The Conservatives, the Union, Scotland and the British State
Open Democracy, July 11th 2011
While the entire British political and media class obsesses over the Murdoch News International scandal, former Prime Minister John Major has made a major speech on Scotland’s place in the union.
Speaking to the transatlantic Ditchley Foundation, Major laid out the case for Scottish self-government over nearly every aspect of domestic policy, raising its own taxes, and leaving economic, defence and foreign policy with Westminster. He stated:
Why not devolve all responsibilities except foreign policy, defence and management of the economy? Why not let Scotland have wider tax-raising powers to pay for their policies and, in return, abolish the present block grant settlement, reduce Scottish representation in the Commons, and cut the legislative burden at Westminster?
Such thinking goes way past the limited, flawed proposals in Calman and the current Scotland Bill and point towards full fiscal autonomy. John Major is seen as close to David Cameron, respected by him, and thought on some issues to advise and seen as influential in senior governmental circles.
Major said, ‘The present quasi-federalist settlement with Scotland is unsustainable’ and continued:
Each year of devolution has moved Scotland further from England. Scottish ambition is fraying English tolerance. This is a tie that will snap – unless the issue is resolved.
The Union between England and Scotland cannot be maintained by constant aggravation in Scotland and appeasement in London. I believe it is time to confront the argument head on.
Major stressed that he had opposed devolution as ‘a stepping stone to separation’ and had not changed his views since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. He argued that explaining the consequences of independence such as the loss of funding and end of current funding of public services and entitlements such as free prescriptions and tuition fees, would undercut support for independence. He then helpfully, added:
My own view on Scottish independence is very straightforward: it would be folly – bad for Scotland and bad for England – but, if Scots insist on it, England cannot – and should not – deny them.
This is a significant moment in the Tory statecraft to save the union, reform it, and as Tories do, remould it in their own self-interest. They have historically, Thatcher apart, always done these things better than Labour. ‘The Spectator Coffee House’ has commented that the Tories see the ideas put forward by Major ‘as a way of preserving the union, while increasing the prospects of Tory Governments at Westminster’ (2).
The outline of these proposals, devolving fundamental powers to Scotland which amount to full fiscal autonomy, ending the block grant settlement, and reducing Scots MPs at Westminster, isn’t surprising. The Tories are going to do everything they can to retain Scotland in the union, drawing on their adaptive, flexible unionist tradition, and do so in a way which maintains the status quo and current deformed nature of the central British state.
Then there is the misunderstanding of the nature of Scottish self-determination, seeing support for independence being savaged by the threat to current spending and arrangements such as free prescriptions and tuition fees. It is the Scotland as ‘the land of milk and honey’ perpetuated by the Andrew Neils, ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘The Economist’. The latter was at this week yet again, in one of its rather bitter, scornful pieces, declaring of the Scottish health service that, ‘the English, whose tax money funds their system’: words which are dismissive and inaccurate (3). Such a continued campaign of misinformation is going to eventually take its toll and end the union.
Major’s speech also included an acknowledgement of the chastised, challenging times for the UK. It was, ‘In terms of GDP, the UK is the sixth most wealthy country in the world. But our national balance sheet carries many liabilities’. Even more seriously:
We are no longer an Empire, nor will be ever again. We are a shrinking military power. By choice, and with majority public approval, we are semi-detached members of the EU. And even America – for so long our closest ally who generally sees the world as we do – is turning her face to the East, as self-interest determines she must. (4)
The Tories are moving on the union, doing what they do best, being pragmatic and conciliatory on the surface, while doing all they can to maintain the union which is central to their politics and identity, and just as crucially, maintain the bastardised nature of the British state. It won’t work, because constitutional change has consequences for the political centre, but don’t write off the Tories genius at reform to postpone more fundamental reform. They have been at it a rather long time.
1. ‘Give Scots more power, says Major’, Daily Telegraph, July 11th 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/8628094/Give-Scots-more-power-says-Major.html
2. James Forsyth, ‘Major Proposals on the Future of Scotland’, Spectator Coffee House, July 10th 2011, http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7087518/major-proposals-on-the-future-of-scotland.thtml
3. ‘Doctors Galore’, The Economist, July 9th 2011, http://www.economist.com/node/18928620?story_id=18928620
4. Nick Robinson, ‘Sir John Major dresses in tartan for devolution argument’, BBC News, July 9th 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14093640