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The immorality of a UK that promises ice cream and serves up yellow snow

During the period when devo max may have been on the ballot paper and the Edinburgh Agreement was being negotiated, one thing became clear.

Prime Minister David Cameron hasn't converted to Catholicism or quoted St Francis of Assisi on the steps of Number 10 - but has he lost purpose?Photograph: Stewart Attwood
Prime Minister David Cameron hasn't converted to Catholicism or quoted St Francis of Assisi on the steps of Number 10 - but has he lost purpose?Photograph: Stewart Attwood

The UK, whether as senior civil servants or elected ministers, wasn't engaged in a conversation about how certain powers could address policy needs. Instead, it was playing an elaborate game driven by a deep animus towards Alex Salmond. The purpose was to stop the man, not listen to the nation. This is fundamentally immoral.

Between 2010 and 2013, I worked on constitutional matters for the First Minister. This involved engagement with many aspects of the UK. In none of these was a connection made between the democratic desire for greater localism and despair at the financial crash with new policy powers.

What was evident was a sense that a cheeky, working-class man had the temerity to challenge the UK and this needed to be slapped down. The story presented in casual chats or asides was that Salmond was a "bad man" who had somehow intoxicated voters. The UK was acting in the interests of these deluded citizens by resisting Salmond.

I am tuned to this because I'm posh - fancy voice, Fettes and all. The gradations of sneering are learned over time, mixed in with the barbs of intellectual snobbery. The personal animus towards Salmond made it impossible for the UK to understand what was going on.

They were wilfully blind to the electorate's discontent with one version of the state and the desire to consider an alternative. It explains why Scots were not allowed a middle question - the UK could only see it in terms of Salmond's career; also, why none of the "more powers" options starts from the point of view of policy effect, but rather as mechanical constitutional reward for good behaviour.

Any constitutional change meant understanding the state - what's it for, who is it meant to benefit, who pays? The old model of 1945 to 2008 is over - no longer supported by engaged electorates, tax revenues or a sense of common purpose. While it wasn't Scotland's intention, it landed in the vanguard of what the new state model should look like. In turn, this leads to thoughts about moral purpose - does a state have to have a "mission" if it is to succeed?

With four weeks to go, questions about the purpose of the UK go largely unasked. On radio with Jim Gallagher of Better Together, I was told Britain has a shared history and that change was risky. None addresses the relevance of GB now.

The UK has been purposeful: in building an empire, in pioneering social security, resisting Nazism.

Over the last four decades, UK leaders have searched for a purpose but come up disappointed. Margaret Thatcher quoted St Francis of Assisi on the steps of Number 10 and Tony Blair converted to Catholicism. We don't need a religion to have a goal.

In this, David Cameron is different. He seems unencumbered by a point. Once his purpose was to be green, then to get us back into the black, and now to revel in red, white and blue. This decline in purpose occurs just as Scotland grows confident in its search for something new. The two are connected.

None of the occupants of Bute House has been without purpose. Donald Dewar's careful nurturing of the early days, Henry McLeish's reach for something shinier and Jack McConnell's cautious lowering of ambition. Salmond's pursuit of something under the name of independence has really been an effort to prove that Scots are good enough. This is not surprising. In the commitment to build something new, humans gain purpose and, quite often, humility.

The problems with the old model of the state are many, but cover the disturbing economic and social effect of global cities like London. The immorality of the UK comes from witnessing the inequality of Scotland, the north of England or elsewhere, and thinking more of the same will do. It promises ice cream and serves up yellow snow.

The presumption from Washington and London is to preserve old states and borders. This is contrary to the lesson of history, as expressed in the recent book Why Nations Fail. In time of crisis, free societies thrive when they extend freedom and power, and fail when they retreat to protect the old order.

Applied to the West, this suggests success lies in a more fluid arrangement of powers, with much greater localism and accountability, accommodated within strengthened organisations like the UN and the EU. Failure would come from a retreat to the 19th origins of the world order and a suppression of popular cries for freedom. If the UK could only get past its class objections to Salmond and see the wider democratic crisis and opportunity, it would be helping us all. It's the moral thing to do.

Alex Bell is former head of policy to the First Minister, Alex Salmond. A former presenter of Good Morning Scotland and co-founder of

allmediascotland.com, he has written for The Herald, The Observer and the Irish Times. His last book,

Peakwater, described the world's water crisis. His new book, The People We Could Be, is out tomorrow from Luath.

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