Denying the Scots the option most of them legitimately want puts our country’s future in danger

An article in the Financial Times by Janan Ganesh on Christmas eve, 2013, identified three main challenges to David Cameron during 2014:  the European parliament elections, in which the right-wing, anti-EU party UKIP is widely expected (not necessarily rightly) to come top, ahead of Labour and the Tories; the coming round of bankers’ bonuses, popularly regarded as unacceptable, and for which the government is likely to be blamed; and the widespread (but wholly unfounded) fear of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants ‘flooding’ into the country, ‘stealing jobs from British workers and driving down their wages’, now that the ban on their unrestricted right to come here has been lifted, something that will also be blamed on the government in the unlikely event that it happens.

This forecast seemed to me to omit a fourth looming challenge, potentially even more damaging — to Britain as well as to Mr Cameron — than the three listed by Mr Ganesh.  The FT published the following letter from me on 2 January 2014:

Financial Times, letters, January 2, 2014

An even bigger menace for Cameron in 2014

From Sir Brian Barder.

Sir, Janan Ganesh, in an otherwise characteristically perceptive article (“Labour’s agonies will prove hazardous for Cameron”, December 24) identifies May’s European parliament elections as “the most menacing event the government faces next year”, but he overlooks an equally hazardous prospect: the referendum on Scottish independence in September. Although current polling suggests a probable vote against independence, the negligent failure of the UK government to offer the Scots a constructive alternative to independence other than the status quo, with which very many Scots are clearly dissatisfied, risks a steady shift of opinion in Scotland in the next nine months that could easily result in a vote spelling the early disintegration of the UK.

There is no respectable reason not to offer what a majority of Scots obviously want, namely full internal self-government within an already semi-federal UK (admittedly implying eventual changes, long overdue, for non-self-governing England). The Liberal Democrats have hinted at support for such a policy but both Labour and the Conservatives seem too timid to risk even gingerly touching the nettle, still less grasping it. If the UK falls apart on David Cameron’s watch, he will surely pay a higher electoral price in 2015 for his delinquency than Ed Miliband, and that must represent a menace to the Tories at least as great as the European parliament elections, bankers’ bonuses or unfounded fear of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants.

Brian Barder, HM Diplomatic Service (Rtd), London SW18, UK

The referendum to decide for or against Scottish independence is to take place on Thursday, 18 September, in less than nine months’ time.  If the Scots vote to break up the UK and go their own way, the lion’s share of the blame should fall on the government at Westminster, headed by Mr Cameron, for his failure to provide Scotland with an alternative to both independence and the status quo, neither of which is wanted by most Scots (as argued in my FT letter), simply because the government of the day, which alone can act as well as talk, bears the primary responsibility for that failure to act in time to avert the disintegration of our country.

But an almost equal burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of Ed Miliband and the Labour party as the only party of the two with a significant presence in all three of Scotland, England and Wales.  If the three main unionist parties can’t agree on a promise of full internal self-government for Scotland in the event that the Scots reject the independence option, there’s no reason why Mr Miliband should not commit himself and his party to that promise, to be honoured if and when there’s another Labour, or Labour-led, government.  Such a policy might well meet stiff opposition from the Scottish Labour party, with its visceral hatred of the SNP in general and The Two Fishes, Salmond and Sturgeon, in particular.  But the stakes are too high to allow Scottish Labour to stand in the way of what may well be a necessary condition for the survival of the UK as a single sovereign country – especially when an offer of full internal self-government within an eventually fully federal UK is strongly desirable in its own right, and not just as a short-term gimmick to head off the independistas.

The temptation for Mr Miliband and his colleagues to do nothing, and hope for the best on 18 September, is clearly very strong.  But on the lowest level of electoral prospects alone, the consequences for the UK Labour party if Scotland secedes will be very serious. It’s not true, as often asserted, that without its safe Scottish seats Labour would never again be able to form a government in the rest of the UK:  Labour would be better placed than the Tories to take a lead in forging a new constitutional future for England in a new union with Wales and Northern Ireland, but it would require a huge effort to transform itself into a primarily English party.

Meanwhile doing nothing, which seems to be the posture of both the Labour and the Conservative parties, is just as much a policy option, with predictable potential consequences, as adopting the one brave and radical policy which stands a fighting chance of satisfying the legitimate ambitions of a majority of Scottish people, and which might thereby save the United Kingdom for our children and our children’s children.  Over to you, Mr Miliband.  Mr Cameron lacks the authority, imagination and courage to do what needs to be done.  That leaves you.


8 Responses

  1. Roland Smith says:

    Brian, I’m afraid you’re still not dealing with the big objection to your proposal, namely that the population of England is much bigger than those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.  At the 2011 census, the total population of the UK was about 63.2 million, of whom some 53 million (about 83.9%) lived in England.  Against this background, the traditional division of powers would not work, because foreign countries would not be willing simply to deal with the UK government, particularly if (as would be bound to happen at least some of the time) the government of England were of a different political complexion.  For example, if the UK were a federation, how could the government of the UK possibly claim to speak for the whole of the UK on environmental issues if the government of England chose to differ?  Of course the governments of Australia, Germany and the US (and those of other federations) also face this issue, but not to the same extent.  The most populous Australian state, New South Wales, has only 7.2 million people out of 21.7 million (2011 census), or 33.2%.  North Rhine Westphalia has 17.8 million out of 82 million (21.8%).  California has 38 million out of 313,914 million (12.1%).  I don’t think there is any federation anywhere in the world where one of the constituent parts has such an overwhelming preponderance of the people. 

    Brian writes: Many thanks for this comment and for basing it as much on facts as on opinions. I’m somewhat stung, though, by your charge that I’m “still” not “dealing with the big objection to your proposal, namely that the population of England is much bigger than those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.” On the contrary, I have been dealing with precisely this issue in detail and to the point of universal boredom for at least seven years and probably longer. Evidence? I invite you to glance at the following selection, which is by no means exhaustive, although it may be exhausting: — second half (Feb 2007) and (Feb-June 2007) (November 2007) — second quotation (Feb 2009) (July 2012, section headed “Objections to federation”)
    Also see Comment by ‘Gareth’ at

    So please forgive me for not repeating those arguments yet again here, even if you disagree with them. In any case, the arguments for an eventual federation of the four UK nations, while important and overwhelming, are not central to the issue discussed in my post, despite being mentioned in it. I don’t want this thread to be diverted from its core point, namely the pressing need for the principal UK parties to promise Scotland the completion of its devolution process, namely full internal self-government within the (already semi-federal) UK as a preferable alternative to full independence. The Labour party is apparently preparing a statement in March that will offer some further devolution of powers to Scotland if it stays with the UK, but I doubt if such a half-hearted offer will make a decisive impact on the result of the referendum in September. What’s needed to avert disaster is surely a firm promise of “full internal self-government within the UK“, nothing less. Why should Scotland have more limited rights to govern itself than, for example, California within the United States or New South Wales within the (federal) Commonwealth of Australia? There is no respectable argument against it.

    My only reservation about the likely efficacy of such a promise by UK Labour alone is that it will carry weight with Scottish voters in September only if enough of them think Labour is likely to emerge from the 2015 general election as the biggest single party in the house of commons. Unfortunately another article by Janon Ganesh in today’s FT argues all too persuasively that there are many precedents which make it highly unlikely that UK Labour will come first at the 2015 general election. All the more reason why all three of the main UK parties, not just Labour, should jointly sponsor a firm promise of full internal self-government for Scotland if the Scots vote No to independence. Alas, there’s not much sign of any such agreed policy.

  2. john sankey says:

    Roland Smith cannot think of a federation as disproportionate as England (53m) and the rest of the UK (10m). What about Tanzania – Tanganyika 45m, Zanzibar 1m?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, John. A very good point. As I have argued above, it seems to me that the greater the disparities between a group of nations sharing a single sovereignty, the greater the need for a federal system to protect the smaller members from being steam-rollered by the big one[s]. Disparity is not an obstacle to federation, but an argument for it.

    But can we now please get back to Scotland, the referendum and the future of the United Kingdom? The pros and cons of federalism are debated at length elsewhere on this blog, and of course in many other places too.

  3. Timothy Weakley says:

    “…all three of the main UK parties, not just Labour, should jointly sponsor a firm promise of full internal self-government for Scotland if the Scots vote No to independence.”

    Such a promise will undoubtedly be represented by the Fishes and their supporters as merely reflecting a state of panic among unionists, so not only the promise is needed but a full-blown public discussion to get electors on both sides of the border thinking about Federalism.  How does one direct the minds of the politicians, both at Westminster and at Holyrood, to this matter?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. If only! I suspect that our deeply conservative, risk-averse society would be quite scared enough by the idea of Scotland becoming fully internally self-governing: if you add to that the idea that it would be a step along the road to a UK federation, our brave political leaders would faint dead away — or else burst out laughing at the lunatic extremism of the proposal. When Ken Clarke, the most robust and daring of Tory front-benchers, was tasked with chairing a working group on Britain’s constitutional future, I wrote to him with a reasoned proposal of eventual federalism as the only logical culmination of devolution, the only way to keep the Union together and the only possible answer to the West Lothian Question, I had a cheery reply saying that he saw the logic of my proposal but had to say that it was far too radical to be a starter.

    I believe that anything approaching full self-government for Scotland would inevitably prompt demands for the same status by the other three nations, including England, and that the end result would be a federation, which would force even the Tories to work out what features of a federal system a UK federation would need. But if that’s advertised as the avowed objective of self-government for Scotland, it will kill the whole project before birth. The UK can be changed, but only incrementally, by slow pragmatic stages, without intellectuals making waves with talk of theoretical long-term objectives. I’m not suggesting that we should attempt to keep secret what some of us see as a desirable (perhaps inevitable) long-term aim, which would be absurd. But let’s take it one step at a time.

    I agree that a commitment to full internal self-government for Scotland would be mocked by The Two Fishes (Salmond and Sturgeon) and the rest of the independistas as evidence of panic on the part of the No lobby. But that will be their reaction to any positive, constructive move designed to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of a majorikty of Scots as a viable alternative to Scotland’s departure from the UK. We would just have to live with it. As to your parting question, I have no idea what the answer might be! We should just keep plugging away in all available forums — meetings, letters to the newspapers and to MPs, resolutions by local political parties, blog posts….

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    Even if the Scots do vote Yes, that can be no more than the expression of a wish and the beginning of a process. A Yes vote would have to be followed by negotiations by Edinburgh with both London and Brussels on the terms of independence from the UK and membership of the EU. Only after those negotiations had been concluded would there be a concrete proposal that would presumably have to be put to another referendum for final approval. It could be that in the course of that process views would change. I speak of negotiations with Brussels, but the Commission’s view at present is that it would not negotiate with any country that was not already independent. My opinion (and I stress that it is no more than that) is that even if the EU could be persuaded to offer a seamless transition for Scotland from the UK to independent EU membership (and that is a big if), that could only be on the basis of an irrevocable commitment to independence on a fixed date; otherwise the EU could find itself involved in a perpetually drawn-out process that might lead to nothing in the end anyway. But how could the wonderfully named Fishes (or anyone) negotiate in such adverse circumstances?
    A similar argument applies to Catalonia, but our leaders are so intent on denying reality and all its works that such argument is futile here.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Peter. You raise at least two fascinating questions: whether there should be a second referendum following a Yes vote in September and after the negotiation of the terms of separation between the Westminster and Holyrood governments: and whether the terms of Scotland’s accession to the EU could be negotiated with the Commission in Brussels, following a Yes vote in September, but before Scotland has actually become independent — i.e. during the time when the terms of separation are still being negotiated between Westminster and Holyrood. If the answer to the second question is No — i.e. if the EU negotiations could take place only after Scotland has become independent — Scottish voters will still be voting at the hypothetical second referendum partially in the dark, since they still won’t know what price they will have to pay to be allowed to join the EU — e.g. a requirement to join the €-zone, and submit to EU control of fiscal policy? and/or Schengen, which could mean a requirement to impose controls on the border with England? It would also imply a period, possibly protracted, during which Scotland would have become independent but would no longer be part of the EU, either as a component of the UK as at present or in its own right as a new EU member state. The only way out of this quandary, as far as I can see, is for the EU Commission to agree to negotiate the terms of Scotland’s entry before Scotland becomes independent but after a Yes vote in the September referendum. I’m sure you’re right to predict that the Commission would be extremely reluctant and might well refuse to take this course — to expend considerable resources on an accession negotiation with an entity that might never actually become independent (e.g. if there’s a second referendum to seek approval or rejection of the terms of separation negotiated with Westminster). What a lot of ifs!

    I have been arguing for some time that Holyrood and Westminster ought to have had a preliminary provisional negotiation, before the September referendum, of the main issues that would have to be settled between Scotland and the rest of the UK if there’s a majority of Yes votes, including such matters as the division of North Sea oil revenue and of UK national debt, the terms on which Scotland could retain the pound sterling after independence, the future of UK defence facilities in Scotland, and so forth, so that Scots would know the main outlines of what they would be voting for or against on 18 September. For different, obvious and in both cases disreputable reasons, neither of the two governments has seen fit to clarify these matters before the referendum. As a result, Scots will find themselves buying a highly unpredictable pig in a totally opaque poke when they vote in barely eight months’ time. It’s a mess.

  5. Peter Harvey says:

    Thank you for your enthusiastic response. For the second referendum I am extrapolating from the Spanish case. The 1978 Constitution was approved in a referendum, which is what gives it its legitimacy as the expressed will of the people and puts it above any law made by the Parliament in Madrid. Section 1.2. states “National sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people, from whom all State powers emanate,” thereby establishing the principle of popular sovereignty above the power of any State institution. Without going into details, this is why Catalonia is different from Scotland; any change to the Constitution must be approved by all the Spanish people, not just the Catalans. The Constitution got an extremely high vote in Catalonia of 91% of a 68% turnout, the highest in Spain I believe.
    You talk of Scotland ‘paying a price’ to join the EU. Negotiations involve give and take but Brussels will not see joining either the euro or Schengen as a price to be paid. Both would give Scotland access to a much larger area of involvement than is the case at present and would be perceived as advantages; the euro crisis has been almost entirely a multi-headed crisis in the eurozone rather than a crisis of confidence in the euro as a currency (despite the best efforts of the Bundesbank) as is shown by a glance at the exchange rates for the last few years. Anyway, membership of both the eurozone (as soon as is economically possible) and of Schengen are obligatory for all new members. The UK and Denmark, and the UK and Ireland, are the only countries with opt-outs from the euro and Schengen respectively and it is highly improbable indeed that any more will be conceded.
    A further point that the Scots and Catalans should bear in mind is that contrary to their expectations they will not be welcomed with open arms as new members. The EU is open to enlargement, though even Serbia and Montenegro are unlikely to join in the next decade, but the view in Brussels will be to wonder why they should spend time renegotiating the status of a small number of people (Scotland 1%, Catalonia 1.5% of EU population) who are already EU citizens and apparently just want to have their own commissioners and Council members and separate membership of other committees; this consideration would certainly weigh against any Scottish desire to maintain a special relationship with the country that it wants to separate itself from while establishing its independent presence in the EU institutions. Anyway, the Commission is already far too big with 28 members and there simply isn’t work for all of them The system that each country has its own commissioner was supposed to be broken by the Lisbon Treaty but Ireland objected and the issue was fudged to gain Irish support in the second referendum.

    Brian writes: Thank you once again. The Spanish analogue is certainly instructive.

    I’m sure you’re right in guessing that the EU Commission and other EU grandees would bridle at the idea that Scotland would be ‘paying a price’ for separate EU membership if required to join both the Eurozone and Schengen. Seen from the point of view of the Scots, however, both requirements would appear distinctly onerous, as I suggested in my earlier response. Joining the Euro would entail submitting to extensive EU (in practice German) control of Scottish fiscal and other policies, as well as being seriously damaging to commercial relations of all kinds between Scotland and England. This damage would be further aggravated if Scottish membership of Schengen led to the imposition of stringent controls on the English border, as it inevitably would. The government of rUK (the rest of the UK) would be bound to try to control movements of people into England across a land border with a country that by definition would be allowing free movement of people, not just other EU citizens, into its territory, including those who have entered (eg) Italy and Greece from outside the EU. The spectre of a requirement to show a passport, submit to security checks and change to a different currency in order to cross into England would seem to many Scots as extremely burdensome, probably so much so that ‘Scottish independence’ would lose much of its allure. These would amount to a steep price to pay, whatever the Brussels Eurocracy might think about it.

    The issue of currency has been widely discussed in Scotland, with the Two Fishes promising that Scotland would keep sterling, whatever the implications of that for continued control from London. But has there been adequate debate on the likely implications of Schengen?

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    It is also worth considering that if Scotland were in Schengen Ireland might reverse its position, leaving the UK passport union for Schengen. Where would that leave Northern Ireland? And what would people in Wales say?

    Brian writes: Thank you once again. I suppose there would be stiff resistance from the Irish republicans on both sides of the border to a move that would necessitate strict border controls between NI and the Republic. It would also seriously inconvenience the thousands of Irish people who at present can move freely across the border in both directions. And would Irish membership of Schengen have any beneficial practical effects for anyone?

  7. robin fairlie says:

     These discussions are extremely interesting (no irony intended) but the only thing that is actually valuable at the moment, and for the next eight months, is somehow to persuade the No campaign to find some positive message to convince voters in Scotland that a No vote might actually lead to an improvement in their affairs, rather than a resumption of the current sterile relationship between the two partners in the UK. Surely there is some way that intelligent views (such as yours) can be urged directly upon those who matter; at the moment my impression is that this excellent blog is simply talking in a vacuum, with no-one save its contributors listening…..Can anyone help?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Robin. I suppose all we can do to try to stimulate debate on these issues that might lead to the sort of action you and I urgently want is to keep on writing letters to the (UK and English) newspapers and to our MPs; to go to meetings on subjects connected with the referendum, however remotely, and speak up at them; and to keep on blogging, both here and by commenting on others’ blogs (according to GoogleB logs, there are some 777,000 of these commenting on Scotland and the referendum). Actually the considerable publicity being achieved now by the admirable Professor Linda Colley, with her book and daily radio talks and public lectures (see links in do seem to be making an impression….


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