This week’s Scottish National Party conference may be remembered as the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom. That is, at least, the ambition of the SNP, who won a majority in Scotland’s parliament in an election earlier this year. Their leader, Alex Salmond, has declared that he will call a referendum on Scottish independence during his tenure as First Minister.
It therefore appears tiresomely likely that Scottish independence and regional devolution will become consuming issues in the near future. So it is worth remembering how few people actually wanted it. The Scottish parliament was established by referendum in 1997, the proposal winning 74.3 per cent of a 60.4 per cent turnout – suggesting that over half Scotland’s population were indifferent or hostile (Wales’s parliament was founded the same year on an even flimsier mandate, desired by just 50.3 per cent of a 50.1 per cent turnout.) Mr Salmond’s reluctance to emphasise his party’s victory with an immediate vote on independence may be telling.
One of the difficulties with devolution is knowing where to stop. The Scots are scarcely alone in the UK in feeling themselves a recognisable people with particular concerns and aspirations. The arguments that can be lodged for Scottish independence can also be made, if one can be bothered, for Cornwall and Yorkshire – and, probably, the Isle of Wight and Rockall. However, one significant, and perpetually put-upon, minority of the British people are never asked, and their cry of freedom is overdue a hearing: Londoners.
There are, give or take, eight million of us. In 2009-10, we were net contributors of £1.4bn (€1.6bn) to the British economy – down on our sensational results of previous years, due to the recession, but nevertheless the only positive figure returned by any UK region, and still sufficient to build some sort of elementary fortification along the M25. In 2009, London’s per capita Gross Value Added was £34,200 (€39,000), as opposed to a national average of £19,977 (€22,816) – what, we are entitled to enquire, are these shiftless yokels doing for us? We have a distinct identity, despite the fact that we represent, between us, more than 270 nationalities, and speak more than 300 languages. London is a place people choose – surely a better qualification for citizenship than accident of birth. A third of us, this reporter included, were born outside Britain, and uncounted grateful hordes came here from less fortunate regions of this jealous and burdensome country.
The city-state has a noble lineage. Athens gave us democracy. Venice and Florence gave us the Renaissance. The Republic of London, unshackled from the nation it has carried far too long, could flourish as never before. Our moment has come. Our time is now. Even if would mean having to address Boris Johnson as “president”.