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The Scots’ vote affects the whole UK

29 August 2014

The independence debate has a significant knock-on effect, says Paul Vallely

IT WAS hardly the most edifying prologue to the Scottish vote about whether to break away from the United Kingdom. Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, respectively the leaders of the Yes and No campaigns, had a second TV debate on Monday, which descended into an angry shouting match.

The next day, the media was much concerned with who had won. The advocate of union, Mr Darling, might have done better in the first televised debate, but the champion of independence, Mr Salmond, had "won" in the second.

Yet this is not an issue where it makes sense to talk about winning and losing. That was underscored by the tone of the proceedings. The two politicians frequently sounded like a bickering couple - Mr Salmond shouting over Mr Darling - so that much of the exchange on currency, social justice, North Sea oil, and the NHS was rendered incomprehensible. Perhaps that explains why the polls showed no significant shift in Scots' voting intentions the next day.

Still, it was good that the encounter was aired not just in Scotland, but in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, too. There has been a quality of Scots self-absorption about the debate that has left many in the rest of the UK feeling disenfranchised. The dangers of this were first highlighted for me by a play at last year's Edinburgh Festival. I'm With the Band, written by a Welshman, Tim Price, centered on a rock band called The Union, in which the keyboard player was an Englishman, the guitarist a Scot, the bass player from Wales, and the drummer a muscly Ulsterman. The band, whose glory days were in the past, was in crisis, after discovering that its manager had not paid any VAT for 12 years.

It was a clever allegory, and a good deal more subtle than my outline suggests. Its central thesis was that the independence debate should not be myopically focused on the pros and cons for Scotland alone. Centuries of shared history, emotion, psychology, and kinship would mean an impact on Wales, Ulster, and England, too.

An independent Scotland could condemn England to a permanent Conservative Government. Mr Salmond's sketchy plans for an independent Scots currency could impose costs on the rest of the UK or, alternatively, compromise the real autonomy of Scottish sovereignty, or embroil this island more directly in difficulties with the euro.

But that is just politics and economics. Mr Price's questions about kinship, emotion, and psychology feel unexamined. Change there could bring an unexpected backlash from what is left of the UK, and bring oppositional antagonisms that might create new problems as much as solve old ones. Perhaps the Churches should have things to say about that. It would be possible to weigh theologies of self-determination against those of mutual responsibility. Balancing subsidiarity against solidarity is always harder in practice than in theory. Pope Francis hinted as much when, speaking about independence for Catalonia, northern Italy, and Scotland, he pronounced: "All division worries me."

The trouble is that in a political union - as in a marriage, or a rock band split by "musical differences" - it takes only one side to walk away.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.

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