Scottish independence: Could the referendum reboot Britain?

Better Together activists hand out information leaflets in Glasgow on why to vote no in the independence referendum (file photo) Is the argument for unionism more than just an appeal to a shared history or institutions?

The referendum on Scottish independence has thrown down a challenge to those campaigning for a No vote under the banner of the UK being "better together". But what vision can they offer to compete with the nationalist one?

At London's Olympic Park last month, Prime Minister David Cameron conjured up the triumphs of Team GB, on and off the sporting field.

"The winning team in the history of the world," he said. "Let us stick together for a winning future too."

The idea that a united Britain punches above its weight in the world can play both ways in Scotland, which will vote on 18 September.

"Who gives a monkey's for that any longer?" asked Richard Holloway, writer and former Episcopal church bishop. "That remnant of when we were the British Empire."

He prefers the idea of "the decent, small country that isn't bothered about posturing on the world stage".

'Hurts and grudges'

The London Olympic opening ceremony offered another vision of the union, where children's choirs sang folk songs from the nations of the UK, including Flower of Scotland.

"That is a narky song, it's a grudge set to music," said Frank Cottrell Boyce, the Liverpudlian children's writer who was one of the creative team that put together the opening ceremony.

"Maybe that is what is good about union. We have these hurts, we have these grudges, we have these differences… but we can tolerate them in each other because we find each other worth the trouble."

The Great Britain men's Curling team pose with their medals during at the Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia David Murdoch’s Scottish curling team helped Great Britain equal its best ever Winter Olympic medal tally

Conservative MP Rory Stewart, representing Penrith and the Border, has said the relationship is like a marriage, and that English people would feel "bereft and embarrassed" if Scots vote to leave the UK.

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But the former diplomat worries about what he sees as a high level of indifference and complacency over the campaign - from senior journalists, business leaders, academics and writers.

"I think they will wake up on 19 September having felt that one of their limbs has been cut off, and staring in the mirror thinking 'what on earth did we do?'" he said. "How could we have got ourselves mesmerised into a mindset of feeling this doesn't matter?'"

'Social union'

It may be that the pro-independence SNP, led by Alex Salmond, has one of the clearer visions of what parts of the union could be retained. The most controversial is the argument for shared use of the pound sterling, to which the three main Westminster parties say they are opposed.

Less contentious would be keeping the Queen as head of state, and Scottish membership of the "defence union" of Nato.

The SNP argues that a "social union" would continue, including shared culture and links between family and friends across the border.

Start Quote

Every time Boris demands more investment in London... he chips another block off what it means to be British. Boris is saying it's not a shared experience”

End Quote Alex Bell Former policy chief to Alex Salmond

"If unionists have been poor at articulating unionism," said David Torrance, biographer of the First Minister, "the gap has been filled by nationalists, and above all Alex Salmond, who articulates that sort of co-operative working relationship between the nations and regions of the UK quite well, quite credibly and quite emotively".

There is a lively debate in Scotland between and within the three main Westminster parties about the extra elements of devolution that the Scottish Parliament could be offered if it stays within the UK.

There's also a desire south of the border to respond to the challenge of the Scottish independence debate by opening up the case for reform of the way England is governed. Voices from the left and right agree on the need for more local powers.

Labour MP for Stirling, Anne McGuire, has suggested the floods this year in the south-west of England could build political pressure to have people in that region setting their own priorities to ensure better planning.

However, Conservative MP Rory Stewart said his constituents' frustration at being ruled from Westminster is matched by a resistance to take on more powers through, for instance, local mayors.

"People say 'I don't want a little dictator in my town'", he said. "[But] the answer to the problem of politics - and this is a really difficult thing to get across - is more politics, but local politics. People are reluctant to believe that the answer to bad politics is more politics."

London Mayor Boris Johnson stands with two knights at Leadenhall Market for St George's Day (file photo) Is London mayor Boris Johnson an 'anti-British politician'?

With the London and south-east economy racing ahead of much of the rest of England, Boris Johnson, the capital's mayor, has argued for resources to keep the capital growing and generating jobs throughout the country.

However Alex Bell, a former policy chief to Alex Salmond, warned: "The most dangerous anti-British politician in Britain is Boris Johnson.

"Every time Boris demands more investment in London and less money distributed to the north of England or the south-west, he chips another block off what it means to be British. Boris is saying it's not a shared experience. Boris is the dangerous one."

Mr Bell, author of a forthcoming book on the future of Britain, said the pressure for Scottish independence was not a classic nationalist one, but a response to people's dissatisfaction with politics and leadership more widely, a sentiment felt throughout the UK.

"If Britain were to listen to its citizens again, it could become an astonishing model of how the world will organise itself perhaps for the next century or so."

So long as there is parity for countries in the union, and so long as British people are listened to and governing structures are reformed, Mr Bell argued "we would have become the first cluster of nations to rethink their shared purpose in the 21st Century".

"We could be pioneers precisely in the way that the original union was a pioneer in 1707," he added.

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