Is this the end of the United Kingdom? It needn’t be, if only…

Easily the most significant and daunting feature of last week’s elections and AV referendum was the sensational victory of the Scottish National Party, with an unexpected overall majority in the Scottish parliament and a commitment to the secession of Scotland from the UK.  Alex Salmond, SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister, has promised a referendum on Scottish independence during the second half of his five-year term, i.e. 2014 to mid-2016.  This poses the greatest potential threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom since the second world war.  Responding to this challenge to save the country from disintegration demands a radical programme of constitutional change that seems likely to be beyond the courage and imagination of our political leaders at Westminster.  Compared with this, the referendum on AV and the future of Mr Clegg are mere entertainments.

Media reactions in England have broadly been twofold:  either that according to opinion polls barely a third of Scots want independence, so the SNP’s referendum will fail, and there’s nothing to worry about; or else that the SNP have enough time to bring enough Scots round to voting Yes in the referendum, which will accordingly and irrevocably spell the end of the UK in just a few years’ time. A third theme is that the SNP’s fiscal and social policies are so manifestly unaffordable, with the promise of continued free university education for Scots (and EU citizens other than the English, Welsh and Northern Irish), free prescriptions, free care for the elderly, a freeze of council tax, etc., that the SNP government will soon be exposed as irresponsible and incompetent, and obviously incapable of governing an independent Scotland. All these forecasts need sceptical examination.

On the prospects for the SNP getting a majority for independence in a referendum in, probably, three or four years’ time, it’s dangerous to underestimate Mr Salmond’s remarkable skills and powers of persuasion.  He’s extremely canny, taking a shrewd long-term view; charismatic and likeable, even by those who distrust him and reject his policies and objectives and risky exploitation of nationalistic passions;  witty, quick on his feet, and — perhaps most potent of all — optimistic and up-beat.  A Scottish friend, long resident in England, described him to me as a politician who

would have made a formidable leader of the Labour Party (at Westminster, that is).  A good deal more formidable than the present incumbent, indeed. His chiefest asset by far is that he so clearly enjoys what he is doing – whether that be governing Scotland or pissing off Westminster. He is also genuinely funny, and hard not to warm to – quite a combination. [1]

He’s probably the most capable and effective politician in Britain today.  He has been running a minority government with considerable flair and success, despite having been constrained by the risk of being voted down on every controversial issue by a numerically superior opposition.  Now he has an overall majority and can do whatever he likes, subject only to the need to woo and satisfy Scottish public opinion.

Mr Salmond is already seeking greater fiscal powers through amendments to the Scotland Bill now going through parliament at Westminster: extensive borrowing powers, increased scope for varying income tax, power to reduce or raise corporation tax, a share of oil revenues.  Scotland will gain additional funds from the transfer of certain sources of income from Crown Lands;  and we can expect a fierce struggle over Scotland’s claim to the lion’s share of the income from North Sea oil, around 80% or more of which is in waters which would be Scottish if Scotland were an independent state.  As long as oil prices remain sky-high, oil revenues would in principle be more than enough to pay for tuition fees, prescriptions, and the freezing of council tax[2].  Of course before Scottish independence, or even after it, no government at Westminster is likely to hand over the bulk of its oil revenues just because Mr Salmond asks for them, however politely.

But Mr Cameron, or indeed any UK prime minister, is going to be in a dilemma.  The more toughly he rejects Mr Salmond’s demands, the more unreasonable and oppressive the English will appear to Scottish public opinion, and the more potent the effects on the result of the independence referendum.  The SNP will be given the perfect excuse for any fiscal or economic failings.  If, on the other hand, Mr Cameron accedes too readily to the more modest of Mr Salmond’s requests for greater fiscal autonomy, he’ll be giving the SNP government the opportunity to demonstrate that its generous social policies, contrasted with the coalition’s assaults on the welfare state south of the border, are affordable, and that the Scottish government has the necessary skills to run a viable independent Scotland.  This is going to be a no-win situation for the Conservative-led coalition at Westminster unless Mr Cameron can prove himself even cannier than Mr Salmond.  Mr Cameron has pledged to fight to keep the United Kingdom together “with every single fibre that I have”[3].  Whatever he might mean by his ‘single fibre’,  he may have his work cut out to succeed.

However, even if the referendum, when it comes, produces a clear majority for independence, that won’t and can’t be the end of the story.  No British government is likely to ignore the will of a majority of Scots expressed in a referendum, but the terms of the divorce will have to be agreed by both sides, and their negotiation will provide ample scope for disagreement, delay and dispute.  We can expect that after losing the independence referendum, any government at Westminster would take every opportunity to impose the harshest and most ungenerous terms, in the hope of impressing on the Scots that independence would cost them dearly, that they might have made the wrong choice, and that they could still change their minds.  Mr Salmond however will see the way round that danger:  he will try to pin down the UK government on the terms it will offer for the divorce ahead of the referendum, thus presenting Mr Cameron (or his successor, if we’re lucky) with the same dilemma.  If his terms are unduly harsh, anti-Westminster and anti-Tory sentiment in Scotland will be hardened and a consensus for independence encouraged;  if his terms are too generous, the independence option will seem the more attractive.

One joker in this pack is often overlooked.  Mr Salmond promises a third option in his referendum in addition to “Yes” or “No” to full independence: “devolution max”, or full fiscal autonomy for Scotland within a sovereign United Kingdom [1] [4].  This will not only complicate the interpretation of the result of the referendum (what if each of the three options wins around a third of the votes cast?  will voting be by AV or first past the post?):  it also presents a problem for the UK government.  Should Westminster offer to grant “devolution max” if the Scots vote for it in preference to independence, given that it would at least avert the disintegration of the United Kingdom, or should it state, ahead of the referendum, that this option is simply not on the table, forcing the Scots to choose between full independence and the status quo?  The latter would represent a reckless gamble, and as such it might appeal to Mr Cameron;  many in Scotland and the rest of the UK would think it unforgivable to exclude in advance what might prove to be the least bad result.  More on this in a moment.

There’s a naive tendency on the part of some commentators to assume that a Scottish vote for full independence will be the end of the story.  In practice it would only mark the opening of a new chapter of demands, conditions, bargaining and recrimination.  One of the most difficult matters requiring agreement between Holyrood and Westminster would of course be the division between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK of government revenues, including especially revenues from oil, and government debt.  If the Scots had voted to break their ties with the rest of the UK, no Westminster government would see any need to be unnecessarily generous on this, and anyway English public opinion might preclude generosity.  Would the Westminster government be willing to sponsor an independent Scotland for membership of, for example, the UN and the EU, and if so on what terms?  The EU in particular, smarting from the cost of bailing out some of its bankrupt smaller members, might well impose ferocious conditions of fiscal austerity on a Scottish application for membership, noting the role of the Scottish banks in the recent banking crisis.  (The notion, voiced in a recent Guardian letter[5], that both Scotland and the rest of the UK would have to apply to join the UN or the EU in their new independent identities is entirely fanciful:  Russia automatically inherited the Soviet Union’s UN membership when all the other Soviet constituent republics seceded, without the need for a fresh application, and UK membership of international bodies would not be affected by Scottish secession, even in the unlikely event — predicted in the same Guardian letter — of the UK being obliged to change its name after Scotland’s departure.)

Other almost insoluble problems would arise from Scottish independence, most of them requiring resolution before independence could take effect.  What would be the citizenship status of the thousands of Scots living in England and elsewhere in the UK:  would they become foreigners in what most would still see as their own country?  What would happen to the Scottish regiments of the British army, and to other Scots serving in the UK’s armed forces?  Would all those expatriate Scots throughout the world be allowed to vote in the referendum?  Would English people living and working in Scotland vote in it?  Would an independent Scottish government require the closure of UK naval and military bases in Scotland, notwithstanding the economic disaster that such closure would inflict on local communities — not to mention the damage the demand for closure would inflict on infant Scottish-Westminster relations?  Would Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland watch passively while Scotland broke away from the United Kingdom or would there have to be some new negotiation of the status of Northern Ireland’s position in the rump of the UK?  Mr Salmond envisages that an independent Scotland would wish to continue as part of the English Crown’s realms, but would the English monarch, acting on the advice of Her English (and Welsh and Northern Irish) ministers at Westminster, meekly and automatically comply with that wish — and would it require the consent of all the Queen’s other realms as well?  Mr Salmond also wishes to maintain sterling as the currency of an independent Scotland:  how much say would he have to be given in its management?  Negotiation of answers to all these and a thousand more practical questions could well take years before Scottish independence could become a reality; and in that time, who knows what changes in Scottish public opinion, indeed what changes in the régime at Holyrood, might take place under the impact of the problems that would emerge?

Meanwhile a factor that could exercise a negative influence on the referendum result is mounting anti-Scottish sentiment in England, prompted by envy of Scotland’s self-government under devolution (still indefensibly denied to England);  by the largely unjustified conviction that Scotland’s ability to do without prescription charges, to freeze council tax and to provide free university education to its people is all at the expense of the English taxpayer;  by resentment of what’s represented as Scottish ingratitude to the generous English in seeking to break up the United Kingdom;  and even by a Little Englander supposition that England would be better off without the need to go on subsidising the pesky, demanding and rebellious Scots.  As the Guardian’s Michael White says in a characteristically trenchant blog post,

I love it when the egocentric London newspapers periodically remember that there’s a place called Scotland somewhere to the north of the M25 and either get into a huff about its demands or say – with equal silliness – that England should sever its ties and good riddance

— except that I personally don’t love it at all:  I despise it.  This infantile and demeaning prejudice against Scotland would be boosted by any concession on the part of the Westminster government to Scottish demands for much greater fiscal and other autonomy as the price for forgoing full independence, while England, alone of the UK’s four nations, continues to be denied even the basic building-blocks of self-government, namely its own government and parliament.  Continued adamant refusal by anyone at Westminster even to contemplate devolution for England may limit the extent of any concession to Scotland of substantially more fiscal and other autonomy than it already enjoys.  That in turn could turn the Scottish tide in favour of a majority vote for full independence, the almost certain prelude to the eventual break-up of the United Kingdom, with formidable implications also for Northern Ireland.

What conclusions should the government at Westminster draw from this complex of problems and decisions?  First, it’s no good blaming devolution.  Devolution was devised (mainly by Scots) as a means of heading off growing demands for full Scottish independence, and we can now see that it has failed in that purpose.  But it has not failed through any fundamental defect in the concept of devolution: it has failed, so far, because weak and narrow-minded leadership by all three of the main parties at Westminster has failed to push devolution to its inevitable and logical conclusion, namely full internal self-government for all four of the UK nations (yes, including England), leaving the government and parliament at Westminster with only those powers which are bound to be exercised centrally and which can’t be devolved — principally foreign affairs, foreign trade and defence.  There’s a name for that kind of constitutional settlement:  it’s called a federation.  Not only would it require a government and parliament for England, and a significant reduction of the powers of what would become the federal government and parliament at Westminster: it would also require a written constitution setting out the powers and functions of the respective tiers, written constitutions for each of the four constituent nations, and probably a Senate on the lines of those in the US and Australia, with equal representation for all four nations regardless of size or population, to prevent the federation being unduly dominated by the disproportionately numerous English — a protection conspicuously missing from our existing constitutional arrangements.

All this, especially the creation of autonomous governing organs for England, would take many years to accomplish.  It would also take an imaginative leap on the part of our political leaders, and a willingness to exercise bold leadership in order to gain the consent of public opinion throughout our instinctively conservative and sceptical kingdom, a degree of imagination and leadership that look to be well beyond the talents of our existing national politicians.  But, like it or hate it, we are already half-way to that federal destination, having by now become, whether or not intentionally, what Professor  Bogdanor calls a “semi-federation”.  This is a process which, like riding a bike, you can’t suddenly suspend in its half-finished state without producing increasingly itchy and distracting anomalies and problems.  The West Lothian Question encapsulates the most pressing of these.  There can be only one durable and democratic solution both to the West Lothian Question and to the plethora of problems raised by the overwhelming electoral victory of a secessionist party in Scotland:  the completion of the devolution project, and the conversion of the relationship between the four nations of the United Kingdom into a full-hearted federation.  Waiting to be recognised and adopted, here is a far-sighted, generous, optimistic, inspiring and democratic programme to match and surpass the narrow, nationalistic vision of Mr Alex Salmond.  Does Ed Miliband, searching for a way out of the mess that Scottish Labour has got itself into and for the Big Idea that could re-launch the British Labour Party as the party of change and reform, have the imagination and courage to pick up the federal ball and run with it?  The mere adoption by a major political party of federalism as a long-term aim for the whole of the United Kingdom would transform forever the whole context in which a Scottish independence referendum would be held.  What alternative is there, other than the disintegration of our country?

I have to declare an interest.  I am English, but I regard Scotland as being as much a part of my homeland as Dorset or London:  in the sense that JFK declared himself a Berliner, I am a Scot (and a Welshman and Northern Irish) too.   Britain without Scotland would be an unfamiliar and unattractive land.  I could never regard my Scottish friends as foreigners, or think of visiting Edinburgh or Glasgow as going abroad.  Scottish secession would be a kind of amputation.  There has to be — there is — a better way.  Come on, Mr Miliband:  take the plunge:  the water’s lovely!




[1] “If only someone had managed to get Alex Salmond to grow up, he would have made a formidable leader of the Labour Party (at Westminster, that is). A good deal more formidable than the present incumbent, indeed. His chiefest asset by far is that he so clearly enjoys what he is doing – whether that be governing Scotland or pissing off Westminster. He is also genuinely funny, and hard not to warm to – quite a combination.

“What those opposing independence need to take on board is that it is essential not to run a purely negative campaign – eg one based on the experiences of Ireland and Iceland, for example. Salmond’s campaign will be positive, optimistic, forward-looking, inspiring – and the opposition needs to be on a par.

“It appears unlikely right now that he will win an independence vote – which is of course why he has announced the intention of putting a further, compromise, question on the ballot: that way his chances of being on something he can represent as the winning side are greatly increased.”
[Scottish expatriate living in London (private message)]


[2]”[Mr Salmond’s] tactic will be to blame any budgetary problems he has, and he certainly will have them, on the Coalition in London and its attempt to cut the UK deficit too fast and therefore cut the Scottish block grant.  Having stoked up a fair amount of ire against Westminster policies he will then have the referendum.  He will also blame Westminster for not letting him have all the fiscal powers he wants, notably oil revenues and power to reduce corporation tax.

“… Scotland has public expenditure per head about 16 per cent above the UK average, much the same as London, less than Northern Ireland but more than Wales or the two northern regions of England.  Tax revenue per head is about the UK average if North Sea oil is excluded.  So there is a deficit.  But if some 80 per cent of North Sea revenues came to Scotland that approximately fills the deficit so long as the oil price remains high.  In the past, on this basis, Scotland would have been in colossal surplus in the first half of the 1980s but in deficit for much of the 90s when the oil price came down.   …

“I do not expect the Scottish Government to become insolvent.  …  But their commitments certainly raise an affordability problem.  [There is an obvious problem over the pledge to maintain free university tuition for Scottish and EU students (but not those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland).]  The gap there will be about £300 million and the Council Tax freeze will be about £500 million over the lifetime of the Parliament.  The local authorities are already being squeezed hard and that will mean school education in particular.  But if the block grant is cut as savagely as I expect he will of course blame that on Westminster and use that as an excuse to abandon the commitment to freeze Council Tax.  In addition, if the Calman proposals are enacted, he could put a penny on income tax and use that to help fund the tuition fees, saying all the while that none of this would be necessary if Westminster would let him have the oil revenues from the Scottish sector.  Independent assessments make it quite clear that 80-90 per cent of the North Sea oil is in what would be Scottish waters if the area was divided between sovereign states.  Never mind that it was developed as a UK resource with the infrastructure funded from the UK exchequer rather than only the Scottish taxpayer.  So he has quite a lot of wriggle room.”
[Scottish economist (private message)]


[3] Mr Cameron said he would campaign to keep the UK together, as he congratulated Mr Salmond.  He said: “I passionately believe in our United Kingdom, so I congratulate Alex Salmond on his emphatic win, but I will do everything obviously as British prime minister to work with the first minister of Scotland, as I always do, and treat the Scottish people and the Scottish government with the respect they deserve.  But on the issue of the United Kingdom, if they want to hold a referendum, I will campaign to keep our United Kingdom together, with every single fibre that I have.”



16 Responses

  1. Pete Kercher says:

    The first thing that comes to mind reading your well-reasoned piece here, Brain, is that the SNP has succeeded where the Lega Nord first failed (in achieving a devolved parliament and then achieving  a majority in it), then compromised with Italy’s national political system, for the lovely sensation of holding the balance of power – albeit at the (negligible?) cost of one’s convictions (sound familiar?). That said, your article starts off sounding rather like Italian reactionaries with their knee-jerk responses to the Lega and anything else they describe as localism or particularism. By focusing on all the difficulties that Westminster could raise, I think you do no favours to the latter part of your article, which is an admirable clarion call for the UK to grow up, as it were, and give itelf a modern structure.
    If the Czech Republic and Slovakia could split almost painlessly, I see no real reason why Scotland and England should not be able to do likewise. Oil certainly plays in Scotland’s favour, but a spot of realpolitik about university fees, for example (at least for non-Scots EU nationals and other foreigners), would not hurt. Military bases and the currency are not insoluble problems and the crown is not the English crown so much as the Scottich crown that inherited England: a minor issue in this day and age. The right to vote is also by no means a problem: you vote where you are registered to vote, end of story. In my opinion, a Scot living permanently in England who wants to vote on Scottish independence has no more right than I, as UK passport holder, may have had to vote in your recent referendum on AV: I do not live under your laws, so it is not democratic to vote on them. Viceversa, any English or other UK citizens living permanently in Scotland should of course vote, as they do now for the Scottish assembly, as the outcome will affect their future.
    As for membership of the EU: that would not actually be an issue at all, as Scotland is already a part of the EU and would only be changing its status, from a member region to a member state. In the past, the EU extended its borders without the formal proces of admission when the Federal Republic incorporated the DDR: I suggest that that was a far more controversial move, yet it went through easily enough. We shall no doubt do the same again, if and when Cyprus manages to reunite. To be honest, with some of the lunatic fringe that inhabits English politics, both in Westminster and outside, I’d rather expect to see England withdrawing from the EU in a temper tantrum before Scotland comes knocking on the door, cap in hand.
    As you so rightly point out when describing Cameron’s dilemma, the more the focus is on the perceived difficulties, the easier the SNP has it. I remember devolution being high on the old Liberal Party agenda many years ago, so do not recognise the party I used to know in your statement that all three major parties have sidestepped the issue. That being said, yes, you’re right, the one that takes the bull by the horns will  be building  a viable future. To that party, I would advise downplaying, rather than escalating, the difficulties of secession, as downplaying may just have the effect of defusing the situation.

    Brian writes: Thank you for these (as always) thought-provoking comments, Pete. I wouldn’t dismiss any of your points, but I don’t agree with all of them. I don’t, for example, agree that a description of the difficulties that would arise from a vote by the Scots for secession makes it easier for the SNP or that it is in any other way counter-productive or inadvisable. It seems to me on the contrary to be useful to try to dispel any idea that secession could be made relatively painless or that it could be quickly accomplished after the referendum. I believe strongly in the need for a major effort to preserve the UK from disintegration, and pointing out some of the practical problems of Scottish secession seems to me part of that. Nor do I agree that the GDR’s reunion with the FRG is necessarily relevant to the issues that would arise from Scottish independence in regard to EU membership. There’s all the difference in the world between being an EU region as part of a sovereign EU member state, and being an EU member state, and I think it most unlikely that an independent Scotland would be admitted to full membership on the nod. This is the opposite of an EU member state acquiring new territory: it would be the separation of part of a member state’s territory with the amputated limb applying for membership as a new member, with all the implications and complications that each new expansion of EU membership necessarily entails. I think that the Labour party, not the Liberals, deserve the credit for inaugurating the devolution process, and that all three of the major UK parties are to blame for not following it through to its logical democratic conclusion. As for the divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, I have the impression that it did cause considerable pain and that many of the people of both countries now regret it; and that the relationship between the two parts of former Czechoslovakia was different in several material ways from that between Scotland and both England and the rest of the UK. And finally, I don’t see how the pain and anger felt to my certain knowledge by at least some Scottish expatriates at the prospect of having no say in the future of their native Scotland can or should be lightly dismissed. Very many British citizens living abroad are entitled to vote in UK elections and it would (will?) be hard to justify restricting the right to vote in the independence referendum to those who happen to be living in Scotland on any particular day, whether they are Scottish or not. We don’t allow non-British citizens living in Britain to vote in our elections: why should English or Welsh or Irish people living in Scotland vote on the future of Scotland? (Whether the rest of the UK should also have a referendum on Scottish secession is of course a different matter: that would imply a willingness to prevent Scottish independence, by force if necessary, even if a majority of the Scottish people had voted for it, which is inconceivable.) But all these are matters that deserve to be thoroughly aired before irrevocable decisions are taken.

  2. Tim Weakley says:

    As an Englishman resident in Scotland since 1963 (apart from a 16-year break in the USA) I shall view developments during the next ten years with considerable interest.   Whether the establishment of a Federation along the lines you have outlined (which I wholly support), or of complete independence in or out of the EU  will make a large difference to day-to-day life up here  is a moot point.  Scotland already differs from England in so many distinct ways: laws, legal and educational systems, and church, of course, and its own TUC, football leagues, SPCA, National Trust , and so on.  One interesting demographic point, if what I read some time ago but haven’t been able to verify is correct, is that something like one tenth of current residents in Scotland were born elsewhere, mostly of English parents.  If this is correct, it could be a crucial factor in any referendum for Scottish independence. 

    Brian writes: Thank you, Tim. I think Scottish distinctiveness in all the areas you describe is an essential element in the extraordinary variety that characterises our small islands. Of course for most Scottish people, as for most English people, life would go on as usual whether or not Scotland were to become independent. But independence would open up a psychological gulf that to my mind would be wholly negative, and for many people on both sides of the border quite disturbing. It’s not surprising that a high proportion of Scotland’s residents were born elsewhere, if that’s true: by the same token, there must be tens of thousands of Scots living in England, scattered over the rest of the Commonwealth and just about everywhere else. Scots were always strongly represented in the administrations of the former British colonies and played a distinguished part in peaceful decolonisation. Scottish and British are so intermingled in every conceivable sphere and have been for so long, while each maintaining their distinctive identities, that it’s very difficult to imagine them being unscrambled, whatever the formal constitutional position.

  3. Pete Kercher says:

    I’m quite happy to agree to disagree with you about this one, Brian. I’m not concerned about the disgregation of old-style nation states, many of which have been one of the major causes of much bloodshed and hatred over the centuries, conveniently masked by the excuse of patriotism. To my mind, the sooner patriotism and nationalism become a bad memory, the better for everyone. But it seems to be a milestone on the way to this that the so-called minor  nationalities reassert their independence before giving up a degree of it to some form of international government. That applies to the Baltic republics as well as Slovakia. By the way, I have not come across the regrets you mention there, though I work in that part of the world rather often. In fact, I’ve found that they dialogue with each other better than before, because they feel more equal. Maybe Scotland just needs to go through that phase. Maybe it’s time England faced up to it too. I’m prepared to admit I don’t know enough about the mood offshore these days, though.
    The only area where I feel strongly enough to differ is that of the right to vote and determine the system under which one lives. When I left the UK 32 years ago, I did so consciously and coherently, abandoning what I felt then and still feel now to have become, with my emigration, a spurious and undeserved right to vote in UK elections. The franchise should, in my opinion, be available on an equal and unprejudiced basis to all those who live on a permanent basis in a given community: just as they contribute their efforts and labour to make their community thrive economically, their taxation to the community’s treasury and their social efforts to the community’s own social growth, and just as they are governed by the laws and the rules that are determined by the bodies elected by those with the franchise, so those people should all themselves have the franchise. It follows that a UK citizen like myself, who has chosen to live in another country, should have no claim to vote in the UK: I do not contribute in any way to the common weal in the UK; I pay no taxes there and am not governed by the UK’s laws. It is undemocratic that I should sit here in Italy and vote in your elections, help decide how your laws are made and how your taxes are spent. It is inconceivable. Except for the nationalists who talk a load of rot about flesh and blood and purity of race.
    Similalry, it is undemocratic that people should live in the UK on a stable basis for many years, pay their taxes, be governed by the UK’s laws etc. and yet have no say in how those laws are drawn up (while any Tom, Dick or Harry living in tax exile in the Cayman Islands who happens to hold a UK passport can determine those laws!). It is inconceivable in a democracy.
    Those who determine Scotland’s decision should therefore be those who live there and pay their taxes there, regardless of the bits of paper that prove where their parents happened to be located when they were born. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable for Scots who feel strongly enough about it to up sticks from Sydney or Los Angeles and move back to Scotland – permanently! – if they want their voices to be heard. Otherwise they should accept that it’s not really fair to want to have your cake and eat it. Of course, those in temporary transfer are not included in this reasoning: they should retain the vote.
    When I raise this issue, I am often told that I should change nationality. I disagree. To begin with, it is an exhausting and expensive bureaucratic business to change nationality. Secondly, I find the whole business of nationality, as of nations and patriotism, to be a quaint but hopelessly outdated concept. All this rubbish about my country right or wrong, being the best by some quirk of fate becaue I happened to be born there, is just so ludicrous. All I want, in a modern world, is an efficient, socially inclusive system to enable people to become responsible citizens as soon as possible in the communities where they live. The best way to do that is abolish as many of the old Victorian formalities as possible.
    Following that logic, Scotland’s move for independence is also quant and outdated, of course. The best thing about the EU in recent years has been Schengen and the freedom of movement or people, goods and in many countries our single currency, so that for many people it is now quite natural to live in one country, work in a second and shop in a third. Although our hopeless political class (Berlusconi, Sarkozy etc.), shot through with absurd nineteenth-century mindsets about borders and such, is doing its utmost to turn the clock back, the better to manage its plebs and keep them in their place (watching TV, consuming and asking no questions), we the people have grown familiar with our border-free Europe of the regions and rather like it. Because Britain is an island, I think it quite likely that it will never really understand the importance of this concept, so still attributes outdated importance to trying to block such things as regional diversity (well, OK, the oudated poiticians in Rome do the same!).
    Ultimately, when all is said and done and nostalgia and all the memories of empire have been laid to rest (about time too), what difference does it really make if Scotland becomes an independent member of the EU, NATO, the UN, the IBRD and so on? So what if Scotland introduces a Scottish pound or even the Euro? The world will still turn and the sun will still come up.

    Brian writes: Thank you again. I don’t feel as strongly as you do about the rights and wrongs of expatriates voting in their native countries, nor about non-citizens voting in the countries of their residence. There seem to me to be arguments for and against any regime of electoral qualifications and to some extent they are bound to be open to challenge. I agree with much of what you say about out-dated notions of nationalistic patriotism and I welcome the fact that more and more countries, including Britain, have flexible citizenship laws which recognise that increasingly people have multiple loyalties, none of which need to be mutually exclusive. For this reason I am happy that there’s no obstacle to a Scot, for example, feeling loyalty to her local football club, to Scotland, to Britain, to Europe and to the Commonwealth, all in different ways and with differing degrees of intensity. Dual and triple nationality is increasingly common, more widely accepted, and thoroughly desirable. To my mind the establishment of a separate Scottish sovereignty with its own citizenship laws would be swimming against this more positive supra-national current. The idea that each ethnic or cultural group must have the right to its own separate sovereign state smacks of a kind of apartheid or ethnic cleansing, conducive to rancid nationalism and exclusivity: simply retrograde and old-fashioned. Sinking our racial and cultural differences in a wider rainbow community is a much preferable way of generating vitality and variety, a willingness to accept that different appearance or behaviour doesn’t have to be threatening, and in the end a more generous appreciation of our common humanity, transcending race, culture — and nationality.

  4. Oliver Miles says:

    Three unrelated comments:

    I was glad to see that a letter to the Guardian from Doug Hayward (your note 5) made the point that the end of the United Kingdom would raise questions about the future status of Northern Ireland and dependent territories such as the Falkland Islands. Both have an assurance that they can remain in the United Kingdom as long as they wish. Would they be given the choice which successor state to remain with? Both have stronger ties with Scotland than with England.

    Has anyone tried to explain to the English taxpayer how come Scotland enjoys a whole raft of advantages such as free prescriptions etc? Are there compensating advantages enjoyed by the English? Who pays?

    Kenny MacAskill, who took the decision to release Abd al-Basit al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, gained a seat from Labour. Media comment suggests that Megrahi was not a factor in the election, partly because MacAskill’s Labour opponent was a Christian who believes in compassion. Who would have thought it, reading the media shock horror last year and the year before?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Oliver. Interesting comments!

    On your first point, I agree that the dissolution of the constitutional bonds linking Scotland and England (and indeed between Scotland and Northern Ireland and between Scotland and Wales) could well raise difficult questions about the future of Northern Ireland, but I see these as political and psychological rather than legal or constitutional. I attach more importance to the UK’s pledge to Northern Ireland that if and when a majority of the people of the Province wish to rejoin the rest of Ireland, HMG will not stand in their way, than I do to the corresponding pledge that as long as they wish to remain part of the UK, they will be able to do so. The former pledge, which in effect unlocked the door to a settlement of the conflict in Northern Ireland, makes it impossible to imagine any British government attempting to prevent Scottish secession if and when a majority of Scots want independence — and that in turn rules out the idea, already being bandied about, of a referendum in the rest of the UK on whether Scotland should be allowed to secede.

    On which of the two states after Scottish secession should inherit responsibility for either Northern Ireland or the Falklands, there is surely no contest. Scottish secession would not affect the international personality of the UK, nor the rights and responsibilities that go with that personality. I suppose it’s conceivable that the people of Northern Ireland or the Falklanders might petition London for a transfer of UK responsibility for them to the newly independent Scotland, but (a) it seems inconceivable that the Irish nationalist community in NI would acquiesce in a transfer of the province to any other sovereignty than that of the Republic of Ireland, and (b) it seems equally inconceivable that a newly independent Scottish government would contemplate for a second accepting two such hot (and expensive) potatoes from the English, whatever the wishes of their respective peoples.

    I don’t think your second comment raises any serious difficulties, either. It’s implicit in devolution, and even more so in a separate sovereignty, that the Scottish government’s social and political priorities may well differ from those of the government at Westminster which clings to its role as the government of England as well as of the whole UK. If the government at Holyrood chooses to make prescriptions free in Scotland (as they once were in England when the country was much less rich and properous than it is now, even in the present recession), it will simply have less money to spend on other things, or else will need to raise more revenue by higher taxes, or incur higher debt service obligations by borrowing more. Successive governments at Westminster have chosen different priorities. The question which of the two nations is ‘subsidising’ the other is a separate one, the answer to which probably depends mainly on the world price of oil. Who pays? The taxpayer! Who else is there?

    I agree that Megrahi and Lockerbie seem not to have been factors in the Scottish elections, despite the cynically opportunistic behaviour of Scottish Labour at the time in violently attacking MacAskill’s humane decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds. The SNP doesn’t seem to have been penalised by the Scottish electorate for that controversial, much criticised but to my mind manifestly correct decision, which is surely something to be warmly welcomed.

  5. Tom Berney says:

    >>  And finally, I don’t see how the pain and anger felt to my certain knowledge by at least some Scottish expatriates at the prospect of having no say in the future of their native Scotland can or should be lightly dismissed. Very many British citizens living abroad are entitled to vote in UK elections and it would (will?) be hard to justify restricting the right to vote in the independence referendum to those who happen to be living in Scotland on any particular day, whether they are Scottish or not. <<

    I really can’t see why you are struggling with that, Brian.  The people who vote in Scottish elections and referendums are those who are on the voters rolls in Scotland.  It is hardly a radical concept. How else could it be done?  Isn’t that how they do it in England?

    Brian writes: Thanks, Tom, but I don’t think I’m ‘struggling’ with this. To say that those who vote are those who are on the voters’ rolls in Scotland merely re-states the question: who should be eligible to be included on the electoral register and who should be excluded? A high proportion of UK citizens living overseas, including of course Scots, can register to vote in UK elections and are registered accordingly. Will Scots living outside Scotland similarly be allowed to vote in the referendum, which will have far more momentous consequences for Scotland than any vote for a political party hoping to govern for the next four or five years? I’m not saying that the question is insoluble: only that it will have to be answered, and that the answer will have consequences. Similarly, I don’t think it can be taken for granted that non-Scots temporarily living in Scotland at the time of the referendum, or at the time when the electoral register is compiled, should or will be entitled to vote in this referendum. Someone — presumably the SNP government — is going to have to decide these matters, and it’s as well to discuss them before decisions are taken: that’s all.

  6. Wyrdtimes says:

    Very interesting stuff Mr B. It deserves a longer reply but it’s late. So a couple of points.

    “The more toughly he rejects Mr Salmond’s demands, the more unreasonable and oppressive the English will appear to Scottish public opinion”

    I’m pretty sure that the Scots know it will be the British government not the English doing any oppressing. The English have no recognition, no representation and no voice.

    “Would English people living and working in Scotland vote in it?”

    Makes sense to me. I think we should regard the Scots living in England as English and the English living in Scotland as Scots. If folk really hated the idea either way they could always make a return journey.

    “prompted by envy of Scotland’s self-government under devolution (still indefensibly denied to England);  by the largely unjustified conviction that Scotland’s ability to do without prescription charges, to freeze council tax and to provide free university education to its people is all at the expense of the English taxpayer;”

    Who pays is less important  than the fact that Scots, Welsh and northern Irish can afford free prescriptions, free HE, better care for the elderly and all the other differences while the English cannot.

    United kingdom suggests (to me at least) equality of funding, services and opportunity. Small differences in funding wouldn’t matter but >£1800 per person per year while English students pay £9k a year tuition fees and English old folks get a worse services etc is out of order completely. More is spent on health per person and more is spent on education per person – Scottish kids are getting more investment than English kids – this is not right.

    There are virtually no UK MPs that represent English constituencies who are fighting for equal funding, opportunity or services for their constituents. Anyone wanting fair funding for the English is labeled “sour little Englander” or similar.

    “Does Ed Miliband, searching for a way out of the mess that Scottish Labour has got itself into and for the Big Idea that could re-launch the British Labour Party as the party of change and reform, have the imagination and courage to pick up the federal ball and run with it?”

    Personally I think UK Labour should become English Labour to go along with Scottish Labour and Welsh Labour. If they come up with a manifesto that’s geared towards English solutions to English problems then they will be onto a winner in England in the Union or after the Union.

    Didn’t Ed Miliband pronounce himself as the “man for middle England” the other week? Although what we need are women or men for the whole of England.

    “Britain without Scotland would be an unfamiliar and unattractive land.”

    Here I disagree with you completely. The end of the Union is a great opportunity for the home nations to redefine ourselves and throw off the last imperial delusions – we could seriously do with both and especially the latter as this “punching above our weight” business keeps on getting us into trouble whether it’s Labour or ConDem in power.

    Westminster could do with less power and less politicians on power trips. Lets have a small, prosperous, peaceful England. I think England will still has a lot to offer the world and may have some new revolutions up our sleeve such as innovations in direct democracy in a post political party state. Also we could de-militarise to a large extent and help the world move closer to  a peaceful future by abolishing the arms trade in the same we abolished the slave trade.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I have long argued for the UK to adopt a more realistic and more modest view of its place in the world, but I would hope that this could be achieved without the need to lose a vital and valued part of our country, a loss which I believe would be damaging to Scotland and damaging to what would be left of the UK. There should be a distinction between (a) being realistic about our role as a significant player in international affairs of the second rank but enjoying a degree of influence and respect because of our history, language, global experience, culture and the high standing of our armed forces and our diplomacy, and (b) having modesty forced on us by the dismemberment of our country. An athlete with a great record but now past her prime shouldn’t wish to be forced to retire from her sport by having a leg amputated, however modest and realistic this might compel her to become.

  7. Tom Berney says:

    >>  I think Scottish distinctiveness in all the areas you describe is an essential element in the extraordinary variety that characterises our small islands. Of course for most Scottish people, as for most English people, life would go on as usual whether or not Scotland were to become independent. But independence would open up a psychological gulf that to my mind would be wholly negative, <<

    Well.. as I’m writing as someone who opened a bottle of  wine in the early hours when my own constituency –  followed by nearly all the others went SNP –  naturally I disagree with you. Most Scots are not yet committed to independence, but it seems clear to me that there is a general delight here in the extraordinary outcome of the election as a declaration of Scottishness. Our political situation has become distinctively different. Our media have been enlivened and there is a renewed interest in politics.

    Would you really argue that the Irish, for example, suffer from a negative reaction from leaving the UK? I would say the opposite.  They take considerable delight in it. 

    Brian writes: I warmly welcome any revival of pride in and celebration of Scottishness in Scotland, but I regret that it has apparently stemmed from a widespread antagonism towards the “British” political parties — for very understandable reasons, considering the way that Scottish Labour and the Scottish Tories have conducted themselves. (Antagonism towards the Scottish LibDems seems to arise from dissatisfaction with ther coalition government at Westminster and the role of the LibDems in it, which is clearly not a uniquely Scottish sentiment.) One of the reasons for my advocacy of a full federal system for the whole of the UK is that it would give Scots total control over all their domestic affairs, guaranteed against meddling from London, plus a goodly share of ownership (including 25% of the seats in the federal Senate, no fewer and no more than England’s) of the few federal subjects which would be “devolved upwards” by the four nations to the federal centre, instead of in the opposite direction as at present. It would mean “Scotland for the Scots” plus recognition of the truth that for the UK as a whole, “unity is strength”. To resort to the pursuit of old-fashioned national sovereignty and partition when a better alternative is available seems to me both retrograde and regrettable.

    I don’t think that Irish independence from the UK is really comparable with what might happen between Scotland and the rest of Britain in the next few years. Irish separation was the culmination or centuries of bitter and violent enmity between Ireland and England, reflected in the violence of the Easter rebellion and much more recently in the terrorist campaigns of the IRA, remnants of which are still costing innocent lives today. England and Scotland have experienced very little violence or physical hostility since 1707, give or take some unpleasantness in or around 1715 and again in 1745-46 — rather a long time ago. Contrast the British royal family’s Scottish roots and associations with the huge security operation required for the Queen’s imminent visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first ever visit by a British monarch to an independent Ireland. The Irish-English relationship is still like that of a couple who have fairly recently gone through a bitterly contested divorce, with parts of the terms of the divorce still remaining to be settled. Scotland and England are more like an old married couple whose partnership has for years been peaceful and productive, even loving, but in which one marriage partner has suddenly and unaccountably started talking of leaving home.

  8. Tom Berney says:


    >> Scotland already differs from England in so many distinct ways: laws, legal and educational systems, and church, of course, and its own TUC, football leagues, SPCA, National Trust , and so on. <<

    I think we are different politically too.  Scotland is generally more “statist” than England.  I believe we have a stronger commitment to social welfare. The Englis actaully liked Thatcher! Even in the last Westminster election England swung to the Tories while Scotland remained a virtually Tory free zone. In this week’s Local elections in England the Tories actually gained seats despite Cameron and Osborne. In Scotland, even with our weighted election system, we reduced them to a rump and forced their leader to resign.  The Scottish election was probably more of a rejection of the ‘British’ parties than an attraction to independence.  Scottish Labour had signally failed to use the SP as an opportunity to differentiate themselves from  “NEW” Labour. Instead they toed the line of supporting the Iraq war, renewing Trident, criticising the Megrahi release, and opposed free prescriptions, free tuition etc and with Red Ed appeared to endorse the attacks on public services.  They got their comeuppance. Personally, I’m more of a pragmatist than a nationalist who has come to believe that Tony Blair is the best that England can aspire to. Scotland left to its own devices would do better than that.  We would be no socialist utopia but we would, I believe, be more the kind of society I want to live in.  So sad as I am to abandon my English comrades to Tory rule in perpetuity I’m reacing the stage of life when I would like to see some REAL progress in my lifetime.  🙂 

    >> One interesting demographic point, if what I read some time ago but haven’t been able to verify is correct, is that something like one tenth of current residents in Scotland were born elsewhere, mostly of English parents.  If this is correct, it could be a crucial factor in any referendum for Scottish independence.

    I haven’t seen that, but I would be surprised if many countries these days do not have similar figures. I doubt though that English parentage would make much difference. I know several English people who support Scottish independence. Indeed some of my English friends (in England) even want the border to be redrawn just south of Sheffield.

    Brian writes: Your and other contributors’ totally convincing accounts of the many ways in which Scotland is different from England (and different from Wales and Northern Ireland) are further evidence of the strengths and diversity that Scotland brings to the Union. The rest of the UK needs Scotland as an intrinsic part of the whole precisely because of the differences between its component parts and the strengths that the Union as a whole derives from that diversity — I was about to call it biodiversity. England, and the other two nations also, need the Scottish traditions of radicalism and collectivism as an essential corrective to the kind of rampant, uncontrolled market capitalism that has landed us in the current mess, and threatens to do so again. In my view, and I think that of many Scots, Scotland also benefits from and is strengthened by its membership of a political union which embraces such diversity. Fragmentation can only reduce that diversity and weaken the smaller units that result. We need to devise a new political and constitutional framework that will provide virtually all the benefits of decentralisation and self-government to each of the UK’s four nations while preserving the essential unity that enables us all to benefit from each other’s differences. The purpose of my post is to suggest that a full-blown federation would offer exactly that means of securing the benefits without having to pay for them by destroying the strengths that make diversity possible.

  9. Toque says:

    Why would an independent Scotland suddenly feel like abroad?  I’m English but I don’t feel that Canada is a foreign country – my wife is Canadian and my daughter is half Canadian.  In fact I feel more at home in Canada than I do in Scotland, and I lived in Scotland for five years.

    It may be that Scotland makes itself a foreign country to the English after independence, but I seriously doubt it.  I would expect relations between the English and Scottish to improve, as I think they have since devolution (Scotland to me seems noticably less hostile  to the English than it used to).

    Brian writes: An independent Scotland would not only feel like a foreign country: it would actually be one. Even the limited amount of devolution enjoyed by Scotland has caused a steep rise in anti-Scottish sentiment in England, especially — but not only — on the part of English nationalists: Scottish repudiation of Britain by choosing full independence would be taken by many in England as a stinging rebuff, and feeling against Scotland and Scottish people would be further aggravated. Scottish independence would be taken, probably rightly, as the failure of devolution; the UK without Scotland, and with the prospect of eventual Irish reunification much enhanced, would no longer be a viable candidate for a federal system which would permit devolved organs for England, which would shrink into a disgruntled rump, suffering more than ever from over-centralisation and micro-management from Westminster. There would be little hope of radical constitutional reform. England and Scotland would inevitably grow further and further apart.

    I understand very well what you mean when you say that you don’t feel that you’re in a foreign country when you’re in Canada: I have lived and worked for a total of nearly eight years in Australia, and that doesn’t feel ‘foreign’ to me either. (I have also lived in Canada and I have to say that Canada feels to me a good deal more foreign than Australia, being so strongly influenced by American and French cultures.) But I know I’m in some sense an alien in Australia in a way that I’m not when I’m in Scotland, because in Scotland I’m in my own homeland, native land, whatever you like to call it. England would be sadly weakened and reduced by the loss of Scotland from the United Kingdom, and Scotland would be even more sadly reduced and weakened by the loss of its British identity. In the age of globalisation and rule by international capitalism, it’s very rough for small countries with limited resources, as the smaller countries of Europe are finding. In all sorts of ways, I’m afraid that independence for Scotland could easily turn out to be a disaster, both for Scotland and for what would be left of the UK.

  10. Mark Stephens says:

    “…a commitment to the secession of Scotland from the UK”
    A crucial point is that there was no such commitment – in the sense of a policy commitment – made in the election that produced the SNP majority. There was a commitment to a referendum, but even that was not prominent. And of course the referendum made it “safe” for unionists to vote SNP.
     “He’s probably the most capable and effective politician in Britain today.”
    So was John Smith. I have no doubt that Scottish politics would also have been different had Donald Dewar and Robin Cook survived. Scottish politics lost another MP yesterday – aged 44.
     “…he has been running a minority govt with considerable flair and success, despite having been constrained by the risk of being voted down on every controversial issue…”
    A large part of this success arose from inaction.( I remember reading a few years ago in the (London) Times that there was more Scottish legislation going through Westminster than Holyrood!) The risk of being voted down on “every controversial issue” was not much of risk when there weren’t any.
    This had the happy effect (for the SNP) of producing an aura of competence that was manifestly absent from the post-Dewar Labour/LibDem coalitions.
     “Mr Salmond is already seeking greater fiscal powers through amendments to the Scotland Bill now going through Parliament…”
    It is worth noting that the Calman commission and subsequent legislation has been entirely a process for the Scottish political classes. It does not signify the wide movement of civil society that produced and sustained the Constitutional Convention.
     “…will voting be on AV or first past the post”
    For such a choice surely it must be AV!
     “There is a naïve tendency…”
    I would place the tax revenue / debt split between England and Scotland as by far the most important issue. My feeling is that membership of the EU, etc will be of far less importance.
     “Would all those expatriate Scots… be allowed to vote in the referendum? Would English people living and working in Scotland vote in it?”
    I agree with Pete Kercher. I really do not see why this is an issue.
    If I might quote from the SNP election address in my constituency:
    “The people who care most about our country’s success are the people who live here. I hope and believe our progress will lead us towards independence – and I believe that everyone in Scotland should have their fair say in a referendum.”
    (Note also that the status of such a referendum would be advisory.)
     Tom Weakley notes that 10% of people in Scotland were not born here. This may mostly be an “English” issue, but scratch a little deeper and you will find many people who were born here who think of themselves as being Irish. As tens of thousands of Rangers fans (and indeed fans of many other Scottish clubs) like to sing when they play Celtic: “The Famine’s over. Why don’t you go home?”
    I don’t think it is in anyone’s interest to start trying to define what it is to be “Scottish.”
    Para 11 “mounting anti-Scottish sentiment in England”
    A happy product of devolution – allied with the long period of Labour rule at Westminster – has been a significant diminution of anti-English sentiment in Scotland. When I moved here 20 years ago it was routine, and expressed quite freely by (some) people of all classes without embarrassment. I now cannot remember the last time I heard “English” used as a pejorative term.
    Meanwhile, I have noted growing anti-Scottish sentiment in England, relating entirely to  public spending. When I worked in York for four years whilst retaining my home in Scotland, I was very aware of this, and found it very tiresome.
    In this spirit, Brian, I was disappointed that you did not borrow the word “perfidious” from the national anthem.
    “Devolution was devised (mainly by Scots) as a means of heading off demands for full Scottish independence…”
    True in the 1970s, but I think not in the 1990s. The story of devolution being foisted on the Scottish Labour Party between the two 1974 elections is indeed an amusing one. The vote on the executive (at a meeting held in the Co-op Halls in Glasgow) was lost due to poor turn out – Scotland were playing a World Cup game. So they had to meet again to get it “right.”
    But turn to the 1990s: the Constitutional Convention was not a Labour Party beast and it would have failed had it been one. Nor do I think it was regarded primarily as a means of heading off full independence. Devolution was regarded as being intrinsically desirable. It was no “miserable little compromise.”
    “… leaving the govt and parliament in Westminster with only those powers which are bound to be exercised centrally and which can’t be devolved…”
    It would also be highly problematic to establish separate social security systems, given the degree of mobility between the countries. In turn this limits the extent to which the tax and national insurance systems can be decoupled (and this would be replicated if the pension entitlement shifts to qualification by residence rather than NICs as the current government seems to favour).
    Given the size of social security budget, it means that a significant plank of social policy would sit more easily in a UK Parliament within a federal system.
    “West Lothian…”
    A probable outcome of federalism is that England would be permanently Tory, hence it is difficult to see the Labour Party embracing federalism.
    I would rather live with the rough edges that arise from the West Lothian question. The compromise proposed by Gladstone in the Irish Home Rule Bills was to cut Irish representation in Westminster, whilst retaining their right to vote on “English” legislation. It seems to have been forgotten that this has already been done in relation to Scotland – although maybe not by “enough.”
    Brian writes: Many thanks for this, Mark. I have responded in a separate new comment (here).

  11. Brian says:

    I’m grateful to you, Mark, for your stimulating and often usefully corrective commentary in your comment above (here).  My own reactions follow.

    I’m not sure that much significance should be attached to the fact that the SNP played down the independence issue in this year’s election campaign.  It’s no secret that there’s at present no majority among the Scottish people for independence and Mr Salmond doesn’t attempt to disguise his recognition of the need to win much more support for independence during the first half of his new five-year term before he can venture to hold his referendum.  But there can’t have been very many people who voted for the SNP, even if their present intention is to vote No in the referendum, who don’t know that independence is the SNP’s principal aim.  The new factor is that there will now be a referendum (because there’s now a majority for it in the Scottish parliament) and given Salmond’s charisma and political skills, we can’t rule out the possibility that by the time he’s ready to stage it, the referendum might produce a majority for independence, even if it wouldn’t if held now.

    I’m sure you’re right, Mark, that Scottish and UK politics would have turned out very differently if John Smith, Donald Dewar and possibly Robin Cook had lived.  Personally I was never over-impressed by any of the three of them, but clearly that says more about me than about them.  I’m sure, though, that a John Smith government would have been hugely preferable to the Blair and Brown years and that we would have been spared the assaults on civil liberties, and the miseries of Kosovo and UK participation in the Iraq disaster if Smith had been in No.10.

    I take your point about the wide support in Scotland for the Constitutional Convention which led to devolution contrasted with the narrower constituency for the changes recommended by Calman and now proceeding through parliament at Westminster in the Scotland Bill.  But the former involved a huge and historic constitutional earthquake which was to change the face of Britain forever, while the latter concerns important but largely technical changes in revenue allocation, tax powers, and so forth — hardly the stuff of revolution.  Chalk and cheese, really.

    It’s interesting that you’re confident that if the independence referendum does offer three options — independence, the status quo, and “devo max” (virtually complete fiscal autonomy for Scotland but just short of independence) — voting will need to be by AV.  If so, the odds would surely be on devo max, as the likely second preference of the great majority of those voting either Yes or No to independence.  Under First Past the Post, the chances of getting 50%+1 of the votes for independence would probably be drastically reduced by the availability of a third option, which could fatally split the pro-change vote by attracting those dissatisfied with the status quo but not quite ready to go the whole hog and vote for independence.  Mr Salmond’s apparent willingness to offer the devo max third option strongly suggests a lack of confidence in his ability to bring round a majority of Scots to support for full independence within two or three years — which I find surprising, although perhaps it’s just realistic.  My guess is that if the opinion polls suggest a likely majority for full independence at the time of the referendum, the third “devo max” option will silently steal away, never to be heard of again.

    I entirely agree that the most important issue if and when the terms of Scottish secession come to be negotiated will be the way revenues and debt are divided up, and that this will far outweigh such issues as Scottish membership of the EU on independence.  But that doesn’t make the latter issue unimportant.  It seems to me necessary to question the widespread assumption that EU membership on generous terms would be almost automatic.  After its experience with small EU member states with excessive exposure to big banks, I would expect the EU to exhibit considerable nervousness about an application from Scotland, and a determination to ensure that acceptance of Scotland’s application should be strictly conditional on Scotland’s commitment to an ultra-austere fiscal and economic programme which could be extremely difficult for an independent SNP government to swallow.

    While on the subject of future membership of international organisations, I wonder if you heard Paxman on Newsnight the other evening aggressively asking a commendably patient Nicola Sturgeon, deputy leader of the SNP, a long series of ludicrous questions, the most ludicrous of which was whether an independent government of Scotland would be willing to take it in turns with the UK to occupy the permanent member’s seat in the UN Security Council.  No doubt the admission of a newly independent Scotland to the UN would be virtually automatic, but the idea that the membership would go through all the complex procedures of Charter amendment to provide that permanent membership of the Security Council should be shared on an alternating basis between an existing permanent member (the UK) and a brand new member (Scotland) is simply fatuous.  I’m amazed that the extremely savvy Ms Sturgeon didn’t burst out laughing.  Can Mr Paxman be getting a bit past it?

    I’m not sure what you (and other contributors of comments) mean by saying that it’s in no-one’s interest to start trying to define what it is to be Scottish.  It won’t be possible to avoid the issue when it comes to drafting the independence referendum legislation.  Whatever definition is chosen of eligibility to vote in the referendum is likely to have a considerable impact on its result.  Many Scots living outside Scotland are eligible to vote in general elections for MPs in Scottish seats, just as some people living in Scotland are not.  There’s bound to be an element of arbitrariness in whatever is decided (and incdentally is this going to be decided unilaterally by the Scottish SNP government, despite the serious opinion that the whole referendum is ultra vires for Scotland and will have to be the subject of legislation by Westminster?) and arbitrariness is liable to produce controversy and dispute, with allegations of injustice, perhaps even on a scale that could call into question the validity of the referendum itself.  Whether or not it’s in anyone’s interest to discuss it, discussed it’s eventually got to be.

    I’m glad to know that devolution has diminished anti-English sentiment in Scotland, but it’s important to recognise that it has significantly increased anti-Scottish sentiment in England — which could have an appreciable effect on the attitude of the Westminster parliament and government to the terms that will be appropriate for the divorce.  Moreover, the more signs there are of Scottish opinion moving in the direction of support for independence, the more resentment this is likely to arouse in England, even though there seems to be a small but growing body of opinion in England that would actually welcome Scotland’s departure.  A vote in the referendum for independence could well provoke real hostility in parts of English public opinion.  This could limit the options for the UK government when it comes to negotiating the terms of the divorce settlement.  I’m sure that a promise of devolution for England would transform this situation, but I recognise that it ain’t gonna happen.

    We’re agreed that devolution was originally seen by most of those concerned as a means of heading off the demand for independence, and I take your word for it that this was no longer the case in Scotland in the 1990s when it actually happened.  In England, however, I have no doubt that it has always been so regarded, and still is. It’s mainly for that reason that political opinion in the rest of the UK has been so reluctant to face up to the wider implications for the whole UK of partial and asymmetrical devolution.  There’s still a lazy assumption that so long as the limited devolution so far granted keeps most of the Scots happy, there’s no need to continue the process to its logical conclusion.  For this reason it has been impossible for anyone to come up with a remotely satisfactory answer to the West Lothian Question, since the only logical answer to it — a parliament and government for England and thus a federal UK — is regarded as so radical as to be unthinkable, even slightly mad.  You prefer to leave W Lothian unanswered rather than taking the radical route to its solution (along with solutions to a whole raft of other problems and anomalies).  I persist in the view that federalism would begin to cure the British disease of chronic over-centralism, to protect the three smaller nations of the UK from English meddling and nanying more effectively than devolution does now, and to provide a more democratic and durable relationship between the constituent parts of the UK than our present creaking arrangements.  The Scottish election results seem to lend rather strong support for my view.

    Whether social security would be a subject for the lower-tier nations or the federal centre in a federal UK would be only one of literally thousands of matters to be settled during the decade or so required for working towards the establishment of the federation.

    Finally (yes!), several commentators have observed that Scottish secession would mean the end of Labour hopes of ever again winning a general election  (and that devolution for England would mean permanent Tory government for England), concluding from these observations that the Labour party will never willingly acquiesce in either Scottish independence or a federal system involving a separate government and parliament for England.  This seems to me to ignore the effects on all the political parties of the seismic change that either Scottish secession or a federal constitution for the UK would represent. Labour’s defeat in Scotland should, and might well, force a radical rethink of what kind of Labour party is appropriate for the changed Scottish landscape.  Similarly, Labour would (and does) need to change and adapt to the new situation created in England, and in the UK as a whole, by the advent of coalition government and the prospect that Labour may be unable for the foreseeable future to win an election outright either in a devolved England or in the UK as a whole — especially in a UK without Scotland.  This would or will be an extremely healthy discipline for the Labour party, which might actually have to recover its radical, reforming, left-of-centre soul if it’s to become once again a major participant in the country’s political and constitutional conversation.

  12. Chris Vine says:

    Two remarks on Mark Stephens’, most of which I agree with:

    “A probable outcome of federalism is that England would be permanently Tory, hence it is difficult to see the Labour Party embracing federalism.”

    I would really like to shoot this canard, which seems to have been doing the rounds in newspapers and blogs, and seems to have become believed by constant repetition. There have been only two Labour governments which did not have a majority of members in England: those of 1950 and February 1974. The February 1974 government collapsed and after an October election turned into a Lib-Lab pact in which no party had a majority in either the UK as a whole or England. All other Labour governments have had majorities in England.

    Losing Scotland would make it a little more difficult for Labour to take power, but not much. In any event the dangers to the union which could arise were Labour to have a majority in the UK but the Conservatives have a majority in England do not need to be rehearsed, I hope. (This would have been put to the test if the Labour/Liberal parties had managed to stitch up their ‘rainbow coalition’ after the last election: if they had tried to impose further higher education fees in England only I really would fear for the union, one can only hope they would have had more sensitivity.)

    “I would rather live with the rough edges that arise from the West Lothian question. The compromise proposed by Gladstone in the Irish Home Rule Bills was to cut Irish representation in Westminster, whilst retaining their right to vote on ‘English’ legislation. It seems to have been forgotten that this has already been done in relation to Scotland – although maybe not by ‘enough.'”

    After the introduction of devolution representation per capita in Scotland was reduced to about the same as that in England (in fact it is still very slightly above, mainly caused by rounding and then subsequent immigration into England). It has never been less than that in England. By contrast, upon the partition of Ireland and the establishment of Parliaments in Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland (the latter of which was otiose in the end) by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, representation in Northern Ireland was reduced to a level below that in the UK as a whole, a situation which was not changed until equality was established on the introduction of direct rule in 1972 during the troubles. Northern Ireland representation has never been taken back to its pre-1972 levels.

    So the 1920-1972 Irish “solution” to what is now called the West Lothian question has never been applied to Scotland, and probably never will be. It doesn’t really meet the problem.

    Brian writes: Many thanks for this, Chris. Your immensely informative and corrective comment raises many fascinating questions, many of which are discussed in detail on your even more informative blog, which I strongly recommend. Briefly put, I agree entirely that a federal solution is the only possible answer to the West Lothian (and Scottish independence) questions, that it would necessarily apply to the whole UK including a separate parliament and government for England — personally I don’t think that splitting England into regions would be either desirable or acceptable — and that having different parties in power at the federal centre and in England, were that to happen, would be just as manageable as when the same thing happens in other federations, including the US, Australia and Germany. Of course a federated UK would have the special problem of the disproportionate population size and wealth of England, but this would have to be dealt with by special safeguards in the federal constitution for the other three nations, and equal representation for all four nations in the federal Senate, as in the US and Australia. I agree with the pooint on your blog that this would take many years to accomplish, but once it was set as an agreed objective, it would transform the landscape.

  13. Richard Thomas says:

    Brian, I have taken an age to comment on your posting because it seems to me that Chou En Lai’s reported words about it being to early to judge the effects of the French Revolution seem apposite.  I suppose, with the excitement of injunctions and the like, the caravanserai of commentators and their barking dogs has moved on from Scotland and the rush to judgement is suspended so it is perhaps timeous to offer a few thoughts.
    I should declare an interest in that I am a Lib Dem.  For me the starting point is that Scottish politics are not the same as those of England or indeed Westminster.  We have 5 parties, four of which occupy the ground to the left of the Conservatives, and this makes it difficult to see where the centre lies in Scotland.  It seems to me that looking at Scottish politics with a Westminster eye is misleading.  There isn’t a clear prism of a spectrum of views because there is a large overlap in policy between the 4 non Conservative parties and the consequence is  that the centre ground is a long way to the left of that in England other wise the Conservatives would be in power in Holyrood and in passing, we scots have resisted the blandishments of the right wing in UKIP and the BNP rather more than the rest of the UK.  In some ways what we have bears a closer resemblance to the politics of the Irish Republic although it’s a mirror image with 2 large leftist parties competing and largely overlapping  where in Ireland the primary contestants are to the right of the spectrum.  It’s not an analogy to be taken too far but I suggest it gives a better perspective than the London centred views of the majority of commentators.
    This overlap and the success of the SNP in our traditional heartlands has had a serious  effect on the Liberal Democrats in the last elections with the vote evaporating everywhere except off the far north coast; it is difficult to be specific on the reasons – partly the campaign was not inspiring; partly the other parties and the press were successful in hanging the student fees round our necks in Scotland; partly because the SNP and the Greens were able to occupy the party’s role as the traditional non-Labour opponents of the Conservatives; partly it was the SNP’s time and our distinctive approach to poltics was unclear.  Labour lost because they mistook last year’s good showing for Westminster for how the voters would act for Scotland.  Add in the clear distinction they make between Westminster and Holyrood with the latter being the second choice for everything and they have a great deal of work to do, which may be made more difficult by next year’s council elections.  The Conservatives come over as being reluctant to accept devolution with the Bourbons like Lord Forsyth opposing it.  Have they not learnt from Ireland that unthinking unionism will destroy what they wish to preserve?  In the case of the SNP they have to govern with a majority so no excuses; they will have a number of MSPs who didn’t expect to be elected and in addition there is a fault line in the party between fundamentalist indepence seekers and trimmers to devo-max.
    This is why four years from the next Westminster elections and five years from the Holyrood polls it is too soon to draw conclusions.  Everything will depend on how well the Coalition play the SNP.  If the Conservatives listen to the unionists and the slavering commentary against Scotland and the Scots from the Mail and the Telegraph writers (as well as the opinions printed in their letters pages) then Salmond will get his result in the referendum.
    On the wider constitutional question I agree a federal structure is unavoidable but time is on no-one’s side.  Labour’s neglect of any form of development on the constitution after devolution was both short -sighted and irresponsible (a fitting epitaph for Blair perhaps).  In some respects, there is the makings of a solution for England.  An English Parliament is long overdue but in that there already exists an infra structure of substantial elected bodies called County Councils, why is it impossible to use them as the building blocks for devolution in England below a Parliament and use them as the basis for representation of the English element in a federal upper chamber?  I do appreciate that the British Government (certainly since Mrs Thatcher) seems to have a particular loathing of the County Councils since it has done everything in its power to weaken them and destroy their role.  The other point in favour of the counties is that as I understand it from English friends, there is strong local alliegance with the counties and this should be a strong point in theirfavour.  Most are certainly large enough to form coherent local units and to take on wider powers.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this very thought-provoking analysis, Richard. I agree especially strongly with your penultimate paragraph; so far Cameron seems to have played his hand with Salmond reasonably sensitively, but the pressures on him from traditional right-wing Tory quarters to play hard-ball with the SNP, if he yields to them, could well hand victory on a plate to the Scottish independistas, as you suggest.

    I also agree that Labour in office should have pushed on more vigorously with the completion of the devolution project, but I think it has to be admitted that this would have required inspiring leadership on a grand scale, at a time when energies were being soaked up by Iraq and later by the banking and credit crisis and recession; also, after the establishment of partial devolution and the Northern Ireland peace agreement (both against the odds), it must have seemed legitimate to have a breather. There was almost no popular demand for a parliament or government for England and even less understanding of what that move to effectively a federal system would entail (there still isn’t). No doubt Labour’s strategists (assuming that any such existed) were also deeply conscious that the Tories won more votes in England (although fewer seats) than Labour: Labour wouldn’t relish the idea of England falling under semi-permanent Tory rule, although I don’t accept that this would necessarily happen. And expecting politicians at Westminster to give up their currently unlimited powers over English affairs is perhaps a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. Not excuses for inaction, but perhaps understandable reasons.

    You make an interesting suggestion about using English county (and presumably city and borough) councils in lieu of an English parliament for purposes of representation in a federal Westminster second chamber. It’s ingenious and certainly worth consideration, but I don’t think that the English, once they tumbled to what was going on, would agree to be fobbed off with such a second-best system when Scotland, Wales and NI all have their own directly elected parliaments, all producing governments. There would also be accusations of ‘divide and rule’ if England, unlike the other three UK nations, were to be fragmented into even smaller units than the doomed ‘regions’ espoused by Prescott and others. (Well, not many others!) Anyway, we could establish a directly elected federal-model Senate at Westminster as early as 2015, without the need to set up an English parliament first. A small Senate of, say, 80 members, with each of the four nations electing 20 apiece by PR and six-year terms, with a third retiring every two years, would make excellent sense, and could reassure the Scots that a limit was already being placed on English dominance. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it happening, though, and I’m sure that it would strike the responsible coalition minister (Nick Clegg, of course) as completely crazy!

  14. Richard Thomas says:

    Brian I think I rather short-handed my point.  I suggest that the Commons becomes the English Parliament with the English senate representation based on counties and large cities.  This overcomes the need to create artificial regions in England but it does get over the potential English objection to over-representation of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in an 80 member Senate based on 20 seats each.

    Brian writes: Thank you. The house of commons is already in effect a federal parliament for three out of the four nations of the UK and it would be pretty weird to turn it into a parliament just for England — which would mean reconstructing a separate federal parliament from scratch. Much more sensible, obviously, to create a new parliament (and government) for England, not necessarily in London. As for a Senate with equal representation for each of the four UK nations, that’s a common feature of successful federations — including the US and Australian federal second chambers — designed to protect the smaller nations or states (West Virginia, Rhode Island, Tasmania) from being dominated by the much bigger ones (New York State, California, New South Wales). Since the scales are always tipped in favour of the biggest and richest states or nations (England, in the case of the UK), England would have absolutely no grounds for resenting equality of representation in the second (federal) chamber with the other three nations. Because of its much greater population size, England would continue to dominate the house of commons, just as now. But the federal parliament’s powers would be far more limited than those of the Westminster parliament at present, since all internal affairs — health, education, crime, children’s affairs, etc etc — would be the responsibility of the parliament of the each of the four nations, including England — another protection for the three smaller nations against domination by England.

  15. D.I.D. says:

    Hey Brian.

    I am an outside observer of British politics and have found your blog most insightful, so many thanks.

    I recently have been studying the political situation in your country and the proposal for a British federation, and I would very much like your feedback on some of my observances from this side of “the pond”:

    If you chose to respond, I would be very happy to discuss Federation with you here and on my blog- the assets and complications of a federal system, the history and development of federalism in my country, the federalist-sovereigntist/separatist/nationalist paradigm, how to form a regional Senate, et cetera.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this interesting contribution. I am glad to recommend readers of Ephems to visit your own blog too, for an obviously well informed Canadian perspective on UK and other affairs. With only a few reservations here and there, mainly on questions of emphasis (for example, I think you understate the real changes brought about by even the incomplete devolution that we now have), I agree generally with your analysis of the issues that the SNP’s electoral victory in Scotland has brought to a head for the whole of the UK, and I strongly agree with your conclusion: that by far the best and most durable solution for the UK would (perhaps will) be a full federation of the UK’s four nations. But like you I don’t at all underrate the difficulties in the way of a national consensus for such a radical change.


  16. D.I.D. says:

    Thanks alot!

    As promised, I have completed a more comprehensive post about the potential for and complications against creating a federal system in the United Kingdom, and federalism in general:

    It may be a good idea to start brainstorming with similar and different ideas. I look forward to discussing federation here in the future!