What we are fighting to protect is not so much the Act of Union of 1707, or even the United Kingdom. The Government has decided that in the event of the Scots voting to break away, the “UK” will simply refer in future to England, Wales and Northern Ireland; though no one seems to have a clue exactly what this truncated state will be called. No: the entity under mortal threat next week is Britain itself. You cannot refer to a state called “Britain” unless you include Scotland, because it is a basic fact of geography that Britain comprises everything from Land’s End to John o’Groats.
Look at the map – so often rendered by cartoonists from the 18th century onwards as Britannia sitting down: rump in east Anglia, feet in Cornwall, and topped off with that sweeping Scottish cerebrum and helmet. Chop it off – decapitate Britain at Carlisle and you can no longer call it Britain; and what goes for geography must go for politics, too. Take Scotland away from England and you are losing a critical part of our political nomenclature. There was no British government before the union with Scotland; there was no British electorate; there were no British interests. There was England and Wales, and there was Scotland. Take away Scotland, and we destroy Britain.
About 15 years ago people such as John Redwood and Peter Hitchens produced books called The End of Britain or The Abolition of Britain. They saw the principal threat as coming from the EU, I think; and though they were obviously right to be concerned about the erosion of sovereignty, I don’t think either of them expected the constitutional annihilation of the country. Now those book titles look prophetic, frankly.
Every year I speak at a ceremony in City Hall, at which we congratulate people who have lived and worked hard in this country, and who have become British citizens. They come from all over the world, and it is always moving to see the enthusiasm with which they sing the national anthem, and then have their picture taken with the big photo of the Queen. I always tell them that in becoming British, they have achieved something fantastic – and they plainly agree.
What are we to tell them in the future, if the Scots vote to go it alone? That they have become citizens of the rUK (rest of the UK) and that they must uphold rUkish values? We could tell them that they were all now “English” – but that doesn’t mean quite the same in a city where 40 per cent were born abroad and where not everyone can have an “English rose” complexion.
Britain, British, Britishness: these are precious terms, and they stand for something wonderful across the world. They represent freedom, democracy, an independent judiciary, sense of humour, reasonableness, you name it. They weren’t just the result of the exertions of the English and Welsh, and they weren’t just Scottish achievements. Johnson needed Boswell, and vice versa. It was the fusion: the Scottish scientist in the London lab who produced penicillin; the Scottish inventor who went out to the British empire and invented the telephone; the Scottish economists and philosophers whose ideas formed the basis for Britain’s commercial and political greatness.
Together the English and the Scots built the British foreign service and the British Army, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the British Museum. It is very far from clear what would happen to any of those institutions – all of them world-class, all of them now in peril from this vote.
Is Salmond going to ask for the Elgin Marbles to be restored to Elgin? No one has thought any of this through, and I am frankly appalled by the complacency and apathy of so many of my non-political friends – people who haven’t focused at all on the debate, and think we can afford to let the Scots go because a) we subsidise them, and b) they have so many Labour MPs.
Something tells me that in the end the Scots will step back from the brink, but in the next few days we need to be explaining passionately that this is not just about Scotland – though Scotland would lose heavily from the split. This is about all of us. I am praying that we will wake from this sleepwalk to tragedy; and that the Scots vote no to divorce, and yes to Britain, the greatest political union ever.