The Patch

January 18, 2007

State of the Union, part 2.

Filed under: Politics — freshlysqueezedcynic @ 2:38 pm

Yesterday, I talked about the history of the Union up to the devolution settlement, and how the circumstances of the Union itself helped shape both modern Scotland and, more importantly, modern Scotland’s attitudes to the Union. Now, I’m going to look at the post-devolution settlement, if you can call it settled, that is. Which you can’t.

The wonderful thing about the Scotland Act of 1998 is that it encapsulates the New Labour ethos in one piece of legislation; seemingly radical, progressive and reforming, whilst actually being conservative, timid, and doing an exceedingly half-arsed job to boot, constitutionally speaking. The problems created by the devolution settlement are as big as the problems they were meant to solve; the problem the Scots no longer feeling they were equal partners in the Union, but just another region of an overcentralised British state.

The problems created by devolution are to do not with the Scots themselves, but with English attitudes to devolution, which in many cases are entirely fair, since New Labour’s devolution settlement was pretty half-arsed. The English view of the Union was quite different (and, indeed, remains so) to that of the Scots, especially in the beginning. They recognised that the Scots saw themselves as equals, but (some could say justifiably) as the largest, wealthiest partner, the English saw themselves as the leaders of the Union, with the Scots being honoured to find themselves in such a glorious undertaking. Whilst Scottish nationalist talk of “colonial oppressors” is beyond laughable, especially since some of the foremost opressors of Scottish people in the 18th century were other Scots (see the Highland Clearances), there was quite definitely more than a little feeling amongst the English that English values were British values. It is not for no reason that it was the Westminster Parliament’s structure and doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of Parliament that emerged unscathed from the Act of Union, whilst the structure and practices of the Scottish Parliament faded into the ether.

As far as the English were concerned, this was not a meeting of equals, but an opportunity for both nations to get over their feuds and concentrate on themselves. The Scots could develop, the English could get on without worrying if Jock Tamson and his bairns were going to stab them in the back. But of course, this leads to the problem of what happens when Scotland tries to assert its’ claim to be on a par, on an equal footing with England? To the English, it is obviously over-representing itself, obviously trying to gain more from the Union than it deserves, to the detriment of the Union and at the expense of English development.

And thus to the problem we have now. The Scots have a Scottish Parliament. The English have a British Parliament. From this, all other problems develop. The Scottish Parliament has a significant negotiating ability, a working relationship and a democratic remit with the British Parliament that the British Parliament has to recognise, lest it lose the Scottish people entirely, and that English local councils can only dream of having. The Scots have always had this significant negotiating ability with the Scots Office to “fight the Scottish corner”, as I said before, but it was never so visible as it is now that the Scottish Parliament controls most domestic matters in Scotland. If the Scottish Parliament has definite value to the Scots as a symbol of Scottish self-determination, it also has value to English nationalists as a symbol of Scottish over-representation.

Related to this is the ultimate argument over funding. The argument over the way Scotland is funded (by the Barnett fomula, which means that Scotland gets a fixed percentage of any public spending based on relative population with England; a temporary expedient that was kept on and developed into tradition, as is so common in British politics) is related to this fundamental clash of viewpoints on the Union, the Scots wanting to be treated like an equal national unit to England in terms of funding, but the English viewing it as an unfair advantage on the part of the Scots that removes money that could be used for English development. The funding situation is exaggerated by the English, in general; The Herald recently noted that the spending gap between Scotland and England has closed significantly over the past decade or so, and it is near close to parity, whilst Scottish nationalists note that South-East England receives massive public subsidy and competitive advantage simply by being the location of almost all functions of central government, of which there are many in a centralised state. But the Scots play down the iniquities; other regions which have similar economic problems, such as the North-East, receive significantly less than what Scotland does, because there is no North-East Office, no administrative devolution with enough power to fight their corner.

There is also the problem of the West Lothian Question. Named for the Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, who was a severe critic of devolution in the 1970’s, when it was originally floated, it poses a simple point; why should Scottish MP’s vote on affairs in the UK Parliament which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and therefore only affect England and Wales? The arguments against the West Lothian Question are mealy-mouthed; noting that in many cases, especially because of the sheer size of England, English acts will always have effects on Scotland, and in many cases it is difficult to show a purely Scottish or purely English Act. But these do not address the fundamentalpoint itself; a point of over-representation in English affairs. (I note the irony of it being a Scot who came up with the point in the first place; my use of “Scots” and “English” are, as they have to be, generalisations, although not gross ones.)

How does one get past these inequalities, whilst still preserving the Union? The idea floated of banning Scots MPs entirely from votes on devolved matters is equally problematic, because it creates in effect two classes of MP’s, not to mention the problem of creating a reverse West Lothian, since as I said above, England, as the largest and wealthiest nation by far, has a profound effect on Scotland with anything it does. An English Parliament in a federal Britain would be equally problematic, since England would be again so large that it would completely dominate a federal structure, which kind of undermines the point. It seems to me like the fairest structure would to have many English regional parliaments as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a federal structure.

But here, of course, lies the problem. Though a federal, regional British state would be fair, and it would be in my mind a significant improvment from the archaic structure of the current Union, the Scots don’t see themselves as just another region of the UK. They see themselves as equals with England, as part of a partnership in the Union, and as such get severely annoyed when they are treated as such. (Hence the Conservatives’ flatlining position in Scotland for the past 15 years, a trend which looks like it will continue) Whether or not they are justified to think of themselves as equals in a partnership, that is how the Scots see themselves, and any Union will have to take that into account. But it also has to take into account English claims of Scottish overrepresentation, and it may be that the pressures between the English and Scottish viewpoints on the relationship they share in the Union are so divergent at this point that the political structure will not survive the pressure it is put under. The Scots are not yet convinced about independance, but they are seriously contemplating it, as can be seen by the lead the SNP have over Labour in recent polls and a slim, slim lead for independance in some. And the English, tired of accommodating the Scots, seem to want to let them go. The Union is no longer the be-all and end-all of Britishness (or Englishness).

But is this so bad? I don’t think so. I have mentioned that I don’t think much of the British State as it is, essentially a state unchanged from the 17th century with universal manhood suffrage bolted on. Whilst the flexibility of the British constitution has given us political stability, a history free of total revolution and major civil strife since the English Civil War, it may be that the price for that stability has been letting so many archaic practises and ancient doctrines pass unchallenged that we inherit a state that is positively geriatric, unfit to face the modern world. The breakup of the Union may be a catalyst for both Scots and English to look at the way their respective states are formed, and think of other ways of improving them, a radical step which produces radically different states. A fresh start for both parties, rather than a messy divorce. And isn’t that what matters?


I just realised I gave no real sources for this post, which was a mistake. This is largely because it is based on books that I have read over the last year. On the matter of devolution, I drew heavily on the work of the Constitution Unit of UCL, and on the history of Scottish feelings on the Union, the book “The Autonomy of Modern Scotland” by Lindsay Paterson was the main source. I also picked up many things from recent editions of The Herald newspaper; however, it only has a limited archive.



  1. I just wanted to say that you have succeeded in getting me interested in this… I have no clue about politics what so ever… and even my best friend doing her dissertation on the policies of the SNP didn’t get me remotely interested… but you have succeeded in these 2 articles. Well done 🙂

    Comment by Emma — January 27, 2007 @ 11:36 am | Reply

  2. I know this is an old post so I will understand if you don’t read this, but it has recently appeared on the WordPress automatic related posts from my blog. And I thought I would comment, as an English nationalist who on the whole agrees with your conclusions.

    Whatever the Herald has calculated, the Barnett formula still provides for 20% higher identifiable spending per head in Scotland compared to England. This takes no account of either revenue raised or need. I think Scotland would get slightly more than England on need, maybe on revenue, depending on oil prices. But the existing formula is just arbitrary.

    As for creating two classes of MP. I believe devolution has already done that. Those whose constituents are affected by all legislation (English) and those whose are only affected by some (Scottish). It is no coincidence that MPs from Scotland are least likely to rebel, they will not be punished at the ballot box for tuition fees or foundation hospitals.

    The statement that England would dominate a federal Union is often repeated, and by those who know more than me so I will assume it has some basis in truth. But a true federal system has clearly defined and separated areas of responsibility. It need see no change in Scotland at all, with Westminster and the Scottish parliament retaining the same powers. You can see why an English nationalist feels this is an excuse for Scottish inteference in English affairs. The same argument could be made for any nieghbouring countries to sit in each others parliament.

    I think you raise an interesting point when you talk of the Scots seeing themselves as equals with England. How we both define this equality may determine how English and Scottish people interact politically. It may even be the most fundamental point!

    We English nationalists in many ways believe Scotland as a nation should be equal to England as a nation. On the other hand obviously you can’t say 5 million Scots = 50 million English, unless you believe (no doubt many do!) one Scot to be worth 10 English.

    You mentioned the regional federal solution, and Scots refusing this as it equates them with an English region. Strangely the English (at least the nationalists) also see themselves as losers in this solution, with Scotland kept whole as a “proud, historic nation” (Tony Blair’s words) and England subdivided into arbitrary regions. But then the idea of treating England and Scotland both as nations within a federal structure has been dismissed already.

    To see three of the UK regions, Scotland, Wales and NI chosen because of historic claims of nationality, (well NI is complicated!) and England divided into arbitrary regions of the same size as Scotland, for the convenience of the other nations – well I am sure you can imagine how that looks. And as you mentioned Scotland would go from a specially recognised nation to a UK region, even with no change in powers.

    The problem of course is that we consider ourselves to be separate nations. If we all felt British we’d be happy in a British parliament. When we draw the line at Scottish, Welsh, English, no-one feels truly represented by a British parliament, with others intefering in our affairs.

    A nationalist need not believe in unchanging cultures or strict definitions of nationality. The belief that the fairest and most democratic method of decision making relies on consent as well as majority voting, that a group with enough common identity to consent to share a political system can constitute a nation, and that the nation state is the best level at which sovereign power should be exercised, is one definition of a (political) nationalist.

    All though you wouldn’t describe yourself as a nationalist, I recognise (and salute) many of the arguments of nationalism in the case you make.

    Comment by secretperson — July 29, 2008 @ 8:16 am | Reply

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