Many Scots don’t want independence, but a more cooperative union

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA</span>
Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

No prime ministerial letters, flying visits to Scotland or one-off meetings, however welcome, can wallpaper over the cracks in the United Kingdom. Lying ahead of us are months of constitutional standoffs, court hearings, ultimatums and acrimony. But there is one way that Scotland and the UK can work together again.

An in-depth poll conducted by the thinktank Our Scottish Future (of which I am a founding member), the full results of which are to be published early this week, found that on the same day as 48% of voters opted for the SNP, a far higher number of Scots – 73% – wanted better cooperation between Scotland and the rest of the UK, support that remains as high when it comes to the specifics of addressing the health, poverty, jobs and climate crises we so obviously share in common.

On the surface, the election results reveal a Scotland divided down the middle into two warring camps, one half headlong for independence and the other half clinging to the union.

But what I see every day is not two Scotlands but three, the two blocs for and against independence framing a larger group in the middle. It is this group, not the enthusiasts on either side, who will decide whether our 300-year-old union lives or dies.

To an outsider, the people in middle Scotland may appear to be nationalists. They will tell you that they feel more Scottish than British, that they prefer the Scottish parliament to the UK parliament and Nicola Sturgeon to Boris Johnson. In a choice between being Scottish or being British, most would opt for the former; and they will tell you that at elections they vote for the party they see as standing up for Scotland.

But they have a fundamental difference of view to the nationalists. Middle Scotland has not written a British dimension out of their lives. They don’t want to be forced to make the choice between being Scottish and British. They are best described as patriots who love our country, but not nationalists who see life in terms of a never-ending struggle between “us”, the Scots, and “them”, the rest of the UK.

The Britain middle Scotland connects with isn’t the Britain defined by ancient institutions or deference to them. The living symbol of unity is the NHS, which continues to be, for Scots, a British icon, despite the fact the healthcare is administered differently in each nation. The NHS speaks to feelings of empathy, solidarity and reciprocity – exactly the sentiments that underpin a desire to cooperate and share. The recent UK-wide vaccination effort – UK mass purchasing, Scottish delivery – may yet revitalise the idea of a partnership that works, and encourage middle Scotland to consider a range of constitutional options that could deliver their priorities more effectively than those currently in existence.

While middle Scotland wants cooperation, it doesn’t think Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon share that aspiration. Only 23% of Scots agree that the Scottish and UK governments cooperate well. Of course Nicola Sturgeon won’t change – her life’s work is to break up the UK – but the inescapable duty of a UK prime minister should be to bring the different nations and regions of the UK together.

His “muscular unionism” involves putting up more flags, bypassing the Scottish government and badging Scottish bridges and roads as gifts that come courtesy of the UK (as if there is nothing more to bridge-building than spending on bricks and mortar). It is Johnson’s attempt to show that Britishness can win a competition with Scottishness. When he says devolution is a “a disaster”, he may have thought he was attacking the SNP. In fact nearly 90% of Scots are proud of their devolved parliament, and he is at war with mainstream Scottish opinion. When he says there should be no referendum for 40 years, he is not just at odds with the SNP but with the majority of Scots, who certainly don’t want a referendum now but don’t think it right that he alone can rule it out for ever.

Johnson may believe that he can be, at one and the same time, an English nationalist and save the union. The reality is that no prime minister can hold the UK together if at war with a large part of it. He must become the minister for the union and not just the minister for unionists, and the first step is to set up – as Keir Starmer has already done – an inquiry into the UK’s future, instructing it to find an alternative not just to separate nationalisms but to the poorly performing status quo.

Related: While Salmond tanked, pro-unionist tactical voting made its mark in Scotland

It should be a UK-wide review because there is disenchantment too across Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. Hartlepool shows that the Conservative promise of levelling up is still a political vote-winner, but only time will tell if it is an economic gamechanger. When Johnson admits the north has lent him their votes , he too is recognising that “the man in Whitehall” doesn’t know best, and has got to find better ways of listening and taking the electorates’ views into account.

Civil society movements will now spring up championing cooperation across the UK, and from today Our Scottish Future will turn itself into a campaigning organisation committed to making the UK more acceptable to all of its constituent parts. It will put the patriotic, principled and progressive case for Scotland to remain in Britain. But the prime minister is in a unique position: through the authority of the office, and through statesmanship, he can build the ties that bind our country together.

A constitutional inquiry would show how we can build a more inclusive centre to the UK, repairing its relations with the regions and nations and ensuring that they have the resources to become real focal points for joint creation and prosperity. But we also urgently need a permanent forum of the nations and regions – something all too absent during the pandemic. It should focus on the crises in health, employment, poverty and the climate, the solutions to which require both cooperation and the mobilisation of all the resources of the UK. Sooner or later a UK prime minister will decide that a first and fundamental responsibility is to unite our country. The question is who that prime minister will be, and whether it will be too late.

  • Gordon Brown was the Labour prime minister of Britain from 2007 to 2010

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