The Sunday Times

May 9th, 2010

Cut Scotland loose and then we’ll have a fair voting system

‘Wow,” said a wide-eyed young Liberal Democrat voter babe, staring over my shoulder on Friday at a coloured election map of Britain. “England is, like, totally blue.” How true. Huge swathes of England are Conservative. And, she noticed in the next instant, Scotland is, like, totally red and yellowish gold. Only one single constituency north of the border is blue.

As Alex Salmond of the Scottish National party said in the wee hours of Friday, it is “overwhelmingly clear” that Scotland does not want a Tory government: “I don’t believe they’ve got a mandate to run Scotland from fourth place.” Again, how obviously true. Yet, equally obviously, the Tories have got a genuine mandate to run England.

Last week’s strange election has convinced many voters that our electoral system needs reform. That question will be central to negotiations between party leaders this weekend as they compete for power in these impotent times.

While the psephological sophisticates discuss the arcana of proportional versus alternative voting, I have a simple suggestion that might have democratic appeal all round. And it would not stand in the way of any other electoral reform. It’s simply this: we Sassenachs must say no to the Scots. We must accept that we are united by geography but divided by politics: we cannot vote together any longer.

The reason is again blindingly obvious. As Nick Clegg has pointed out, David Cameron’s Conservatives got the most votes and the most seats. As Cameron himself pointed out, his party got a higher share of the vote than Labour achieved at the last election, when Blair won a majority of 66.

This remarkable Conservative success was won despite the enormous disadvantage that Tories (and Liberal Democrats) suffer from the way constituencies are currently divided, so that they must win far more votes than Labour to win as many seats, as voters now appreciate. Yet despite their success, the Conservatives cannot form a government. Although Labour got a disastrous drubbing, Gordon Brown is still in Downing Street and Clegg, whose political bubble burst, is to be kingmaker. This is, like, so totally wrong.

Look to the map and towards Hadrian’s Wall for both reason and solution. Cameron got 306 seats (against Brown’s 258), just 20 seats short of an overall majority. But Brown’s 258 included 41 from Scotland (out of 59 Scottish constituencies). Without these Scottish seats, the Labour party would have got only 217 to the Conservatives’ 305 and Clegg’s 46 (to which he would be reduced if he did not have his current 11 Lib Dem seats in Scotland).

This injustice could be put right simply by saying politely to the Scots that we would like to separate, psephologically and politically. Let them run Scotland their own way. They are perfectly well equipped to do so. They could even turn themselves into a rich tax haven, a mini Switzerland, given their wealth of world-beating financial services, lawyers and golf courses.

They already entice the super-rich with their castles and grouse moors. And they have their oil wealth, insofar as it belongs to them, their deep-sea ports, their shipbuilding, their IT, their magical Highlands and islands, their arts festivals and an abundance of game, fish and marketable tourist tat.

The Scots have two highly developed important cities and several great universities and medical schools; their intellectual and entrepreneurial tradition is second to none. They don’t need us.

Nor do we need them. Above all, we would be much better off without the notorious Barnett formula; it is obviously unfair that the Scots should receive more public money per head than the English, especially when their taxes and benefits are so different. Let them get on without us.

All the talk during this election about mandates and the people’s voice means little if politicians are still unwilling to admit to the glaring Scottish democratic deficit. At the end of 2006 a famous ICM poll found that 52% of Scots wanted independence from Britain, but also — startlingly — that 59% of the English favoured separation from Scotland. As far as I know there have been no polls about this thorny issue since.

Personally, I have never quite understood the sentimental attachment to the union. Its historical and political underpinnings are clear enough and so much blood and anguish have been spent on the idea of the union that it’s perhaps disrespectful to make light of it. All the same, those emotional ties are weakening and, according to the 2006 ICM poll, particularly among the young.

That may, of course, be because they study so little history these days, but equally it might be a feeling, shared by me, that the union is a political construct whose time is over. The growth of the European Union and this country’s general decline — and perhaps multiculturalism as well — all mean that it is hard to rally fervour round a concept such as a United Kingdom. United we aren’t. And kingdom means less and less, especially to those on the political left.

Years ago I lived and worked in Hong Kong (then still a crown colony) and was at first astonished to hear Chinese people constantly talking about something called “Yoo Kay” and how they longed to get proper Yoo Kay documents. It was several days before I realised they were talking about my country and several weeks before I realised that many of them had no idea what the Yoo Kay was like, or what the initials stood for. It was just the third-best place to go, if you couldn’t get to California or Vancouver — a bit of a disappointment, really.

I love Scotland and have spent many happy summer holidays there. But I can’t help noticing that the Scots don’t love us; some actively dislike the English. The time has come for an amicable divorce, making Scotland no more than a good EU neighbour.

Obviously there would be practical problems, as in any divorce. Defining who is Scottish and who is not (for voting purposes, if nothing else) might be one. But all of these problems could be overcome if there were a mandate to do so. I suspect there is. And that would be, like, so totally super.

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