I don’t know if there is any link between the current controversy over Scottish independence and the views of Scottish Catholics. To put it another way; what proportion of Scottish Catholics support the SNP, and is it higher than the proportion of the Scottish population at large, just as it used to be said of Scottish Catholic support for the Labour Party? Did Scottish Catholics follow the late Cardinal Winning in his disenchantment with Labour?
And how typical of the Catholics he leads are the views of Cardinal O’Brien, who in an interview in this newspaper in October 2006, conducted by Professor John Haldane, declared that he would be “happy” if the Scots voted for independence, and predicted that independence is coming “before too long”. He drew parallels with the independence of the Catholic Church in Scotland: “It is difficult to argue that ecclesiastical independence is acceptable but political independence is not.” I have to say that Cardinal O’Brien’s views sound logical to me. Certainly, I would vote for Scottish independence in the forthcoming referendum if I were a Scot. What irritates me is that the Scots will get a referendum next year, but I won’t. The question the Scots will answer will be whether they should be independent of the English. The question I would like to answer is whether the English should be allowed independence from the Scots.
We need to ask the question: why is it that support for Scottish independence is so much higher in England than it is in Scotland? The polls are unanimous and their results are very striking; they are, indeed, staggering. The ICM survey for the Sunday Telegraph, published yesterday, shows that there is a narrow majority, 43 per cent, of Scots against independence, compared with 40 per cent in favour. Far fewer English, however are opposed. Forty-three per cent are in favour: but only 32 per cent are against. Why is that?
There are in fact very good reasons for it. I hope that my Scottish friends will be patient if I am frank. What the English are really shown to be in favour of in that ICM survey is not so much Scottish independence as their own liberation from the increasingly irksome burden of the relationship between England and Scotland. Do not mistake me. I (we) admire the Scots and Scottish culture. But frankly, on this side of the border we are getting seriously fed up with post-Braveheart Scots chippiness for one thing, and with the results, for another, of the coming home to roost, within our now seriously mutilated constitution, of the so-called West Lothian question – thus named by the late Enoch Powell, as a somewhat ironic dig at the former member for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, who was constantly raising it in debates on Scottish devolution in the Westminster Parliament. The West Lothian question, for those who don’t know, was not so much a question as a prediction, of a dire problem that would arise (and did) for the post-devolution governance of England: that though no Westminster MP, including Scots MPs, has any right to vote on questions within the purview of the Scottish assembly, Scottish MPs can and do vote on questions to do uniquely with England. This is more than irritating: it is just wrong. With Scottish independence, these frankly underemployed Scots Westminster politicians would simply disappear, to the regret, I suspect, of very few.
The question remains. Why shouldn’t I have a referendum asking whether I as an Englishman would be in favour of independence from Scotland? BBC Radio 4’s Question Time last Saturday, broadcast from Edinburgh, was particularly irritating. The panel, all Scots, were asked whether they felt British (answer, no: they all felt Scottish). Nobody ever asks the English if they feel British. Many Englishmen feel English a long time before they “feel” British: but they’re not allowed to. They go to Sainsbury’s and are told that they can buy British strawberries (from Herefordshire) or British lamb from Dorset. But if it’s Welsh lamb, it’s called Welsh, and if it’s Scottish beef it’s called Scottish.
Why is that? Not being allowed to describe things, and ourselves, as English is a nuisance we have to put up with because of the Scots. I once wrote an article for the Sunday Times during the editorship of the very Scottish Andrew Neil, in which I referred to “English culture”. It was changed by a sub-editor to “British culture”, which wasn’t at all what I had meant (there’s no such thing as “British culture”, any more than there’s any such thing as a “British accent”). When I asked why, I was told “sorry, under the current editor that’s the house style”. Infuriating.
These are not the only sources of the current English groundswell of opinion in favour of the Scots taking themselves off: but they will do to start with. None of this, of course, is to say that the Scots have no reason for their own irritations and resentments against us (and please, don’t anyone point this out indignantly as though I hadn’t accepted it myself). There is no question that we currently feel very badly about each other, and that the relationship between our two nations is currently in a very bad state. We English now have a much better and warmer relationship with the Irish Republic than with the Scots, despite the fact that historically the Irish suffered infinitely greater injustices at our hands – and for much longer – than the Scots ever did. I look forward to Scottish independence because, paradoxically, I think that English-Scottish relations would then be much closer, even warmer. There will be a hard-fought settlement. But once that has been achieved and accepted on both sides, our relationship could then be freed at last from its current state of mutual resentment. I think that needs to happen: and the sooner the better.