I am with the Prime Minister when he says the UK Parliament should decide on when the referendum on Scottish independence is held, and what the question should be. Scottish nationalist concerns will be recognised by the UK Parliament holding a referendum on the topic, and by agreeing to their view that only Scottish voters should have a vote on this Union matter.
The referendum electorate raises issues which Westminster has to solve. Do people born in Scotland, temporarily resident in England, get a vote? Do people born in England, now resident in Scotland, get a vote? Should the referendum take the already established Scottish electoral roll, or should we allow a possible surge in new registrations as interested people register themselves at a Scottish address for it? What are the correct qualifications by residence, property ownership and employment? There are difficult issues in creating Scottish nationalist purity in the electorate when the two countries have become so intermingled by blood, marriage and residence.
The Prime Minister hopes that by offering a simple question soon to the Scots on whether they wish to remain in the union with the rest of the UK or not, he will secure a Yes vote. This makes him a very traditional Conservative and Unionist. The latest modernisers in the Conservative party now include some who are more English nationalist. Whilst for Scots arguing over their identity and external relationships the prime issue is England, for the English arguing over the same things the main issue is the EU.
The Prime Minister will discover when moving into this territory for public debate that English nationalism is on the rise. In a way that is what Mr Salmond hoped for and has helped promote. Scottish nationalism is becoming more popular in England, as more English think they could be better off without the UK. The dream ticket for a modern English nationalist is a decision by Scotland to leave the UK, followed by the ending of membership of the EU because the member, the UK, no longer exists. Paradoxically, making the traditional case for the maintenance of the UK, the government may find itself drawn into the territory it is less keen to explore, the continuation of the UK’s membership of the EU.The EU itself apparently does not welcome the idea of Scotland breaking away from the UK. This may help win Yes votes in Scotland, but will antagonise more English voters the other way. Were Scotland to leave the UK the EU would have to renegotiate its relationship with what remained, as the new country that emerged after Scotland left would need a new name and would be smaller, affecting all the numbers for votes, contributions and the rest. It would also be a more Eurosceptic country.
Whilst the Prime Minister can take comfort from the fact that he can deny the English a vote on the Scottish question, and concentrate on the debate north of the border, he may find there is more debate about Englishness and English nationalism as a result of events in Scotland. He will need to build on his “No” to France and Germany over Treaty change, and demonstrate that he understands the EU frustrations of many English nationalists and of those who are thinking of joining them. He will need to offer more to avoid the divorce of this movement from the Conservative party.
It is a bold move to challenge Mr Salmond’s apparant leadership on this issue of identity. Saying bring it on, and providing focus to the debate is fine. Some in Scotland will counter that this is a Scottish matter, not a Union one. Mr Cameron needs to win this argument rapidly with a few well chosen soundbites. It has to be understood, however, that the politics of identity and belonging is about the most explosive type of politics there is. The English have been quiet for a long time, but the English lions are awakening. This may just be the alarm call they were wanting. The English too have an independence agenda. It mainly relates to the EU. The problem for the Prime Minister is the EU is now strongly linked to the union of the UK, both legally, and in people’s minds.