This generational smugness about paedophilia is wrong | Jonathan Freedland

Yes, the NCCL's tolerance of PIE in the 1970s is shocking. But while we may be better at shunning child abusers, the abuse itself continues

Even the word is wrong. The literal meaning of "paedophile" should be someone who loves children, but few would say it is love that drives such a person. A paedophile does not love children; he abuses them. Still, paedophile is the word we are stuck with, this week especially. Exhumed from the 1970s has been the Paedophile Information Exchange and its unexpected link to the National Council for Civil Liberties, a disinterment that has discomforted senior figures in the Labour party and brought a reminder that when it comes to the past, especially of politicians, it is, as Faulkner said, never dead. It is not even past. Instead it can return decades later, with venom.

It's a reminder too that what can seem enlightened and progressive in one era can look very different years later. It's a shock now to read, for example, that the great luminaries of the pre-war intellectual elite, especially on the left, were in thrall to eugenics, a theory of human selection which strikes us today as morally indefensible but which, at the time, was nothing less than the common sense of the age.

Merely saying, "It was a different time" doesn't work as a defence, a point that Patricia Hewitt has wisely understood. She has apologised for the decision she took, as general secretary of the NCCL, to put her name to a March 1976 press release, proposing that the age of consent be lowered to 14 or even 10 "where consent of a child … can be proved". The NCCL document further argued that incest between consenting persons was no crime. Now Hewitt admits: "I got it wrong on PIE and I apologise for having done so."

Some will praise Hewitt for being smarter than Harriet Harman, the former legal officer of the NCCL whose responses to the PIE revelations have been more tortured. But this is not a matter of superior judgment. Hewitt surely had no option but to admit her error and show contrition. As the boss, and with her name on that document she was much more closely implicated than Harman has been. Proposing that a 10-year-old can consent to sex with an adult is far more serious than any action so far attributed to Labour's deputy leader. Still, it would have cost Harman nothing to say, the instant this story broke, that the NCCL's affiliation arrangements were clearly a mess if they allowed a group such as PIE to join. Perhaps the fear of conceding even an inch to the Mail enemy blinded her to that obvious point.

What neither Hewitt nor Harman can quite say is that the Mail's attack depends on an unspoken assumption that the NCCL crowd were uniquely indulgent of PIE and paedophilia – that, while everyone else back then shared the revulsion we feel today towards child abusers, these crackpot lefty libertarians were inexplicably permissive. But that assumption is wrong.

The clue is in the name. The activists of the PIE did not hide who they were: they put the word "paedophile" on the tin. They had named spokesmen and a letterhead (featuring a line-drawing of two bare-limbed children on a rock). The existence of such an unashamed group is unimaginable now. "Paedophile" is the worst possible insult, languishing in the moral hierarchy somewhere between "racist" and "murderer", if not, in fact, below both of them.

Yet it was clearly not that way 40 years ago. The PIE men felt they could hold their heads up, not just among the libertarians of the NCCL but in British society in general. PIE did interviews with the media. A colleague recalls seeing a PIE stall at a university conference. If you called the PIE members' hotline, it was answered by a chap who worked at the Home Office.

It's hard for us to credit it, but it seems paedophilia did not carry quite the radioactive stigma it does today. Or maybe it's not so hard to understand. For what was one of the recurring themes of the Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall revelations? That these men hid in plain sight, that their excessive interest in very young people was barely concealed: in Savile's case, he all but molested one girl on camera.

By their actions, these men signalled their confidence that society was ready to look the other way, if not to indulge their behaviour. That they got away with their crimes for so long suggests they were not wrong.

This is perilously awkward territory, but a look back at the popular culture of earlier eras reveals the difference with today. When Shirley Temple died earlier this month, several critics noted that her best-known performances – say, the toddler singing The Good Ship Lollipop before a watching group of adult men – now look downright creepy. Some noticed it at the time. In 1938 Graham Greene was sued for libel after writing a review of one Temple movie that argued that the child was presented as a sex object: "Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire." When Hewitt and Harman were at the helm of the NCCL, one of the hit songs of the age was Gilbert O'Sullivan's Clair. Doubtless, it was no more than an innocent tribute to a friend's young daughter but no singer would dare write such lyrics today: "You're more than a child, oh, Clair … But why in spite of our age difference do I cry each time I leave you / I feel I could die / Nothing means more to me / Than hearing you say / I'm going to marry you."

The point is, it's more than the attitudes of the NCCL that strike us now as alien: it's the attitudes of that whole era. Our shock is infused with a kind of generational smugness: look how much we've evolved since then. Some of that is richly justified. It's a step forward that we now understand what clearly eluded many liberals at the time: that there can be no such thing as meaningful "consent" from a child when it comes to a sexual encounter with an adult. It is abuse.

But there should be a limit to our generation's self-satisfaction. We have our own confusions. We believe a child cannot consent to sex until 16; yet we say they are old enough to be criminally responsible at 10. Nor is today's pop culture free of the habit of seeing children sexually: witness, as Harman has rightly pointed out, the Mail's drooling coverage of celebrity kids and their bodies.

Above all, while we may be better at shunning paedophiles, we're not so good at convicting them. We may have succeeded in driving child abusers underground, but the problem is still there – manifested in the proliferation of child porn on the internet, in underage sex-tourism and, tragically, in thousands of families every day of the week.

The glum truth is that this is a sickness that clings to our society. It did then and it does now. Exposing the blind spots of would-be politicians 40 years ago allows us to pretend that this ailment somehow belongs in our past. It doesn't. It lives with us still.

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Food banks or dignity: is that the choice we offer the hungry?

The rise of food banks in Britain has been met with shock, and denial. But they cannot cope with a national crisis

When people used to speak of hunger – as an issue, not a sensation – they used to speak of faraway. Hunger meant the developing world, NGOs, imploring eyes on the TV news. It was, in modern times at least, a distant problem. So it comes as a shock that in the second decade of the 21st century we are speaking about hunger in Britain, right here right now.

Perhaps we were reassured by the notion that we live in the age of "relative poverty", when those who were officially deemed poor were not actually destitute but just had less than everyone else. The poor of our era were, we imagined, not Charles Dickens poor. They still had food on the table and a roof over their heads. Some of them even had the odd plasma TV, or so we read in the papers.

Perhaps that is why there has been something of a delayed reaction to the rise and rise of genuine hunger in this country. The unkind would call it denial. But it is becoming harder to deny.

This week the nation's most senior clerics told of what they are seeing every day, in the parishes where they and their colleagues live and work. Vincent Nichols, the newly elevated Catholic cardinal, branded the way the welfare system functions "a disgrace", while 27 Anglican bishops and 16 other Christian leaders blamed the government's benefits changes for a "national crisis" of hunger.

Predictably the coalition's defenders told the men of the cloth to back off, telling them they had no business poking their nose into such matters and should stick to "religion". Apparently they interpret the old Alastair Campbell dictum that politicians shouldn't do God to mean that God shouldn't do politics.

Perhaps they think churches exist to tidy up the hymn books and keep flowers in the vestry. In fact, the major faiths see their mission as nothing less than healing the world. So of course if they see people going hungry, they cry out. It is their duty.

It's their right too. Few institutions in our national life are doing more to deal with the return of a problem some might have thought we banished after the Depression, if not the Victorian age. Where do you think many of the more than 400 food banks run by the Trussell Trust operate? In church halls. I visited one this week, in Hackney in east London, no more than a three-minute walk from a pleasant green complete with upmarket cafes and a specialist Italian deli. It is a sight at once heartening and shaming. Heartening because it is good to see that, for all the talk of alienation and atomisation, for all David Cameron's one-time insistence that we live in "broken Britain", people are still willing to give up time, money and effort to care with great sensitivity and respect for those they have never met. Shaming because, as Cameron admitted when the subject was flood relief, "we are a wealthy country", and in a wealthy country people should not go hungry.

The pity of it is inescapable. I saw a man take home a couple of carrier bags filled with the most basic kind of basics: tinned sausages, a can of soup, a packet of pasta. All decent enough, each allocation calculated for balance by nutritionists.

Except you and I would not want to live on that for three days, which is how long it has to last. And the Trussell rules say that he can only get such help twice more. After that, he will be on his own.

The government's reply to the clerics is that they're on a moral mission to wean people off "welfare dependency" and that, in the prime minister's words, it "is wrong to penalise those who work hard and do the right thing while rewarding those who can work, but don't". It is worth unpacking each element of that.

Cameron's statement rests on the repeatedly implied assumption that the only people going hungry are those who have opted for idleness as a lifestyle choice, who could work but don't fancy it. This assumption is false. The majority of poor households include at least one person who works. As Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, put it this week: "People who are using food banks are not scroungers who are cynically trying to work the system. They are drawn from the 6 million working poor in this country, people who are struggling to make ends meet in low paid or bitty employment." Sure enough, the very first thing the "clients" I speak to at the Hackney food bank tell me – unprompted – is how desperate they are to work. One is an immigrant legally barred from working. The other is a former removal man now aged 60 who can't afford to buy the van he needs to get started again.

Yet the driving rhetoric behind the government's welfare policy focuses narrowly on those dishonestly claiming benefits, even though such fraud accounts for less than 1% of the money paid out. To punish that tiny, parasitical minority, hundreds of thousands of people – poor not because they're lazy but because of low wages, patchy, zero-hours jobs or rising food costs – are going hungry.

As for welfare dependency, on that logic any and all support is part of the problem: the minute you help someone, you risk making them dependent. The bishop of Bradford is surely right to argue that the government might as well be honest and "say ... we are prepared for people to starve and become destitute in order to achieve that longer-term goal" of ending welfare dependency. Like refusing to put out fires lest you encourage fire brigade dependency, it would at least have the merit of consistency.

The subtler argument from the right is the one that celebrates the food banks' admirable embodiment of communal self-help. Surely the church should be happy that neighbours, not some faceless state bureaucracy, are helping the hungry? Nice in theory, until you see the extreme pressure food banks are under, the days they run out of food, the fact that affluent areas often, and predictably, get more donations than the poor areas that need most. That's the trouble with a voluntary system, designed to give emergency help only: it cannot cope with what is a nationwide crisis.

The benign, big society view also fails to reckon with shame. I spoke to a Glasgow volunteer who told me she knows of men too proud to use their local food bank, who instead walk miles out of their way so they can get food for their families without being seen by their neighbours. They cannot afford the bus, and the walk home carrying bags of tins is hard, but it preserves at least some dignity. I learned too of the single mothers who fear visiting a food bank, thereby admitting they cannot feed their children, lest they be deemed incapable and their kids taken into care.

This was why Britons sought to put the Victorian era of charity behind us, why we decided that sometimes a state service is better: because there is less shame in claiming a nationally mandated benefit than in going to a church hall, being handed a food parcel and having to nod your head and say thank you.

Still, the shame is bearable if the alternative is you or your family going hungry. What has become of us, when that is the choice we offer our fellow citizens: dignity or food? And this in our wealthy, wealthy country.

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Why it’s a good time to be a dictator like Kim Jong-un | Jonathan Freedland

Horrors like those detailed in the UN report into North Korea aren't enough to get the world to do something. The response is shock, but then a collective shrug

In the early 1990s, when I was in my infancy as a reporter, the dominant international story was the war in the Balkans. Several of my peers made their names covering that war and were deeply affected by it. What motivated at least a few of them was not the desire simply to be on the front page or lead the evening news, but a passionate urge to let the world know what was happening. Several believed that, if only the world could see what they could see in Bosnia, then it would act.

Perhaps the authors of the latest UN report into human rights in North Korea felt a similar motivation. They can be satisfied that, thanks to their 372-page study, no one can now claim to be ignorant of the horrors committed in that place. They are laid out in stomach-turning detail: the torture, the deliberate starvation, the executions committed in a network of secret prison camps. The individual cases break the heart: the seven-year-old girl beaten to death over a few extra grains of food; the boy whose finger was chopped off for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the factory where he was forced to work; and, most shocking of all, the mother forced to drown her just-born baby in a bowl of water.

The report's lead author, like those old journalistic colleagues of mine, clearly hopes that now that the evidence is laid out, action will follow. "Now the international community does know," says retired Australian judge Michael Kirby. "There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn't know. It's too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action."

But how confident can Kirby be that action will follow? Any UN plan – even a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court – would hit the immediate obstacle of a Chinese veto in the security council. (China, after all, is implicated in North Korea's horrors: when people somehow manage to escape across the border, China's policy is to hand them straight back.)

It's a similar story in Syria. Less than a month has passed since a report laid out comprehensive evidence of the suffering of detainees at the hands of the Assad regime. That report, like the latest one on North Korea, detailed murder through starvation, beatings and torture – complete with photographs of emaciated bodies. Then, as now, the authors noted the chilling echoes with the Nazi crimes of the 1940s. Yet did that report spark a worldwide demand for action, with demonstrations outside parliaments and presidential palaces? It did not. Perhaps mindful that any call for UN action would be blocked by a Russian veto, the chief response was a global shrug.

Maybe this is what it means to live in the post-intervention era. Few even call for action – in North Korea or Syria – because we know it's not going to happen. In the 1990s, those outraged by the Balkan war could believe that, if they only shouted loud enough, they would eventually get the international powers to act – which, eventually, they did. Now, after Iraq and Afghanistan, that belief has vanished. In Britain, military planners have reportedly concluded that the nation is too war-weary to countenance yet more action. In the US, Barack Obama's foreign policy seems predicated on a similar assumption. Few speak now of the notion that once seemed set to reshape international relations, the "responsibility to protect".

It makes today a good time to be a dictator, a butcher or the torturing head of a brutal regime. The world will let you carry on killing – even when it knows exactly what is happening. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

These floods are washing away the founding logic of David Cameron’s government | Jonathan Freedland

By announcing that 'money is no object', the prime minister has performed the last rites on the notion of inevitable austerity

Men in wellies, talk of "grip", Cobra in near-permanent session: the politics of natural disaster has its own vocabulary, both visual and verbal. Repeated regularly is a set of maxims now seared into the soul of every Westminster special adviser: that a party leader cannot go abroad when the country is under water; that Bush's Katrina debacle showed what a delayed or tin-eared response to tragedy can do to a political reputation; that the prime task of all governments is to keep citizens safe, from the elements as much as from our enemies; and that while a national leader can survive being branded wrong or heartless, to be exposed by nature as fundamentally incompetent is a fate from which none can recover.

All those observations have had an airing in the current deluge, the latter lent extra sharpness by private polling which, I am told, showed voters giving the government dire marks for its handling of the floods thus far – and which in part prompted this week's show of command by David Cameron, including the cancellation of a trip to the Middle East.

Yet they obscure the moment in this crisis that may cause the prime minister the most lasting damage: the erosion not of the south-west coastal rail line but of the foundation stone on which this government was built – swept away not by raging waves, but by four words uttered by Cameron himself.

"Money is no object," he said, announcing that he would spend whatever it took to beat back these menacing waters. That's a promise that could haunt him. At its narrowest, it will surely be taken as a pledge to meet every possible cost, the PM casting himself as an unusually generous loss-adjuster to the nation. Never mind that the transport secretary later insisted there was no "blank cheque", residents being charged for sandbags to defend their sodden homes will wonder why the government isn't paying – after all, the man at the top has said money's no object. The same will go for the repair bill when at last the waters recede.

But that is the least of the damage that Cameron's words have inflicted on himself. For this government was built, the coalition formed, on a single, simple premise: that austerity was unavoidable, that there was no alternative. There could be no more spending, an assertion endorsed by the outgoing Labour government in what must rank as one of the most ill-judged jokes of modern times: "There's no money left," said Liam Byrne in a note left for his successor at the Treasury.

But now, less than four years on, it turns out that this is no longer true. The PM has told us that, should the need be urgent enough, there is money after all. Limitless supplies of it in fact; enough to defeat nature's wrath. To quote Cameron in full, "Money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed for it will be spent."

This rather undermines the austerity message, for it shows what was always true – that the national belt is not tightened universally and for ever but can be loosened when the government wants to loosen it. The last demonstration of that truth came nearly two years ago, when George Osborne cut the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p. That destroyed at a stroke the claim that we were all in it together, but it also illuminated a more obvious fact: that, despite all the "no alternative" talk, the government had not lost its power of discretion. Even in the age of austerity, it still got to decide what to spend money on and what not to spend it on.

By announcing that "money is no object", Cameron has delivered the last rites on what was the founding logic of the coalition: austerity, forced on the nation because there was supposedly no money left. Now we know that there's plenty of money – just so long as the government want to spend it.

From now on, the opposition will be able to ask why, say, the bedroom tax is necessary. If money is no object, why couldn't some more be found for those people in gravest need? As Stewart Wood, close adviser to Ed Miliband, tweeted: "Perhaps the PM could tell us which issues require a 'money is no object' approach & which ones demand an 'all in this together' approach." The veil of austerity has been ripped away, exposing politics for what it always was and is – the business of priorities. It seems repairing the homes of middle England is a priority; sufficient space for the disabled to live in, not so much.

But this is not the only havoc wrought by the floods on what passes for Cameron's governing philosophy. He used to be adamant that one of the fatal flaws of British politics was the belief that the only way to demonstrate one's seriousness about a problem was to throw money at it. There had to be a better way. Yet now that a crisis has struck, he proves his grip by pledging infinite cash. "It's a very Gordon Brown metric for showing that you care," smiles one shadow cabinet minister.

Promising big, well-funded state intervention may jar with Tory thinking, but it clearly fits the public mood. In this way too, Conservatives have surely taken a knock. Small-government ideology may fly in the thinktank seminar room, but when water's gushing through your letterbox, few people call for the Downing Street nudge unit. It's the fire brigade or, ideally, the army you want to see at the end of the driveway.

Crises make social democrats of us all. When G4S cocked up security at the Olympics, it was the military who came to the rescue – and whose presence Britons found so reassuring. For all the admirable community spirit on show now, when people feel under threat, it's not the "big society" but big government that they long for.

A larger hope would be that the experience of floods might translate into an intensified demand for action on climate change. That too could hurt a government that is divided on the causes – the influence of sceptic Nigel Lawson looms large, especially over Osborne – and which abandoned long ago its "vote blue, go green" promise. The winter of 2014 might produce a new constituency – rural, southern and affluent – for the message that cutting carbon emissions is humanity's most urgent challenge.

Either way, natural disasters are big, even epic, moments in the life of a nation. They can reshape the landscape, political as well as physical. And so far the greatest damage done is to those who like to believe they are in charge – even when the elements say otherwise.

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Ed Miliband has pounced on inequality – a make or break decision | Jonathan Freedland

If the Labour leader really thinks inequality is the topic to win him the election, he's taking a risk – but it may be worth it

The coverage of Ed Miliband's lecture in memory of Hugo Young – delivered at the Guardian building on Monday evening – has focused mainly on his alliterative promise of "people-powered public services". For most, the standout lines were a plan to give parents the power to call in a specialist team to turn around a failing school, and the pledge to give patients a say in changes to their local NHS service. For the Sun, the key takeaway was the Labour leader's admiration for Margaret Thatcher (it was her clarity of purpose he liked).

But what was perhaps most revealing of Miliband's thinking was the speech's emphasis on inequality. It was the starting point for his specific argument about public services, but he went further, suggesting the issue was now back on the agenda in its own right. He cited Barack Obama's State of the Union address last month, which referred repeatedly to inequality; the election of Bill de Blasio as the Democratic mayor of New York on a strong anti-inequality message; and even the recent pronouncements of Pope Francis. In conversation after the lecture, Miliband left no doubt that he regards inequality as the number one issue in contemporary politics, here and around the world.

That represents quite a shift. As the Labour leader told his audience, inequality has been off the political radar for decades. A check of, say, Bill Clinton's State of the Union speech in 1994 or Tony Blair's address to the Labour party conference in 2004 shows that the word was not uttered once. The preferred alternative has long been "fairness" – a term that is less threatening, suggests basic decency rather than ideology and that sounds, to put it at its most basic, less leftwing.

For Miliband, putting equality at the centre of his message has obvious appeal. He reckons that Labour have to clear two hurdles to win power in 2015. First, they must prove they are not a risk, that they can be trusted with power. Second, and less predictably, he believes Labour has to prove that they would make a genuine difference, that the three main parties are not all the same. Campaigning against inequality would certainly help meet that latter objective, distinguishing Labour from the coalition.

It would also add intellectual coherence and heft to the themes Miliband is already pursuing. His proposed cap on energy bills and emphasis on the cost of living have certainly won him a public hearing, even dominated the political conversation, but they only go so far. He does not want to be a consumers' champion; he is not running to be the editor of Which? magazine. He wants to be prime minister. For that, he needs to have a bigger story to tell. The fight against inequality could be that story.

To that end, he sees job insecurity, zero-hours contracts and the housing shortage as issues that might serve as a bridge – linking current anxiety about the cost of living with the larger question of the widening chasms between rich and poor which, as he said in his lecture, "scar our society and prevent the common life I believe in for our country".

Expect him also to argue in the coming months that there is a link between inequality and the stability of our financial system: if the middle is ever more squeezed, with families racking up huge levels of personal debt to cope, then that leads to financial instability.

The problems of this approach are multiple. For one thing, opponents from the right will say this confirms that Miliband is too big a risk to be PM, that under the surface he's still Red Ed.

More serious is that, by talking of inequality, he invites the obvious question: what are you going to do about it? He has no ready answer for that. What, for example, would he do about a Barclays boss who six weeks ago said he would only reward staff for performance – yet is about to pay out 10% more in bonuses even though the bank's profits are down 32%? That represents a bonanza of £2.38bn for Barclays staff in bonuses alone.

Miliband knows that a top 1% – or even a top 0.1% – soaring into the stratosphere, cutting loose from everyone else, is having a destructive effect on British society, warping, for instance, the housing market in London and the south-east. He believes he has to speak about it. It won't be easy; the risks are clear. But he is surely right to think politicians can ignore it no longer. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Alistair Darling accuses Alex Salmond of acting like a head of state

SNP conducting campaign of intimidation and abusing Holyrood powers to gag opponents of independence, says no vote leader

The leader of the campaign against Scottish independence has accused Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, of acting like a head of state and abusing the powers of the Holyrood government to silence opponents of independence.

Alistair Darling, the former chancellor who is now leading the Better Together umbrella group of Labour, Lib Dems and Tories against a breakaway, charges the Scottish National party with a nasty campaign of intimidation ahead of September's referendum and says it is exploiting its "power of patronage" to gag institutions, academics and artists who receive funding from the Scottish government.

He cited an unnamed businessman who had been set to make "quite a sizable donation" to the no campaign, only to withdraw the offer.

"He rang me up, very apologetically, saying he'd just had a call from someone in the Scottish government who'd got wind of this and who said, 'If you do this, you'll never work for us again,'" Darling told the Guardian.

"We know that people are leaned on. Wherever you go in [Scotland], you get people saying, 'It's been made clear to us that if you're not supporting [independence], say nothing.' They've been going round quangos reminding them that they've got to stay neutral and if they can't support the government policy, they should say nothing. It's just a nasty undercurrent."

Darling added, "You'll find it very difficult to find any Scottish university principals to speak out and when you ask them, they say, 'We've been told not to say anything.' They [the SNP government] are very clear. If you can't support us, you shut up."

He said that threat carried extra force in Scotland, "because the public sector is so big here. A lot of people depend on it." did not name any of those said to have been silenced.

The leader of the no campaign also accuses the SNP of "being quite ruthless about exploiting" the bureaucracy of the Scottish government to advance the Yes cause. He cites a Visit Scotland TV advert, officially aimed at promoting tourism to the country yet shown heavily inside Scotland. It ends with the slogan, "You too can say yes – I was there."

"We know what this is," Darling said. "This is TV advertising for their campaign. And Visit Scotland has been so suborned that they're going along with it."

The former chancellor says the launch of Scotland's Future, the white paper advocating independence, was funded by £800,000 moved from the budget of Scottish Water.

"It's unhealthy that they're able to control so much of Scottish life and they're getting away with it basically. They regard the Scottish government budget as being an extension of their campaign."

In a rare criticism by a politician of an individual civil servant, Darling said, "They're getting away with stuff – we'd have been stopped in our tracks by the civil service. He [Salmond] is very fortunate in his permanent secretary: he's incredibly accommodating." Sir Peter Housden is the permanent secretary to the Scottish government.

But the Better Together leader reserves his most acerbic language for the first minister. Asked if he would be happy to do a TV debate against Salmond, he says: "I will but I don't think he'll do it. Because he's very status-conscious. He regards himself as a head of state. As we say in Scotland, he's got a very good conceit of himself. He's very full of himself." © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

If I were a Scot, I might vote yes to independence. As it is, I can only plead with them to stay | Jonathan Freedland

Ignored for so long, it's little wonder so many in Scotland are straining to break away. But heaven help us all if they do

Even before David Cameron had opened his mouth, a Scottish friend of mine got in touch. "Today reminds me of an old joke," his email began, "about a pilot announcing that he'll have to make an emergency landing in the sea. Panicked passengers ask the flight attendant where the life vests are. 'Oh,' says the flight attendant, 'so now you're interested.'"

For Scots, especially those who have grappled with the question of home rule for 35 years or more, the British prime minister and the rest of the London political class have left it awfully late to start paying attention now. With just seven months to go till Scots vote yes or no to independence, the rest of the United Kingdom is like a husband whose wife has been threatening divorce for three decades – but waits till she's got a suitcase in her hand and her coat on before looking up from the couch to say: "Can't we talk about this?"

Cameron mentioned divorce in the speech – more a plea, really – that he delivered in the Olympic Park in London today, but this is not only about him. It's not even about the Westminster village, though it would be nice to dump all the blame there. We could throw in the media while we're at it (even the Guardian would not be exempt). But the truth is, the whole of non-Scottish Britain is implicated in this one. Wherever you look, the attention paid to Scotland's choice has been scant. And that's putting it nicely.

Cameron was right to say that the response of the country that could become rUK – the rump United Kingdom that will be left behind – on 19 September has consisted either of a two-fingered good riddance; a regretful sigh, resigned that there is nothing to be done; or else a neutral, unbothered shrug of the shoulders. The PM was surely right too that the first reaction – outright hostility – is rare. Lethargy and inaction dominate.

It's odd, this reaction. If France or the US were facing the possibility of losing of their landmass and a tenth of their people, you can bet they'd be at least curious. But here the apathy is deafening.

Some will say that's only because the prospect is not serious, given that polls show the no side comfortably ahead. If that's the explanation, it could be resting on a faulty premise. As the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, likes to point out, the last seven polls have tightened – in favour of yes.

More to the point, and as a series of conversations in Edinburgh and Glasgow this week demonstrated to me, previously hard ground is shifting in Scotland. Once solid unionists, including those from staunch Labour backgrounds, are at least considering voting for independence. Even activists for the save-the-union Better Together campaign admit that where there is movement, it is from no to yes: next to no one is moving in the other direction. Unionists also admit that in Salmond's SNP they face a rival that can summon deeper resources, more activists and greater enthusiasm, as well as a formidable on-the-ground operation.

But the shrug shown to Scotland by the rest of Britain is about more than a reading of the polls. There has also been a failure – and I include myself in this – to take seriously the motivation for independence. If London-based commentators like me have engaged in this debate at all, it's mainly been to make the case for the union and leave it at that. Too few of us have probed deeply into why so many Scots want to break away.

It's not about blue-faced loathing of Sassenachs. It's not about an easily patronised desire for passports, border fences and anthems. In fact, plenty of yes voters I spoke to understand that some of the traditional trappings of statehood won't be theirs anyway. The plan is to keep the pound and, as the governor of the Bank of England explained last week, that will mean "some ceding of national sovereignty", even a version of fiscal and political union. So this will not be independence in the classic, 19th century sense.

What's driving so many Scots to consider saying yes has less to do with their view of Scotland than what they believe has happened to Britain. Again and again, from people who would never describe themselves as nationalists, I heard the same story. Since 1979 Britain has been breaking away from what used to be called the postwar settlement. Led by an overdominant London and south-east, British politics has been tugged rightward. The prevailing ethos of the past 35 years has been one of turbo-capitalism, privatisation and a shrinking welfare state. Yes, the process was begun by Margaret Thatcher, but Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did little to stop it, and in some cases accelerated it. And Scotland wants no part of it.

Some have interpreted that as a claim to Scottish moral superiority. When we met in his Edinburgh front room, Alistair Darling, head of Better Together, condemned such "arrogance" along with the notion that somehow "the Scots are inherently better people". Perhaps some do conceal that belief in their talk of a distinct, Nordic-style culture of social democracy in Scotland. But the facts are the facts. And the facts say that, while UK politics can seem like a Dutch auction between the Conservatives and Ukip over who can bash Europe, repel immigrants or slash welfare with most vigour, Scottish politics is usually a competition for the terrain of the centre-left. This week the two main parties, Labour and the SNP, jostled over who has the best plan to scrap the bedroom tax. Meanwhile the SNP has a striking policy on immigrants: it wants more of them.

This, then, is what's driving so many Scots to consider making the break: a despairing fear that, given the way a few marginal seats in middle England can decide UK elections, Britain will never again return to the kind of social democratic values that still find a ready consensus in Scotland. It's not that the Scots are leaving Britain – it's that Britain has left them.

Viewed like this, the campaign for independence requires a different response from those outside Scotland. It is devilishly difficult, as Cameron's speech showed. That he delivered it in London highlighted the most obvious problem: that for the English to get involved immediately looks like hectoring from on high. When the case for the union is made by a southern English Tory public schoolboy, it simply reinforces everything yes voters want to get away from.

So perhaps the best approach for non-Scots minded to follow Cameron's advice, and phone a friend or relative north of the border, is to focus not on what the union should mean for them but what it does mean for us – to set out what we, not they, would lose if they voted yes.

The loss for Britain's progressives would be great indeed. Gone would be that tug leftward, that counterbalance to the politics of the overheated English south-east. This is not abstract. If Scotland goes, so too will 59 MPs for Scottish seats – only one of whom is currently a Conservative: the bloc that has made Labour governments possible. "No more Tory governments. Ever" is a current yes slogan. But a yes vote could mean the reverse for rUK: "Permanent Tory government. For ever." That will matter for an independent Scotland, especially one bound to this eternally Tory Westminster by a fiscal union. An independent Scotland might have less scope to be social democratic than it does now.

There will be another loss, too. "British" has become a capacious, even a generous, category. It hyphenates easily. Because it always stood for a plural, multinational identity, it is able, by definition, to accommodate difference: you could always be Welsh-British or Scottish-British, so now you can be Black British or Muslim British.

"Welsh" or "English" have not functioned the same way. That's not to say they can't. If the Scots leave the union, those left behind will have to make, say, "English" a looser, more inclusive category. But that is the work of at least a generation. And it will feel like building from scratch a house we built long ago.

So I no longer dismiss the Scottish yearning behind yes. If I were a Scot, I might well be leaning that way myself. But since I'm not, I can only plead with them to stay. I can see what they might gain by leaving. But it will be our loss.

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