The countdown has begun on the biggest political issue to confront the British people in 307 years. 91.6% of those people, the English, Welsh and Northern Irish are mere bystanders in the great debate. Should the Scots go back to where they were in 1707?
All credit to the slick and answer-for-everything Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scots independence campaign. He has run rings round the dull, pedestrian Alastair Darling, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Characteristically, the ex-chancellor has based his campaign for staying in the Union on bread and butter issues: the pounds shillings and pence he no doubt obsessed about when he was at the Treasury. Those units of solvency are important, of course, but there is more to life than monetary issues. There is another narrative to be told; it was one of the heart, and on this, we have to ask ourselves whether the polite, unemotional, former small-town solicitor was the one to tell that story.
In all the long history of our time on earth there have been only two fundamental changes to the human condition: the move from hunter-gatherer to farming and the Industrial Revolution. Guess which two nations spearheaded that latter change, along with the other component nation of the British Isles? Our thinkers, scientists, engineers and administrators took the world by storm and changed it forever and the consequences are with us today. Every production line, every factory, every office administration, every hospital – even organised science itself with its insistence on empiricism and peer review – is the by-product of that coming together of our peoples.
If troubled areas of the world, like the Israelis and Arabs, wonder if it is ever going to be possible to live in harmony they need look no further than at the Scots and the English: they were forever at each other’s throats – literally – exhibiting a visceral hatred that today is almost impossible to imagine. Those martial qualities on both sides which made their borderlands a nightmarish place to live in were turned outwards and their armies proved unstoppable. Within a hundred years a quarter of the planet lay at their feet and they found themselves administering the greatest empire known to man. It was a benign empire, not at all like the cruel Conquistadors of Spain or the blood soaked hordes of Genghis Khan. It laid telegraph lines across the oceans of the world seeking to bring it together and railway lines everywhere, even in countries which were not part of its family of nations (South American railways owe their existence to British capital and engineering expertise). Their fingers were in every pie you can imagine. Theirs was a progressive, driven empire which had very elevated notions concerning its role in the world, which in fairness was not altogether fanciful. It saw itself as the heir to Rome, but on a vastly grander canvas. It was on a mission – so it thought – to civilise the world.
When danger threatened in the terrible form of Napoleon, the Kaiser and, most frighteningly of all, Hitler, the two nations stood foursquare in opposition to tyranny, never once arguing whose blood was being shed the most liberally to maintain the Union. No little man like Alex Salmond then lurked in the wings to undermine our joint resolve. We were as one in our determination to see it through. Now, under the guise of self-determination, such men – and women, too – have come out of the woodwork to tell their countrymen that they have all along been deceived, as though those proconsuls of Empire and great explorers like David Livingstone were, from the beginning, guileless dupes of the English. The Canadians know otherwise. They have a whole range of mountains named after a Scot – my own family name Mackenzie, as it happens – and the world is peppered with Scottish place names.
Scotsmen and women have been honoured and appreciated by the English throughout these three centuries of marriage and never was a Scotsman working in England made to feel unwelcome. Indeed, if anything the English grew to develop a respect for the Scots which in many ways made them want to emulate them. So what is this angry discourse which Salmond and his cohorts have whipped up in Scotland? I do not for a moment believe that he thinks his countrymen will be better off without the English. No thoughtful person could ever truly believe that and that includes a Nobel economics prize winner, Paul Krugman, who states that Salmond’s proposals are a “recipe for disaster”.
For all their faults, the English are an easy-going lot. Who else would see only their own young people incur thousands in university debts, allow only Scots free prescriptions, and cover all their care home costs whereas the English have to sell the family home? The English also pay £1,400 more per head under the Barnet Formula. All of this and much more is denied to their own people. They even let Scots have many more Members of Parliament than their population warrants and vote on purely English matters, when the English have no say in most matters relating to them. No, Salmond would happily risk impoverishing his own people so long as he and his lackies can enjoy la dolce vita, swanning around the world attending head of state junkets with his retinue of ministers as well as being chauffeured everywhere around their new fiefdom.
If the English are so terrible a people to be in harness with, why is it that half the world – or so it seems – is knocking at their door, with Calais under siege and young men willing to risk life and limb to gain entry?
Cameron will have history to answer to if our country falls apart. He could not possibly survive any more than Lord North did after the loss of the American colonies. Scots needed to know from the beginning that the English valued them, even loved and in many respects envied them. As canny people they are, they did not need reminding ad nauseam which side their bread was buttered on. I say this as a person of Scots parentage who through long years has grown to love and appreciate the English. This failed and abysmal campaign to save the Union should have been first and foremost an appeal to the heart. The Scots are a sentimental people. They would have listened. If only, at this time of national peril, we had the eloquence of a Churchill to plead the cause of the Union. When the arguments are done and dusted in a few days’ time, and should the Scots decide to listen to the better angels of their nature and save the Union, it will be no thanks to Cameron. It will be because they know, in their heart, that much of what I have said here is true.
Are we really out of the mess we got ourselves into six years ago? Can it be true that we are the fastest growing economy in the developed world? It would seem so, according to the statistics. But how are we achieving this? It is certainly not coming from the manufacturing sector, an area which Mrs Thatcher as well as her successors neglected in favour of the keep-your-hands-clean service economy. It’s coming from two quarters. First is an increase in investment from business.
At the height of the recession, when there was no money for anything, medium and large businesses were sitting on £75 billion of liquidity – twice the defence budget – which in the right climate they were ready to release. That climate, which is principally one of confidence, has finally come. The second factor which was depressing the whole of the economy was a moribund housing market. When houses start moving again it has a tremendous knock-on effect right across the board. Tired old carpets are thrown out; new kitchens and bathrooms installed; more stylish furniture acquired; dodgy roofs repaired; gardens landscaped and solar panels ordered; double glazing resumed; painting and decorating starts; the DIY stores hum; the list goes on and on.
But important as houses are, we mustn’t obsess about them. There are other things – like the ones which would earn us shed loads of foreign exchange, i.e. manufactured items. We were once so good at manufacturing and can be again. But if there is one area where there is huge room for improvement it is productivity: it is our Achilles’ heel. Why we are so sluggish here beats me. If we can get this up this summer of rejoicing – weather-wise and economy-wise – may open the sluice gates and propel us into a new era of prosperity.
That high risk policy of quantitative easing – essentially printing money – appears to have worked for us, but it didn’t work for the Japanese. They left it too late to begin and as a result entered what has been called the ‘lost decade’ of the nineties. In fact it has been more like two lost decades. They’ve never recovered their old elan. Our own emergency package to survive the financial crisis was more deftly handled, first by Mervyn King (though he was somewhat late dropping interests rates) and then by Mark Carney, both governors of the Bank of England. Perhaps our success has been part due to the City of London’s historic financial expertise
But alongside this, and despite their other cataclysmic failings, we must give credit to Gordon Brown and his chancellor, Alastair Darling. Once they realised the enormity of the crisis – on the Monday following that dire weekend when it struck and the ATMs would have dried up – they moved quickly and decisively to recapitalise the banks. As Wellington said after Waterloo: ‘It was the closest run thing you ever saw in your life’.
Brown’s successor in Downing Street was on a steep learning curve after his chancellor’s earlier silly mantra of ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’, and when he eventually wised up the results were there for all to see. But interest rates cannot stay as they are – it is so unjust to the prudent saver who for years has been bailing out the feckless spender. They must rise, and soon. When it comes it must be small and incremental, like a quarter of a per cent every couple of months; a policy of slowly, slowly catchy monkey, so to speak. This will help cool the overheating housing market.
We don’t have to worry too much about irresponsible lending as in the past, leading to wholesale repossessions, because the criteria today to get a loan and the deposit required has been massively tightened. Some complain that the hoops you have to jump through are as many as to adopt a child.
But two things, above all, are needed to sustain the recovery: first, a massive house-building programme to meet the demand that years of unrestricted immigration have imposed. This, too, will cool house price inflation and re-balancing our economy by boosting manufacturing; and second, markets should then be found for those goods beyond the still Doldrums-plagued Euro area. The obvious target ought to be that vast zone of good will to us, the former empire. With our shared history, common institutions and legals systems and, of course, language, it is calculated that we have a 21% financial advantage over our competitors.