Scottish independence's central argument that Scotland and England have different values is simply not true – Gordon Brown

A few days ago, the SNP kicked off the first party conference season in two years. And while the fall-out from Covid, Afghanistan and the recession will dominate Liberal, Labour and Conservative events, there was but one overarching issue in the minds of nationalists: relaunching the case for independence.

Last month’s pact between the SNP and Greens was more about independence than about the environment: not so much an initiative to bring green issues centre stage in advance of Glasgow’s Cop-26 climate summit but more an attempt to conjure up the nationalist majority in the Scottish Parliament that Scottish electors had denied the SNP in May.

And last weekend’s announcement that the SNP will instruct civil servants to prepare a new statement on the case for independence foreshadows a constitutional crisis with the UK government anytime from next spring.

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But a new poll published today of attitudes across Scotland, England and Wales shows people want to break free from a decade of divisions, whether they be sewn by austerity, Brexit, culture wars or nationalism.

Already, as we know, 75 per cent of Scots want cooperation over conflict, especially when it comes to improving the NHS, expanding the economy and stopping climate change by working more closely with the rest of the UK.

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The nationalist case for the break-up of Britain comes down to one central grievance: that Scotland and England have now less and less in common and that you cannot be Scottish and British at the same time.

As one of their protagonists has said, “Scottish or British: when it comes to nationalism, you pay your money, and you take your choice”. And at the SNP conference last weekend, their Westminster leader Ian Blackford stated that Scotland and England are now so different that even their values are at odds with each other.

Nigel Farage does not speak for England (Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

But the nationalists may be misreading the mood of the country. For few can now deny that this summer's Euro 2020 tournament brought to the surface an England that may hitherto have been obscured to Scotland and is quite different from the typical nationalist portrayal of contemporary England.

In interviews during the Euro tournament, Gareth Southgate suggested that for years England has been undergoing a crisis of identity, but as he states explicitly, in his now famous letter to England, this is being resolved in favour of “a more tolerant and diverse England”. He argues that not just footballers but the whole population should now come together to build a country based on equality and inclusivity.

Three months on from its publication, Our Scottish Future decided to test whether the Southgate view of England represented majority English opinion; we wanted to know whether the popular revulsion against the booing of the England football team and the hounding of their three black penalty kick takers, Rashford, Saka and Sancho reflected, at a more fundamental level, Gareth Southgate’s more inclusive, tolerant, and diverse England.

Of course, it is difficult to gauge the underlying mood when, on the one hand, Covid is such a dominant issue and when, on the other, culture warriors have been hell-bent on manipulating public opinion, deliberately creating controversies over British history and traditions with the objective of dividing the country and forcing people to choose between the ‘woke’ minority and an arch-traditionalist minority.

The values expressed by England manager Gareth Southgate and striker Marcus Rashford have widespread support across the UK (Picture: Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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But the polling evidence is unambiguous: it reveals an England more tolerant, diverse, inclusive and egalitarian than at any point in recent history; indeed, an England more committed to the very values in which we Scots also take pride.

As many as 76 per cent agree that England’s diversity as a country is important or very important to making them proud of being English; 82 per cent think that an equal voice for everyone, irrespective of race, religion or gender, is important or very important in making them proud to be English; and 83 per cent think tolerance is important or very important.

In short, Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League do not speak for today's England, and it is doubtful if Jacob Rees-Mogg does either. The England of 2021 is far more in tune with Gareth Southgate, Marcus Rashford, Paralympian heroine Sarah Storey and the country’s newest sporting icon, Emma Raducanu.

And what is fascinating – and encouraging – is that across England, Scotland and Wales there are similar levels of support for equality (76, 78 and 78 per cent respectively), tolerance (83, 83, 83 per cent) and for diversity (82, 82, 80 per cent) as qualities that make us proud of our respective countries.

Regional leaders in England, like Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, are valued far more than national politicians by many of the people they serve (Picture: Martin Rickett/pool/Getty Images)

And there are also similar levels of support on policy – for giving priority to the NHS, education, good jobs and climate change. In their values and choice of priorities, Scotland and England and Wales are moving closer together, not further apart, and if politicians were to tone down the ‘them vs us’ nationalist rhetoric, all of us are quite capable of finding common ground around shared objectives.

As is the case in Scotland, this new England also has a far stronger sense of place: for the first time since the 19th century, the distinctive voices of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, Birmingham, and a dozen other cities and regions are being heard and listened to, rather than being dismissed as provincial.

Local leaders, like Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham, are valued far more than national politicians. Similarly, and again, like Scotland across England, we hear another increasingly strong sentiment: that our national political leaders need to show more respect voices outside the bubble.

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“Whoever in London thought of that,” you hear people say, “We don't count, do we, we're just a statistic”, reflecting the commonest complaints that, according to another summer poll, people feel “neglected”, “forgotten”, “ignored” and patronised as second-class citizens.

All this is evidence of the need for change – and for a radical reform of the UK constitution in which bringing back control means offering people locally more power to make decisions that matter closer to where they live.

I, for one, want a strong Scottish Parliament with a far stronger commitment to a modern, shared sovereignty within the UK. But the mistake the nationalists are making is to assume that the very same Scots who, like me, have always wanted more control of decisions as close to home as possible have also decided we do not want to cooperate with our neighbours.

The NHS is the best example of where, as polls show, more, not less, cross-border cooperation is desired. It is, of course, administered separately in our four nations, but when asked what is 'national' about the NHS, the designation most Scots choose is 'British'.

Indeed by five to one Scots agree that early procurement of vaccinations has shown the benefits of UK wide cooperation. This reflects a more basic willingness to share. Take the donation of blood and organs, from hearts and lungs to kidneys. When they donate, Scots don't insist that their gifts of a new life go only to Scots, nor do English donors restrict their donations to English patients.

By agreeing that our organs and blood go to whoever is most in need, wherever they are in the UK, Scottish and English donors show practical solidarity with each other. And we do feel the pain of others: when the people of Manchester were hit by a terrorist attack and Plymouth by a mass shooting, all of us witnessed the whole of the United Kingdom grieving together.

But cooperation must mean more than glib words. When Nicola Sturgeon called for cooperation not confrontation this week, she had clearly been reading similar opinion polls to ones I have referred to.

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But, the one issue she singled out as her example for more cooperation with the rest of the UK was of them speeding up Scottish independence – cooperation, if you like, to end cooperation – while I want cooperation, as the public do, on matters where we all benefit from working together: healthcare, climate change and the creation of jobs.

I believe that the more people are exposed to the independence debate, the more fellow Scots will appreciate the values of empathy and reciprocity, and the solidarity, sharing and cooperation that flow from them.

It is around these powerful unifying sentiments that we can reconstruct the case for the progressive and egalitarian Britain which many like Gareth Southgate now champion. It not only makes sense of a modern world in which every country's interdependence challenges old-fashioned views of independence but it also champions the idea of an equal voice for everyone whoever and wherever we are.

And the question the new SNP-Green alliance has to answer is now quite fundamental: when it comes not just to vaccination but also to resolving the issues we all feel strongly about – and tackling climate change and inequality are uppermost – we have to ask: Why don't they want to cooperate with our neighbours when they share our values and who benefits when cooperation fails to happen?

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