The Guildhall, a magnificent auditorium full of statuary and stained glass, around a couple of corners from the Bank of England, is the administrative centre of London’s financial nerve-centre, the Square Mile.
It is also a wondrous space in which to conduct ceremonial occasions. On 30th June it was seventy-one years to the day since Winston Churchill had gone there to receive the Freedom of the City of London.
No great surprise, then, that on that very day the London Evening Standard chose to stage there the debate it had organized on the motion ‘London and Scotland Need Each Other.’
The Standard had assembled a stellar team of Scots debaters, three for and three against the motion.
For it were
- Helena Kennedy,QC, (barrister and broadcaster and occupant of the Labour benches in the House of Lords),
- Danny Alexander (Lib-Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey)
- Rory Stewart (Conservative MP for Penrith, an English constituency taking in areas near the Scottish border and part of the Lake District).
Against were Stewart Hosie (Scottish National Party MP for Dundee East), Michelle R Thomson (Business for Scotlanda co-operatively owned business network for pro-independence business people and professionals and, resplendent in his turban, Hardeep Singh Kohl (Scottish comedian). I kid you not and he¹s very funny but also very much to the point).
The city is part of a dream shared by many young Scots. Three centuries of Union had united the two countries in a liberal democracy. Keeping the pound was a sensible response to the troubled Euro. Many of the smaller parties in Scottish politics would not be greatly in favour of the proposed change.
Some other speakers dismissed romantic nationalism as a retreat from the future.
Yet the gap between rich and poor in Scotland would not disappear any more quickly if Scotland broke away.
Stewart Hosie countered that the Scottish National Party wanted to make Scotland what it should be. Helena Kennedy in turn countered with a plea for a combination of the Englishpromotion of individual liberty and the Scottish sense of community.
Danny Alexander (presumably speaking for the Treasury as well as himself) said considerable powers to govern their own taxation would be given to the Scots if they stayed.
Speaking more generally, he argued that Scottish independence would be a gamble. Rory Stewart agreed saying the result was bound to be very close whichever side won.
Michelle Thompson was perhaps the speaker who came closest to economic realities when she compared the fates of Abu Dhabi and Scotland. The former had been treated very generously by those who exploited the oil discovered there. Scotland was a sad contrast in this respect.
When discussion was opened to the floor there were some pertinent comments, but perhaps the most superficially memorable ones were enthusiastic endorsements of Scottish Country Dancing and of the Kingdom of God.
In the Gents afterwards, one fairly cross gent complained that the debate had been confined to airy-fairy principles. There had been no nitty-gritty about financial considerations such as Scottish debt and other similar matters. He certainly had a point. But in this respect the debate did reflect pretty fairly the nature of debate in the country at large.
One rather more curious omission was that (unless I did not hear it in occasional bursts of hubbub) there was no mention of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s current First Minister.
Salmond has had a chequered career and his campaign for Independence is seen by many as his desperate last throw of the dice to achieve the mark on his country¹s history that he thinks he deserves. (His ruling that Scots living outside Scotland’s border are not eligible to vote came in for critical comment but even then I don¹t think he was named.)
When the vote was taken there was a large majority in favour of the motion ‘London and Scotland Need Each Other.’ And the latest survey of opinion in Scotland suggests that this is how things will turn out on the ground.
One rather frivolous reaction that occurred to me is that it would be a sad loss to the gaiety of nations if public gatherings at which English and Scots made fun of each other ceased to be.
As Burns wrote:
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!