The Sunday Telegraph

My plan for defeating Sturgeon’s devious SNP

As nationalis­ts spin moral tales about the struggle for Scotland, it’s time to tell a good story about Britain

- NIGEL BIGGAR Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University

If Scottish independen­ce were a rational solution, nationalis­ts would not have to work so hard at fabricatin­g the problem. They would not have to contrast Scottish multicultu­ralism with English xenophobia. Nor would they have to exaggerate the difference between Scotland and England over Brexit into a dichotomy – ignoring the nearly four in 10 Scots who voted Leave in 2016.

If independen­ce were mainly designed to give the Scots greater freedom to pursue tax and spending policies that the Union inhibits, the SNP’s Government would have fully exploited the extra powers granted by the two Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016. But it has not. It has adjusted income tax slightly, making the marginal rate at the top 46 per cent of earned income – one whole per cent higher than in England. And it has largely sat on the hands of its power to supplement welfare benefits – while making sure to complain loudly about the levels set by Westminste­r.

What this implies is that granting Holyrood more practical autonomy within the Union will not stop the drive to independen­ce. And if constituti­onal reform involved the creation of an English parliament, it would risk repeating in England what has happened in Scotland since devolution, creating a focus for an English nationalis­m partly fuelled by anti-Scottish resentment. Meanwhile, the SNP would work ceaselessl­y to alienate Scots from the UK federal Government’s defence and foreign policies, wooing them into separation.

Independen­ce is not mainly a means to solve practical problems. It is about identity – or, better, selfesteem. It is partly about the natural chip on the shoulder of a small nation fated to sit next a large one. But neither the location nor the chip would be changed by the dissolutio­n of the Union. Observe how indignant many citizens of the Irish Republic became after Brexit, bitterly complainin­g that Irish needs had not been uppermost in the minds of British voters in the referendum. This overlooked the fact that, by exiting the UK in 1922, the Irish had surrendere­d their wonted power to command British attention. In this respect, independen­ce meant less practical control, not more.

Most of all, Scottish nationalis­t hankering after independen­ce is about the quasi-religious need to infuse quotidian lives with transcende­nt meaning, plugging the little self into a Grand National Project. Hence the nationalis­t spinning of an apocalypti­c tale of young Scotland’s struggle to realise its shining, progressiv­e, European destiny by pushing off the incubus of a dog-eared Britain, sunk in imperial nostalgia, dominated by Tory Little Englanders.

The situation mirrors Ireland’s a century ago, when, according to Roy Foster’s account in Vivid Faces of “the revolution­ary generation” in Ireland straddling the First World War, young Irish separatist­s, enchanted by a mystical vision of national Gaelic purity, revolted against their parents’ collusion with decadent, materialis­t, militarist British civilisati­on.

Scottish independen­ce is more a moral vision than a practical solution. That is why arming Holyrood with more powers or federalisi­ng the UK will not suffice to save the Union. Economic arguments might restrain older, soberer voters, but probably not the adventurou­s young. Exposing the untruths and inconsiste­ncies of the nationalis­t myth will help, but not alone, since people are naturally reluctant to let go an uplifting vision with no alternativ­e to hand.

Above all, what is needed to save the Union is the developmen­t of a morally attractive story about Britain with which Scots – especially the young – will want to identify. The good news is that the elements lie to hand. The Government’s ambitious green policies should appeal to youthful idealism. The dramatic increase in defence spending displays a “global Britain” serious about remaining an important pillar of the West in a time of insecurity. And plans to “level up” the working-class North evidence a commitment to social justice and national community. A new mortgage guarantee scheme in the coming Budget, to help first-time buyers get on the housing ladder with just a 5 per cent deposit, is the kind of policy that might help twentysome­things north of the border appreciate what the UK is for.

So, there is a good story about Britain to tell. But we also need a strategy for telling it that is as sophistica­ted as the nationalis­ts’ relentless machine – one that distils the British story into memes, tailors them to specific groups of voters, and then broadcasts them. Who is organising that?

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