English nationalism, not Scottish, may decide the fate of the union
Just as Scotland is beginning to tire of the latest flurry of nationalist speculation, based on a couple of rather optimistic opinion polls, England has rediscovered perfidious Caledonia. Last week, the London press was full of challenges to Scotland to go for autonomy - if you think you're hard enough. Here's Simon Jenkins in The Guardian: "I would not lose any sleep if the Scots voted to repeal the 1707 Act it would do Scotland nothing but good to learn that public money does not grow on English trees." According to David Aaronovitch in The Times, the English "might moan about the passport man getting on the train near Berwick, but - with traditional complacency - would otherwise soon get over it".
Prospect magazine has been running a lively debate about the merits of independence since it ran a cover story last month about the apostasy of Scottish Tory historian Michael Fry, who has promised to vote SNP in May. The consensus is that it's only a matter of time.
Tory columnists such as Michael Portillo and Max Hastings have long been arguing that the Scots need to be taught a lesson by having the subsidy tap turned off at source; that England could survive and thrive without Scotland - now the oil has mostly run out - since it only constitutes a 12th of the UK population.
This is becoming close to a consensus among the commentariat. Curiously, it was left to a Scottish journalist, John Lloyd of the FT, whose lone voice made the case for the union on The Guardian's internet forum, commentisfree.
So much for the great crusade to defend the union launched by the Labour Cabinet last weekend. Tony Blair raised the Union Flag and nobody saluted. Simon Jenkins compared the posse of Labour ministers in Oban to "a bunch of Spanish hidalgos racing back from the fleshpots of Madrid to quell a revolt in their home province". English newspapers seemed utterly unmoved by warnings from home secretary John Reid that independence would leave the country vulnerable to terrorist attack and a flood of illegal immigrants.
But why has the union fallen out of favour so dramatically in England? Do all those organs of opinion really want to see Britain broken up? It is of course wrong to make sweeping generalisations about a country's attitudes, when there has been no real national debate on the issue. There may be millions of closet unionists south of the Border just waiting their moment to speak out.
However, I have been acutely aware in recent conversations with metropolitan editors and commentators of a resentment, an irritation with Scotland right now which is as unmistakable as it is puzzling. It is not my perception that Scotland is going through one of its anti-English phases, yet I keep being told the Scots just won't stop moaning and attacking the English. That we ask for more and more subsidies and then claim London is responsible for all our problems. That we "run" the Cabinet and are over-represented in Westminster. Yet, Scottish public spending is in relative decline and Scottish MPs were reduced by one sixth after devolution.
This has little to do with the Barnett Formula or the West Lothian Question. It's personal. Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian that: "Gordon Brown, probably the next prime minister, wears his distaste for England on his sleeve, and English voters sense it." That was an astonishing thing to say, when the chancellor has gone to such lengths to stress his love for the union and support for England in events like the World Cup.
There is a note of condescension, even contempt, creeping into a lot of media commentary which is becoming more than a little disturbing. This hostility is reflected in rather more Anglo-Saxon terms in emails and internet comments, many racist and unprintable, on my pieces. When will the Scots learn to stop complaining? Why don't you just Jock Off?
I am beginning to think all this may be displaced resentment about the way race has transformed English culture and society. There is a widespread but largely suppressed concern about the consequences of mass immigration in England. The editor of Prospect, David Goodhart, has been calling for "progressive nationalism", a return to British values and an unwinding of multiculturalism. He warns that unlimited immigration could undermine the welfare state by destroying the social contract that underpins it.
Now, for even suggesting there should be a debate on immigration, Goodhart has been vilified as being racist. A "liberal Powellite" is how he was described by the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips. Ironic, since Phillips was recently attacked as a BNP fellow traveller by London mayor Ken Livingstone. Phillips had said Britain is "sleep-walking to segregation" because of misplaced multiculturalism and the failure to integrate immigrant communities.
IT has become all but impossible to speak about identity in British political culture without being accused of racism. "There's a danger", said Phillips, "that increasingly we're so afraid to speak to each other about our differences that nobody can say what they mean." Well, there is one ethnic group about whom English people can say what they mean: the Scots.
When commentators talk of the Scottish "raj", "whingeing Jocks", etc, they can indulge in identity politics without fear of being accused of supporting the BNP. During last summer's footie wars, The Observer ran the front-page headline: "Brown under fresh pressure over Scottish roots". If Brown had been black the story would never have been printed.
This ethnic hostility is rife on the internet. It is an opportunity for English people to get it off their chests, to rant at the non-English, and to celebrate their own values. For one problem about criticising multiculturalism, and calling for a return to British values, is deciding what those values are. George Orwell's warm beer, cricket and spinsters on bicycles usually figure on the inventory of Britishness. But these are essentially English, rather than Scottish, values. It is not easy to have a Scottish "cricket test".
Now, I'm not for a second denying that Scots aren't guilty of this kind of communal hostility themselves. There is far too much anti-English feeling in Scotland which is excused as banter, but is - in its own way - racist. That's not the point.
This identity crisis may be one factor behind the withdrawal of English support for the union, and it is having a blow-back in Scotland. It may be that English nationalism is becoming a more important dynamic of constitutional change than Scottish nationalism. That like the Czech Republic before the velvet divorce from Slovakia, the momentum for dissolution is coming from the senior partner in the union.
Next year's 300th anniversary of the Act of Union is going to be very interesting.
Three hundred years of Union politics is enough; this is the point at which there has to be a major change in the structure of government in these islands. Scotland, Wales and Cornwall will disentangle themselves and form themselves into independent nations within Europe - that is, unless England gets there first.