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Scottish independence: which partner gets the record collection?

Not many books make such an impression that you can still remember the broad outline of their arguments three decades after reading them. But the second edition of Tom Nairn’s ‘The Break Up of Britain’, published in 1982, was very much the work that has shaped my thinking on nationalism with the British Isles ever since.

If Scotland goes its own way, a permanent Tory fiefdom would result in England and Wales. But Europe would gain another country with a social democratic centre of political gravity. Let the Scots decide their own future.

Nairn’s volume still sits on my shelves, and I guess I will have to dust it off in the weeks ahead, as the issues it raises attain new salience. What was 30 years ago an abstract proposition of the type I loved to debate with other lefties in the student union bar has emerged as a strong possibility, and not too far down the line at that.

The latest deliberations over a referendum on Scottish independence have been presented by several commentators as some sort of political poker contest between Cameron and Salmond. It looks increasingly likely that the Scottish National Party leader will take the pot after cleverly bluffing a mid-pocket pair.

The constitutional technicalities of all this count for little.  Ever since the SNP’s landslide election triumph last May – after a campaign that saw a lacklustre Labour Party blow a double-digit poll lead – it has had both morality and momentum behind it.

A referendum looks like it is coming in 2014, whether the Coalition likes it or not. A yes vote is not inevitable; support for a breakaway has always fluctuated, depending on just how ghastly London governments have made themselves to the Scots at any one time.

Yet if the perception is that going it alone will allow Scotland to opt out of austerity imposed by a Conservative government in Westminster, nobody should be surprised if the Nats pull this stroke off.

Until now, the unionist tradition has carried sufficient weight on the right to make it unimaginable that the Tories could even countenance conceding such a demand. Yet south of the border, attitudes may be starting to change.

Consider, for instance, the survey of the largely right of centre readership of City AM last May, which found that 51% support for Scottish independence, largely on the grounds that the Jocks are a bunch of scroungers leeching off the real wealth creators in financial services.

Now that the oil has just about run out anyway, surely some English Conservatives would find the prospect of guaranteed Tory rule for all time that little bit tempting. All they would have to do is to cry a few crocodile tears, and then gleefully grant Salmond his wish, while publicly protesting reluctance all along.

After that, this issue becomes just like any other divorce. The only real arguments will be over which partner gets the record collection.

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