK’s countries or regions pays for remaining part of the union is an acceptance that we will often be outvoted.
But there’s something else in this argument as well, even if not always expressed quite as openly as this – is it right for Scotland to walk away from the problems of Wales, Northern Ireland and Northern England rather than working with them to seek change from which all of them will benefit? It’s an interesting moral question, but there’s a danger that it ends up being an argument that Scots should not take responsibility for solving their own problems out of solidarity for those elsewhere who cannot or will not do likewise. It's a bit like arguing that we must all drown together.
In any event – what would give most hope to those other parts of the UK: for Scotland to stay put so that all sink together in comradeship and solidarity, or for Scotland to demonstrate that there is another way?