The Scottish Independence Debate and England
I’ve just finished listening to a particularly unenlightening discussion of the UK’s constitutional future on BBC Radio 4 and, once again, I’m left despairing at the shallowness of the analysis. For a start, this is not just a debate about Scotland and England. There are two other nations in the United Kingdom which the BBC seems to conveniently forget. Beyond this, once the discussion turns to the old clichés around the hundreds of years of history the people of these islands share, it seems that the fact that several million people living in these isles happen to live in a state outside the United Kingdom called Ireland is forgotten.
However, the biggest failure of almost all the discussion I’ve heard so far is the lack of understanding that the current constitutional settlement with the UK is unworkable and that, in many ways, it is England, the only nation in the UK without a Parliament or Assembly, that will have to change the most in resolving this.
So the fact that Henry McLeish recently spoke out and put the case very strongly from a Labour perspective that the union is broken was really important. His advice to those campaigning against independence was that they shouldn’t simply seek to defend the status quo: “Instead of saving the Union, the key objective must be to change it because, in my view, the Union is not fit for purpose.” Simon Hughes then made a similar call for an English Parliament but was quickly slapped down by Nick Clegg.
So, particularly for the benefit of readers in England or elsewhere who may be unfamiliar with the details, why does the current model of devolved parliaments and assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales not work? Back in 1977 Tam Dalyell, former Labour MP for West Lothian and former Rector of Edinburgh University asked his famous question: “For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable Members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”.
The example he gave was that, as an MP for West Lothian he would be able to vote on matters affecting the English town of Blackburn, Lancashire, which would not be allowed to vote on things affecting Blackburn, West Lothian, in his own constituency under devolution. The practical consequences of this were seen in the last UK Labour Government where, despite being Health Minister, John Reid had no say in the health services provided to his constituents. This was less of a problem when the corresponding Scottish Health Minister was a Labour Party colleague like Malcolm Chisholm MSP, but becomes much more problematic when different parties are in charge.
Equally the financial arrangements, workable in the good times, are now a huge source of friction. The key is the Barnett formula, used to allocate money to Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland when new funding is announced in England (or England and Wales as appropriate). So when a Westminster Health Minister announces £350m new spending on children with disabilities in England, approximately £35m will be given to Scottish ministers (‘the Barnett consequential’).
Not only is the formula inherently opaque, it is also part of a wider pattern of financial decision-making where Westminster raises the cash, decides how to spend it in England and then thinks about other nations. This kind of ‘England plus’ model can also be seen in Scotland’s current tax powers, which are based on variations of the income tax rate set by Westminster. The other side of the lack of clarity is the English grievance about subsidies to whingeing Celts, and the moral hazard of spending without having to worry where the cash comes from.
All of these issues are in turn reflections of the underlying problem – Westminster’s dual role as the UK Parliament and English Assembly. It makes sense for Westminster to devise a new law or spending programme for England, and then think about other nations, because there is nowhere else to discuss England-only measures. This will, in practice, often be a poor fit for the other nations. While it is true that England is 85 percent of the UK by population, pointing this out to the other three nations will also cause irritation.
So what could be done to fix these interrelated problems of asymmetry, whether in representation or finance?
I would suggest that there are four options – full union, full devolution, full federalism and full independence (and I will leave it to Ali Thompson to make the case for full communism).
‘Full union’ would go beyond what you might call the partial unions of 1535/42, 1707 and 1922 and create a truly United Kingdom by doing away with anything that institutionalises separate national identities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Everyone and everything would become British. No more separate sports teams, separate flags, separate established churches or separate legal or education systems. Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast would stop being capitals. St Patrick’s Day celebrations would be outlawed, as would Burns night, English country dancing and the Eisteddfod.
Of course none of this could ever happen, the public outrage would be too great – but it would solve the West Lothian question! It isn’t completely without historical precedent – in many ways this is how General Franco tried to deal with Catalan, Basque and other national movements in Spain after he took power. However, the point of mentioning this possible arrangement is that unless you choose this option, you will end up having to work with, at the very least, parliaments or assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Given that, what arrangement might make the parliaments/assemblies work better?
My second option of ‘full devolution’ solves the problem of asymmetrical devolution by creating regional assemblies in England, perhaps with similar powers to the Greater London Assembly. This way everyone gets a tier of government under Westminster, dealing at least partially with the West Lothian question. However, this was tried under Blair, and there simply wasn’t the popular support. Crucially, although England does regional identities, they don’t create a neat list of similar sized bodies that can be given an assembly. While Yorkshire (and Humberside) is about the right size and has enough of an identity to possibly make it work, as Tony Blair found out, somewhere like the North East actually contains a mixture of Geordies, Wearsiders, Teesiders and Northumbrians. Cornwall has an identity, but is generally subsumed into a rather amorphous South West England. So, while this model has a great deal of apparent logic, it simply lacks the popular resonance to be sustainable in England.
The next option is currently trading as devo-max in Scotland, but I think in reality it would only be workable if it was adopted across the whole UK – creating ‘full federalism’. Devo-max is normally described as the Scottish Parliament taking responsibility for everything except foreign affairs, defence, national borders and the currency. But these issues would have to be decided somewhere – and could Scottish MPs really continue to attend Westminster on the current basis when so little of what was being discussed was relevant to their constituencies? Virtually every question would be a West Lothian question! However, without Scottish representation, how could a question, for example, about going to war be decided for the whole UK by Westminster?
I would argue devo-max would only work with a federal parliament for the federal issues (like defence) and four separate national parliaments. This would deal with most of the questions around symmetry, and it seems to me that there would be much more acceptance in England, though for many people on the left the idea of ‘England’ is an anathema. However, if you still want a United Kingdom of any sort this may be the only option that both has any internal logic and is likely to gain popular acceptance.
And then we come to independence. Apparently simple – after all, since 1990, 35 countries have become independent. However, the practicalities of disentangling the UK would be massive (but not insurmountable). How, for example, would the different nations cope with pension liabilities? Would payment of the majority of your National Insurance in Scotland entitle you to claim a pension in England, if that was where you happened to be working when you retired? Could Wales and England have separate asylum polices? What would the economy of an independent Northern Ireland look like? Regardless of any coherence brought by being (presumably) all part of the EU, something like the Nordic Council (perhaps based on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly would be required.
But as I said at the start, the national conversations in Scotland and Wales have been going on for a long time. The twists and turns of the national question in Ireland are well understood by the people of that island. But it is in England that the hardest thinking now has to take place: what do people in England want their constitutional future to be – and how is this to be negotiated? One thing is clear – England is going to have some kind of parliament (or regional assemblies) over the next few years.
The progressive left in England needs to engage with this reality now, to think through how any new bodies can ensure progressive voices are heard. But for many on the left the very idea of England seems inherently reactionary. The fear is that English independence, or even an English Parliament in a federal state, will lead to political domination by the right. But by not participating in and helping shape the debate about a post-Union future they make that future more likely. Rather than the progressive left in England throwing its collective hands up in horror at the thought of losing the votes of Scottish Labour MPs, they should be thinking about the ways in which this constitutional debate creates the opportunity to press for greater democracy and civic partipation. As Alex Salmond pointed out it might just be the propect of future elections to an English Parliament that convinces the Labour Party of the merits of proportional representation…