Graeme Archer: My Heart Is Not In The Highlands
I was going to call this piece "Taxi For Mr Huhne" and invite the increasingly angry semi-detached Energy Secretary to go and spend some more time with his property portfolio, or his families, but in the circumstances (what circumstances? Oh I mean the excellent advice already given to the LibDems by Iain Dale on LibDemVoice and by Andrew Lillico, here, to our own leadership) anything I had to suggest has already been better said by others. (For what it's worth, I think the Liberal Democrat party is functionally finished. You can't be in a Centre-Right government and insist that you're really Leftwing: which is why voters rejected Liberal Democrats, and not Conservatives, on Thursday). So I thought, instead of writing about Liberals, I'd go home. But where is home?
If home is where the heart is, then I've got at least three, with a few holiday offshoots elsewhere (I'm starting to sound like Chris Huhne). There's Hackney, where we've lived for over a decade. Say what you like about Hackney (and everyone's always got an opinion on Hackney. If I were doing PR for the council, I'd suggest We're Not Just A Political Metaphor as our slogan), its tendrils do, after a while, wrap their way about your heart. Sometimes there comes an afternoon of hot stillness, and I stand on an empty Mare Street and think Beauty here is more powerful than beauty elsewhere, because it has to fight so much harder to be seen.
There's Brighton too, where we live at weekends, and - increasingly, if I'm honest - where we feel most comfortable; most ourselves. It's where we'll end up, when and if we ever manage to save enough to retire. Keith said to me recently, as we took our evening walk along the seafront, passing happy bank-holidaymakers and excited children and exasperated parents and elderly couples enjoying the sun and caught glimpses of our own bourgeois normality reflected back at us from the other gay people, still, in Brighton, not being targeted by too much in the way of religious-extremist hatred, he said: You'd never get tired of this, would you? No. No we won't.
Of course I've learned to modulate over the years. I can say Pahnd pleez mite from the old days when you had to buy your fare from the conductor on the bus. But I'm Scottish born and bred. And so I'm worried about the coming years, now that the SNP have convincingly won the elections to the Scottish parliament.
I doubt that Mr Salmond will push too soon for a referendum. He will use the threat of one to try to wring concessions from the government as the Scotland Bill continues its passage through the UK Parliament. I wonder, honestly, in his heart of hearts, if he really does want full independence, anyway? He's got as much power now as he's ever likely to have, and, much more importantly, more fiscal freedom than an independent Scotland could ever dream of. Opinion polls show most Scots would reject independence - I do not doubt these polls, and think they're probably based on rational self-interest. Scottish nationalists always attack anyone who points out the extra public spending per head available in Scotland compared to England under the unfair tenets of the Barnett Formula, but if you've elderly family in both Ayrshire and Plymouth, as Keith and I do, the difference in provision provided by the state in Scotland and England is staggeringly obvious. And that's before we consider the differences with regard to tuition fees in our Universities. The only undergraduate European students who pay fees in Scottish Universities are those from English homes. I can't see any moral case for this: it's just spite, isn't it? I'm only astonished that one of the last government's laws to prevent disordered thinking about identities hasn't been invoked in a test case.
I suspect Mr Salmond understands all this, which is why, if Mr Cameron really does want to save the Union, he'll have to fight Mr Salmond over Scotland's subsidy from English voters. Because if Scotland does ever become independent, I don't think it will be because of latent William Wallace-ism north of the border. I think it will be because English voters - regardless of which nation they were born in - finally get fed up paying the bills for a nation which is so indulgent over public spending that the Holyrood election last week was fought between two parties of the tax-and-spend Left. Except in Scotland they don't even need the tax bit. English Tax and Scottish Spend - this isn't a recipe for another three hundred successful years of Union. There's no argument available which can explain why a poor area of Scotland is deserving of a larger amount of public money than a poor area - say Hackney - in England. If we were to predict a UK-wide referendum on whether or not to preserve the Union, and nothing is meantime done about the Barnett formula, I would not bet against Scotland voting to stay, and England voting for divorce.
To put it mildly, that would make me sad. We'd really be willing to give up such a long and successful Union, for the sake of the political will required to iron out iniquities in a block-grant formula? Don't, please, Prime Minister, let us get to that stage. Mr Salmond will call you all the names under the sun when you bring up Barnett: but it's our best chance of preserving the Union. Invite him to Hackney for a look around if he gets too hysterical, and ask him to explain to the English voters on some of our poorest estates why they deserve less per head than Mr Salmond's constituents.
Many English voters already say, for the reasons I've described: Oh just let Scotland go. I think the Union is worth the political fight, just one more political fight, even if the thought of losing those Scottish Labour MPs in Westminster is attractive. Irrational? So what? My heart isn't in the Highlands, but a part of it will always be in Ayrshire. And I don't want to end my days in Brighton, the city I love, sat next to Keith, on a bench, two old duffers looking out at the sea, with one of us never able to forget that Alex Salmond achieved his aim, and has left me to see out my days as a foreigner. In my own home.