ENGLAND is today standing at a crossroads as two very different men represent completely different visions for the future of the biggest constituent part of the United Kingdom.

On the one hand is a popular football player whose activism for charitable causes makes him the nearest thing to England’s moral compass.

In Marcus Rashford’s England the battle against poverty and for social justice outweighs other political considerations and he’s willing to stand up to powerful politicians to force them to support that agenda.

On the other hand we have a scheming political manipulator willing to say just about anything to control the direction the country is heading.

In this week’s astonishing interview with Laura Kuenssberg, Dominic Cummings more or less admitted to considering a political coup to oust a Prime Minister who had just secured a strong parliamentary majority. I think Boris Johnson is a terrible Prime Minister but at least people voted for him. No one voted for Dominic Cummings.

Rashford and Cummings represent two very different versions of England and it is far from clear which one is dominant. Does it even matter to Scotland, which is very much heading in its own direction and increasingly gives more consideration to leaving the UK than to influencing its future direction? We tried the influencing thing and it didn’t work.

But of course what happens in England continues to matter in Scotland because until we’re independent English voters continue to dictate who governs us and what policies they adopt.

Obviously, I believe Scotland largely feels more affinity with Rashford’s vision of England. Who didn’t cheer on his challenge to Boris Johnson to provide free school meals over Christmas, Easter and summer holidays?

But there’s a more troubling side to the country in which a million people signed the Manchester United player’s petition in support of the extended free school meals.

Because this is also a country where outbursts of racism followed Rashford and other players’ failure to score in a penalty shootout. Where a mural in honour of Rashford in Manchester was defaced within hours of England losing the Euro 2020 final to Italy, although offensive graffiti was very quickly covered up by fans’ messages of support and love.

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Rashford was under attack again this week, this time from the Spectator magazine, which he claimed was about to publish a story saying that he “benefited commercially” from his campaigning.

Yesterday it looked very much like Rashford would emerge the victor in a pr battle with the Spectator.

There has been a flood of tweets supporting the footballer. Gary Lineker was just one of those who described Rashford as “an inspiration and a hero”.

Many supporters made the point that it was hardly unusual for sports stars to sign commercial deals but it certainly was unusual for them to use those deals to alleviate child poverty.

It’s difficult to look at the Spectator’s motives in anything other than a negative light. Why try to discredit a public figure very obviously trying to do something which undoubtedly helps poor children? Rashford himself said on Twitter than his campaigns to provide food and books for children had inevitably given him a “larger commercial appeal”. How could it do otherwise? But it seems ridiculous to suggest that no one should ever campaign for any positive outcome because to do so raises their own profile.

If England’s response to Rashford has included a media backlash and racism as well as support and love that shouldn’t surprise us much. England has its fair share of regressive nutters but Rashford is proof that doesn’t need to define the country.

For some reason, though, England’s politics don’t seem to have caught up with many of its social attitudes. This week’s Cummings interview should have been a devastating blow not just to Boris Johnson’s premiership but to the Westminster political culture.

Which revelation in the Cumming interview was the most breathtaking? Johnson’s cavalier attitude to Covid deaths because most fatalities were people in their 80s ? Cummings saying that anyone still thinking Brexit is a good thing must “have a screw loose” … before insisting that Brexit was a good thing? Cummings’ discussions with his allies about ousting Johnson from Number 10 just days after the 2019 general election?

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And then there was news that Johnson’s government threatens to change the Official Secrets Act to make it possible to jail journalists who print stories that embarrass the UK Government. If that threat comes to pass The National will have no staff left to work on the paper.

It wasn’t just Shetland star Douglas Henshall who suggested that threat was “actual fascism”.

And yet, nothing seems to dent Johnson’s popularity south the Border.

The opinion polls continue to back the Prime Minister despite all the evidence that he is a charlatan. The fact that so many English voters persist in wanting him in power is deeply worrying for Scotland as long as it is shackled to the UK.

The fact that politics in Westminster has descended permanently into backstabbing power plays rather than any ambitions to improve people’s lives should underline the need to build a better system.

LET’S be frank; England doesn’t have to be in the grip of racists, right-wing fanatics and enemies of free speech for me to believe that Scotland’s best future depends on it becoming an independent country.

Rashford could be Prime Minister and free school meals during holidays could be enshrined in law and I’d still want Scotland to be free to make its own decisions based on its own priorities and values.

The best arguments for independence are those based on the positive advantages it would bring and the natural resources we have which would allow us to thrive, prosper and redistribute our wealth more fairly.

But we also need to recognise the threat the Westminster system poses to our ability to achieve that potential. Boris Johnston is a terrible Prime Minister. He deserves to be shown the door for his catastrophic handling of the pandemic alone. Dominic Cummings has had a terrible influence on the way the UK government does its business. He has undermined trust in the motivations of those who wield power.

Another Prime Minister, with another chief adviser, would certainly improve matters but would do nothing to change the fundamental flaw in the UK.

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Despite years of devolution, the manifest failings of UK politicians in England can still drag Scotland down and can still dilute the powers of our own parliament whenever it deems it fit.

That’s why England still matters to Scotland. What matters even more is that we have no ability to influence its actions, and in particular those actions which have a direct impact on our lives. Only independence can give us that ability … no matter who is in Number 10.