Saturday 6 October 2012

Understanding the 1980s is the key to understanding Scottish politics today

Look at where devolution has led us. It has led us to the point where in two years Scotland might leave the Union. Yet this is exactly what devolution was supposed to prevent. The nationalists were never supposed to be able to gain power and the voting system for the Scottish parliament was designed specifically to prevent a nationalist government, governing on its own. Yet this is what we have now. What brought us to this point?

Britain had been in gradual decline since the Second World War, but this decline began to really increase in the seventies. There were endless strikes, old industries were inefficient, the IMF had to be called in, there were huge numbers of Labour MPs and Labour supporters who seriously wanted to introduce full-scale socialism into this country. Social democrats in the Labour party, gave up in despair and formed the Social Democratic Party, which formed an alliance with the Liberals.

What changed all this? The answer is obvious to anyone who lived during this period. The answer is Margaret Thatcher. After continually losing elections, Labour decided that the only way to gain power was to give up socialism and become a social democratic party, which was known as New Labour. Margaret Thatcher changed the political landscape of Britain and she also turned around our economic fortunes. This of course, was deeply painful, especially in those regions where the old inefficient industries were most prevalent.

The Scottish economy in the eighties was still dominated by heavy industry, which was owned by the state and could only be kept running by the state giving it subsidies. Miners considered it the duty of the state to pay them, even if they were digging mud, rather than coal. Shipbuilding was not considered to be a business, which had to make a profit in order to continue building ships, but a state run employment creator, whose purpose was solely to employ people. The same could be said for steel. Anyone with even a basic understanding of economics should realise that this situation could not continue indefinitely. When industries are divorced from even the most basic ideas of business such as making a profit, they fail to compete on the world marketplace, subsidies increase ever further, inefficiencies increase to the point where these industries are such a drain on the national economy that the situation can not continue any further.

Margaret Thatcher did not close down Scottish industry. By refusing to allow such industry to be a continual drain on the Exchequer, she made that industry become independent saying now you will have to survive in the marketplace as a business. Unfortunately, the old, inefficient industries could not adapt, could not change, could not become efficient and so they closed themselves.

Thousands of Scots were made unemployed. But ask yourself is Scotland a less prosperous country now than it was in 1979? Are we less prosperous, because now there is the idea that the state can not continue to prop up inefficient industries? Are we less prosperous, because we don’t have endless strikes? Are we less prosperous because Scottish businesses understand that they must compete on the world marketplace and that they must make a profit? Yet the person who did most to bring about this situation, who so changed politics that now every serious party accepts the basic principles of business and free market economics, is treated as some sort of second Edward Longshanks who took especial pleasure being a hammer to the Scots. 

Some Scots go on about the poll tax as if it was only ever in Scotland. But this is not true. It was introduced in Scotland one year before it was introduced in England and Wales. Of course, we can now see that it was a mistake. Any law, which gives rise to riots is a mistake. All governments make mistakes, make bad laws, but it should also be remembered that it was the Conservatives who repealed the poll tax. 

Furthermore, although the poll tax was a bad idea, it had within it the seeds of a good idea. Tax should be such that everyone to some extent feels the effect of it. It’s hardly fair if I vote for high taxes, knowing that I will pay none. That’s just voting for someone else to subsidise me, which is another form of selfishness. Only when people realise that higher taxes hit each of them in their wallet, will they seriously consider voting for lower taxes, only then will they also realise that higher public spending costs each of us, that free this and free that is not free at all, because it all comes out of our taxes. The idea of the poll tax was to establish the link in everyone’s mind between public spending and their own wallet. It failed because it was poorly designed, was perceived as unfair, but the fundamental idea was sound. Tax should be local, everyone should pay some tax and everyone should see the link between his own income, taxation and public expenditure. Far from being something evil, this is just what is needed in order to devolve power to local people.

The media and especially the Scottish media, created a hate figure in Margaret Thatcher. It was this more than anything else that created the demand for Scottish devolution, the idea being that Scotland would always have a Labour government, which could fight a Tory Westminster government.

As can be seen the plan was fundamentally anti-democratic. Labour could run all of Britain if it gained  a majority in Westminster, but the Tories were not allowed to run all of Britain if they won a majority. Moreover, Scotland with its built-in Labour majority would always be run by Labour. 

The great and the good in Scotland created something called the Constitutional Convention, where statements were made about freedom and democracy, but they never seriously addressed the unfairness of what they were creating. Scotland got devolution, but England got none. England had the disaster of a Scottish Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who could wreak the English economy, but an English MP had precious little say in what went on in Gordon Brown’s constituency in Kirkcaldy. Scotland continued to send MPs to Westminster to vote on English matters, but had its own parliament as well. 

The devolution settlement was a Labour/Liberal stitch-up designed to give Scotland permanent Lab/Lib coalitions. It was all designed so that the SNP would never have power. But it did not work out that way. The reason is that the whole devolution settlement was poorly designed and unfair from the start.

Devolution is not wrong in principle, far from it. It is right to devolve power as locally as possible. But devolution is wrong if it only applies to one part of the country and not to another. In Germany there are 16 Länder with considerable amounts of devolved power and there is also a central government. This is fair and means that everyone gets an equal amount of devolved power. Imagine if that was not the case and if only Bavaria and Saxony had devolved power while the rest did not. This would cause resentment in the rest of Germany and would feed separatism in the places to which power had been devolved, by making them think that they were somehow special and different from the rest of the country.

This is just what has happened in Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales. Scotland has  introduced benefits which only apply to Scots, created major differences between what happens in Scotland and what happens in England. When the UK government introduces measures to tackle the national debt, it turns out frequently that these only apply in England. The Union, which is founded on the idea that all parts are equal, has found that some parts are more equal than others. This has caused resentment in England and led to a rise in anti-Scottish sentiment. This in turn feeds anti-English sentiment in Scotland and the bonds of the Union begin to creak.

Devolution within the UK should never have been a matter only for the Scots, the Welsh or the Northern Irish. It should have been a matter for the whole UK. It is for this reason that the Conservatives were right to oppose devolution. Not because devolution is wrong, but because devolution must occur across the whole country or not at all. Thus, the additional questions of “devo-max” or “devo-plus” are not a matter for Scotland alone and therefore can not be included in a referendum on independence, which is a matter for Scotland alone. 

All Scottish unionists should recognise that additional devolution, within the present context whereby England is denied any self-determination, is not only wrong in principle, but serves to undermine the Union. “Devo-max” or “devo-plus” would increase the already existing inequality within the Union. It is the unfair devolution settlement, which has led to the rise of the SNP.  Strangely, the SNP withdrew from the Constitutional Convention on the grounds that it failed to discuss independence as an option, only later fully realising that the resulting unfair devolution settlement has enabled them to to take gradual steps towards independence. 

Each German Land has a Landtag or assembly, but imagine if Bavaria had built a huge, expensive building, called it the Parliament of Bavaria, called itself the Bavarian Government and sent its Prime Minister around the world proposing its own foreign policy? Bavaria was independent state until 1871 and it would be at least as understandable for Bavarians to behave in this way as for Scots who have not been independent since 1707. But, of course, nationalism is a rather discredited ideology in Germany and the Bavaria party is tiny. Bavarians realise that German unity depends on each Land being treated equally and for each Landtag to accept that it is subordinate to the national parliament. If we contrast this with Scotland, it becomes obvious that it was the over-the-top attitudes of those who created the Scottish parliament, setting up a Constitutional Convention as if they were the Founding Fathers, building a huge expensive building. it was this grandiosity, which kindled nationalism in Scotland and lead to, a previously unimaginable, rise of the SNP giving them the chance to break the Union.  If on the other hand, each part of the UK had its own regional assembly, if each of them were equal and there were as many regional leaders as there are in Germany, Mr Salmond would be the equivalent of the leader of Yorkshire and the Humber and his pomposity would be rather pricked. 

Further devolution in Scotland without addressing the inequality of devolution across the UK will still further weaken the Union and will inevitably lead to independence within a few years, not least because England will eventually get sick of Scotland having its cake and eating it too. The Scots will never vote for independence. We know that it is advantageous for us to be in the UK and most of us feel both Scottish and British. Luckily at the moment most English people feel both English and British. But if we push our luck further, if we keep on devising beggar-thy-neighbour policies like free tuition fees for Scots only, the patience and fellow-feeling and tolerance in England is liable not to last much longer. Scots will never vote for independence, but England just might divorce us.