Earlier this year I attended a ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. It’s a stone’s throw from the River Tweed which marks the present Anglo-Scottish border. This was the last of a long line of Anglo-Scottish battles, and it was one of the bitterest. Its outcome changed the history of Scotland, and arguably paved the way towards the Union of the crowns in 1707. The memorial cross on the hilltop that overlooks the battlefield says simply, and movingly, ‘to the brave of both nations’.
In North East England we
have been a border people for centuries. These marcher lands have long been fought over
as their array of castles and fortifications show. The Durham Palatinate ruled
by its powerful Prince Bishops was a buffer state within a state set up to
guard the rest of England from invading Scots. Yet all that belonged to the
middle ages. It’s odd to think that we were still fighting these battles on the
threshold of modernity in the early 16th century.
I write this on the day
the SNP publishes its vision for an independent Scotland. It’s a milestone on
the long journey that leads up to next September’s referendum. It’s obviously a
matter of keen interest to all Scots. But here in the borderlands, it’s a
matter of concern to the English too. The decision Scotland makes about
its future will have effects south of the border. If Scotland votes for
independence, there will be consequences for the North of England that are economic,
political and social. But these wouldn't merely affect the North. They
would affect the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well. Independence
would radically alter the way the surviving peoples of the Union saw themselves.
It would need us to re-group in order to face a future that could be very different from what we know at present.
I happen to think that
the Union is a good thing, and so far, the evidence is that a majority of Scots
feel that way too. The Union as a federation of peoples is one of the world’s
most successful nation-states. There is no doubt room to re-calibrate the
precise ways in which our nations, provinces and regions relate to one another
within a united whole, but that is no argument for dismantling it.
But this isn’t
my principal concern right now. What baffles me is very simple.
Why is the future of the Union, which is
the business of all UK citizens, to be decided on our behalf by the Scottish
The more I try to get my
mind round this question, the more puzzling it seems. I can’t find a flaw in
the argument that the future of the Union is the business of the whole Union,
not just part of it. It may be that in North East England, because of our violent
history, we feel the force of this particularly keenly. What matters at the
border, what kind of border it even turns
out to be are as important to us south of it as to those on its north side. But
as I’ve said, it affects all of us who are citizens of the UK. Profoundly and probably
irreversibly. I am not sure we have woken up to this yet.
I can’t see that it is good
politics, let alone justice, to delegate the dismantling of the UK to the say-so
of 10% of its total population (fewer than 6 million out of more than 60
million). Whichever way it goes, it does
not look like a well-founded plebiscite that acknowledges the legitimate interests of all UK citizens. I'd like to be clearer what the role of the Westminster Parliament is in this watershed constitutional decision. I am not
comfortable about being disenfranchised, relegated to the role of onlooker gazing at a
drama acted out on the Scottish stage that will have far-reaching consequences for the large audience sitting impotently in the rest of the UK.
For the avoidance of doubt let me add that I honour the Scots for many things, not least their intellectual rigour, their love of fairness and their strong sense of common purpose. We need all these qualities in the Union. But if there is a decision to make about the future of the Union, it should be through a process that is rigorous, fair and that has regard for the purpose and flourishing of all its peoples, not just some. I am sure the Scots don't dissent from that.