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Billy Bragg: how iScotland would help England rediscover its radical heart

No-one likes to feel they're being taken for granted in a relationship, but when the dominant partner takes no account of your views and stubbornly refuses to recognise that there might be any problems between the two of you, then it's time for a frank exchange of opinions.

And if every point you make is met with nothing more than denial and veiled threats, then you must surely begin to ask yourself what is this relationship based on? What grounds do we have for staying together?

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Such thoughts must have been stirred in the minds of many Scots in the past months as the debate over independence has gathered momentum. The arguments for remaining together have echoes of a relationship on the brink. Two can live as cheaply as one. Where will you go? How will you survive all on your own without me to look after you? What will we tell our friends and family?

As with all emotional break-ups, the negative aspects of independence have been comprehensively aired. What we haven't heard from the dominant partner are some solid reasons for staying together.

The argument most often expressed by unionists seeking to make a positive appeal for a No vote was neatly summed up in the letter organised by Dan Snow and signed by 200 "great names".

Addressed to the voters of Scotland, it read: ''The decision on whether to leave our shared country is, of course, absolutely yours alone. Nevertheless, that decision will have a huge effect on all of us in the rest of the United Kingdom. We want to let you know how very much we value our bonds of citizenship with you, and to express our hope that you will vote to renew them. What unites us is much greater than what divides us.''

That was it. One paragraph. "We like you, please don't go". No recognition of the problems at the heart of the relationship, that the power balance is off kilter, that behaviour needs to be moderated, that things have to change. Not even a bunch of flowers.

By basing their core argument on nothing more than an appeal to sentiment, the unionists make plain that they don't really understand why people in Scotland feel the need to be independent. As so often in unequal relationships, the dominant partner can't see how their dominance can become a straitjacket that constrains and frustrates the aspirations of those they claim to love and respect.

The notion that everything would be okay between us if we just carry on doing what we've always done is a controlling cliché, trotted out by every dominant partner whose power is challenged. It's the defensive response of one who is surprised to hear that all is not well in the relationship.

Anyone willing to scratch below the surface of the Westminster parliament would soon find that all is not well in the union. Ironically, much of the damage has been done by the party that, throughout its history, has cherished the ties that bind the United Kingdom together.

Conservative MPs, contrary to their own unionist traditions, are the most vocal in demEnglish votes for English laws. They also supply the majority of members

calling for Britain's withdrawal from the EU, despite strong support in Scotland and Wales for staying in. And many Tories feel drawn towards the insular, anti-immigrant English nationalism of Ukip.

In short, the British establishment is undergoing an identity crisis.

The modern British identity was forged during the Second World War and the institutions created by the victors helped to sustain our national prestige, even as we were forced to retreat from empire.

The Cold War allowed the UK to maintain its imperial pretensions as the USA's closest ally in Nato, but the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of a conflict that began in 1939.

While British filmmakers produced war movies celebrating Our Finest Hour, other European nations began sharing their sovereignty in the hope of ensuring there would never be the need for another D-Day.

DESPITE making a significant contribution to the rebuilding of post-war Europe, the British remained aloof, preferring instead to form the Commonwealth. With the Queen at its head, surrounded by the leaders of states from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australasia, it provided a comfort blanket for those who longed for the good old days of the British Empire.

By the mid-seventies, however, economic realities made it necessary for the UK to join the Common Market, which evolved into the European Union. In 1993, the Maastricht Treaty put those countries in favour of greater integration firmly in the driving seat and from that moment, huge divisions opened up within the Conservative Party.

For British Tories, only a generation away from their imperial pomp, having to cede power to a newly reunited Germany felt too much like joining someone else's empire. Egged on by tabloids only too willing to resort to the clichés of Dad's Army and Allo Allo, the Conservatives sought to demonise the EU by attacking every directive that came from Brussels.

The fact that many of these new EU laws concerned the rights of workers and consumers made it imperative that they be resisted. Since 1979, the Conservatives had been busily deregulating business and undermining the ability of workers to secure fair wages.

Bridling at any suggestion that British sovereignty might be shared, the Tories have been left looking like they want only the benefits of being in the EU, while seeking to escape the responsibilities that come with membership.

Perversely, none of this is really an issue for voters. Polls continue to place the EU some way down the list of priorities, even among those who support Ukip. Yet Tory MPs are determined to make it the focus of the next General Election.

Thus the party that has always sought to wrap itself in the Union Jack, that believes the UK has a leadership role to play among the nations of the world, finds itself backing away from the very place where Britain could punch above its weight and help shape the new century.

While the financial powerhouse of London enjoys the benefits of globalised markets, the Tories are shirking from their commitments to the EU, desperate to pull up the drawbridge and keep Britain for the British. Douglas Carswell's defection to Ukip last week is further proof that the English Conservatives are obsessed with the politics of identity.

They know that the United Kingdom would be poorer outside of our main market across the Channel, yet appear determined to press the eject button despite the destabilising economic effect this would have for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A kingdom united and at ease with itself would be disturbed by such behaviour, but, worryingly, this comes at a time when the British electorate have signalled their discontent with the status quo by refusing to give any one party a mandate at the last General Election. The formation of a coalition is a rare event under the Westminster electoral system - first past the post is specifically designed to deliver a clear, decisive result.

The fact that most commentators are predicting that another coalition will be necessary after the next election suggests that the electorate are not happy with the choices they are being offered, that the system itself is no longer capable of expressing the will of the people.

A robust democracy should be able to address such structural problems, but attempts to introduce a fairer voting system in 2011 were opposed by the Conservatives and their allies. When the LibDems sought to bring democracy to the upper house, both Tories and Labour moved to stymie reform.

And reform is badly needed. Under the first past the post system used for elections to the British parliament, 80% of us live in constituencies that never change hands. As a result, the parties target their resources on the 40 or so marginal seats. This is the mythical land of Middle England where, we are assured, elections are won and lost.

In these few seats, the electorate is pandered to, while the rest of us rot in single party constituencies resigned to the fact that, come election day, we might as well chuck our votes in the trash if we don't support the incumbent.

This feeling of powerlessness, the sense that we're stuck with a self-serving political class at Westminster that actively resists change, has undermined our belief in democracy. All over the UK, people feel that their voices are not heard, their views are not respected, their votes taken for granted.

It is this, I believe, that has created the impetus for Scottish independence.

Voters north of the Border have been able to use the proportional representation system to express their frustration with the status quo in Westminster.

Devolution has empowered those in Scotland who wish do things differently.

The people of England have not been granted such dispensation. The centralising tendencies of both Labour and Tory governments have kept the English on a short lead.

The one experiment with devolution - offering a regional assembly to England's smallest and poorest region, the North East, floundered on Westminster's refusal to grant sufficient powers to make the assembly more than just a jumped-up quango.

And England desperately needs decentralising. The European Commission recently released figures showing that seven of the poorest regions in northern Europe are in England, as is the richest - Inner London (http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/cache/RSI/#?vis=nuts2.economy).

How are we able to tolerate such inequality? Because, among the northern Europeans, it is the British who have been most willing to shirk responsibility for directing economic affairs, preferring to leave decision-making to the free market.

There doesn't seem much prospect of change any time soon. The free-market consensus at Westminster means that we will go into the next election with the opposition pledging to implement the government's economic policies.

London-based commentators, committed to preserving the status quo, will drown any notion that there might be a better way of doing things. Under such circumstances, the independence referendum has a resonance far beyond the Tweed.

The ballot paper asks a simple question of the people of Scotland: should it be an independent country? But for those of us watching from the rest of the UK, the Scots will be addressing a question that has implications for us all: is it possible to do things differently, to re-organise how we run our society in order to create a better outcome for everyone, not just those at the top?

If the people of Scotland are willing to explore that possibility, if the answer to the question is Yes, then the tens of millions of people in England, for whom devolution has been nothing more than a spectator sport, will be suddenly galvanised.

Just as the referendum sparked debates about the Scottish identity, so independence will force the English to wake up and take a good look at themselves. A new constitutional settlement would be on the table, allowing activists to make the case for devolution under a system that makes everyone's vote count.

A debate about Trident would ensue, questioning not just the cost of retaining nuclear weapons, but also England's place in the post-Cold War world. Of course there would be tensions - like every nation, England has its share of xenophobes and misanthropes - but we've seen them off in the past and will do so again.

Scottish independence offers the English the opportunity to cast off their imperial pretensions and rediscover their Roundhead tradition - that dogged determination to hold absolute power to account that has surfaced in the crucial moments of our history. In the past it was King Charles that we rallied against. Today that absolute power rests with the corporations and financial markets that exploit our citizens without making any contribution to their welfare.

Westminster takes Scotland for granted, but, south of the Border, it has little respect for those of us who live outside of the marginal seats of Middle England. Our democracy has withered, leaving the majority of us with precious few ways to make a difference.

On September 18, our fate will be in the hands of the people of Scotland. If you vote in favour of meaningful change, you will write a new chapter in our island story.

Furthermore, by embracing independence, you will have given England the chance to be a nation again.

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