The constitutional future of the United Kingdom has never looked less certain.
According to the latest polling data, 54 per cent of Scots want Scotland to become an independent country, compared to 46 per cent who back the Anglo-Scottish Union.
No sooner had Catalan president Artur Mas guided his nationalist coalition to victory at Catalonia’s plebiscitary elections on Sunday night than a court in Madrid announced that Mas would face formal charges relating to civil disobedience and the ‘usurpation’ of Spanish constitutional powers.
The complaints were filed against Mas before Sunday’s vote and refer to his involvement in an unofficial – and, in all likelihood, illegal – independence referendum staged by the Catalan government on 9 November last year.
In July 2011, two months after the SNP secured majority control of the Holyrood parliament, I interviewed Neal Ascherson, the Edinburgh-born political writer, in London. For Ascherson’s convenience, we met at the Euston Hilton, a short walk from where he works – somewhat incongruously – as an Honorary Fellow at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology.
Our conversation centred on the brewing row between the Scottish and UK governments over independence. ‘The Salmond strategy is to bear down on the whole devolution structure in such a way that it can be shown not to work and a situation arises in which Westminster continuously blocks Scottish demands,’ Ascherson told me. ‘But now things have moved so fast that his plan may be to just spin things out until devolution breaks down of its own inadequacy.’
Barcelona is a city draped in flags. Only a handful of windows surrounding my rented apartment in El Born – a fashionably ramshackle district close to the harbour – are flag-free. From the rest hang esteladas, the distinctive blue-and-white-starred symbol of Catalan national sovereignty.
Catalonia has become increasingly polarised in recent years as requests for enhanced autonomy – consistently rejected by Madrid – have hardened into demands for outright independence from Spain. Polls suggest as many as 45 per cent of Catalans support secession, while 25 per cent favour federalism and a further 20 per cent support the constitutional status quo.
“I’ve seen this happen so many times before”, one veteran left-wing activist told me in the early hours of Friday morning, as we stood in the lobby of the Emirates Arena in the east end of Glasgow. “The Labour vote descends like a mist from nowhere and disperses just as quickly.”
In the end, it was only one section of the Labour vote – the public sector “salatariat”, as the journalist Paul Mason, another of my companions at the Glasgow count, described it – that turned out for the Union. The poorest parts of Scotland – those areas in which Westminster’s failure is most conspicuous – went with the nationalists.
Jackie Anderson stands in the center of the campaign office she helps run on Maryhill Road in north Glasgow. Her white T-shirt is emblazoned with a single word in bright blue print: “Yes.”
On Thursday, Scotland holds a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. Pollsters say the race is too close to call. But Anderson has no doubt about the way the residents of Maryhill will vote.
No party is more adept at exploiting the gap between practice and rhetoric in Scottish society than Labour, and no Scottish politician is more authentically Labour than Gordon Brown.
After a series of relatively underwhelming, policy-focused speeches, the former prime minister has landed back in the independence debate with a thud.
Writing in The Guardian on Monday, Owen Jones attacked the idea that English politics is split along north-south lines as a “myth” and a “distraction.” Given rates of poverty and inequality in the south of England are as high as they are in the north (higher, in some cases), “how much really divides the call centre worker in Hull from the supermarket shelf-stacker in Chelmsford?,” Jones asked.
It’s a legitimate point, and one familiar to anyone involved in the debate over Scottish independence. One of the clichés of Scottish unionism – particularly Scottish Labour unionism – is that a worker on minimum wage in Dundee has more in common with another minimum wage worker in Manchester than he or she does with a top-rate tax-payer in Edinburgh.
The language of class has been pretty thoroughly scrubbed from Scotland’s political vocabulary.
Party leaders no longer talk about “working class interests.” They talk about “hard-pressed families” or – worse still – “the squeezed middle.”
Speaking in Glasgow recently, the Chancellor George Osborne said that a currency union between an independent Scotland and what remained of the UK would impose “significant constraints on [Scotland’s] economic sovereignty.”
Nationalists were quick to dismiss this warning in public, but privately they must have known that it was far from an empty threat: Osborne, armed with standard Tory prejudices about Scottish spending habits, will do what he can to limit public expenditure north of the border, whether Scotland stays part of the UK or not.