The Unions of the United Kingdom are Changing
The Scotsman, October 26th 2013
This week the British media turned its attention to the christening of the Royal Baby with the headlines ‘Gorgeous George’, continued its obsessions with who said what and apologised for what in ‘Plebgate’, and allowed for an occasional airing of the issue which rocked Scotland: the potential closure of Grangemouth petrochemical plant.
Such coverage shows the growing divergence between the London media and political world and the concerns of Scotland, but a small part of the thoughtful English media turned its attention to the implications from the Scottish debate for the UK, in ways which tell us a lot about how Scotland is changing and the nature of the UK.
Adam Price, a former Plaid Cymru MP, wrote in ‘The Guardian’ about the collapsing state of Britain’s national institutions and the trashing of public goods and services by the Cameron government. He addressed accurately the increasingly apocryphal language of the ‘Better Together’ camp which he believes ‘carries with it the not so subtle subtext of a married couple pondering the upheavals of divorce’.
Price directly challenged this assumption, reminding pro-union opinion that in terms of the union there are ‘four people in this marriage’. This means it isn’t just about Scotland or Scotland and England, but the voices of Wales and Northern Ireland. As we speak these entail four very distinct futures, of which the most complicated and confused is the direction of England, seemingly fixated at a political class level with Europe, immigration and fueling the concentration of power and wealth in the London city region.
Then there was David Aaronvitch claiming that the rest of the UK needed to wake up to the scale of change ongoing due to Scotland – with the greatest shift since the Reform Act of 1832 on offer. However, Aaronvitch argued that ‘three elections have been altered by the Scottish vote since 1955’.
This is just inaccurate. On any criterion, only the 1964 and February 1974 elections saw England tipped over into the Labour camp when it more marginally returned more Tory MPs. That’s a total of two elections which were knife-edge contests (2010’s inclusive result seeing England affected by not just the Scots but Welsh and Northern Irish). Scotland has seen seven elections since 1959 in which Scots voters were over-turned, including six of the last nine. Scotland has endured 30 years of governments it didn’t vote for in the last 54 years; England for just over two years.
But this is the wrong way to look at things remembering Price’s four partners. Aaronvitch ignores the impact of Wales and Northern Ireland. Take Churchill’s return to office in 1951; an election which threw out the Attlee Government even though Labour won more votes. Churchill’s UK majority of 17 was entirely made up of Ulster Unionist support who, if they had been on opposition benches, would have produced a hung Parliament.
If Northern Irish politics had been the same in 1974 as 1951, British politics could have been very different. The election produced an inclusive result: Labour 301, Tories 297, leading to a minority Labour administration. If the Ulster Unionists had still taken the Tory whip as they did to 1972, the Tories would have been seven seats ahead of Labour, and Heath’s post-election offer of a deal with the Liberals more possible. And if Heath had stayed in office, there would have been no Thatcher as Tory leader and no Thatcherism.
There are some signs of political aware liberal England following the Scots debate. Martin Kettle in ‘The Guardian’ was a small watershed, picking up and understanding some of the nuance of the Scottish debate. He recognised that much of Scotland’s pro-self-government movement is more motivated by what kind of society people want to live in, than constitutional arrangements.
Kettle referenced the Jimmy Reid Foundation Common Weal project and the growing independence aspirations to shift Scotland into being a more Nordic social democratic country. He didn’t dismiss or scoff at these, understood the deep political emotions they tapped into, and that they illustrated the chasm at the heart of British politics.
There are numerous questions that can thrown up to these initiatives: the Common Weal is a bit like a pick ‘n’ mix 1970s left shopping list which it is difficult to imagine the SNP or Labour fully adopting. Then there is the inconvenient fact that Scotland cannot be fully Nordic because of at least two fundamentals: geography and history. And finally there is the issue of how social democratic Scotland’s political culture really is.
Yet with all this and the retreat of the centre-left across Europe, Kettle notes rightly ‘there is something distinctly Scottish about it’, even in its drawing from European examples.
Something is moving in parts of England and Wales (and Northern Ireland too), being motivated, interested and challenged by Scottish developments. Some of this is healthy, but it would be good if some of the more blinkered pro-union opinion could recognise a bit of this bigger picture.
How important reflective voices such as Kettle and Aaronvitch will be in the next year is anyone’s guess. How will they fare against the loud, certain, reactionary voices of the likes of Simon Heffer trying to wave Scotland good riddance?
Then there are the confused voices of liberal England such as ‘The Observer’s’ Catherine Bennett. A few weeks ago she wrote a bizarre piece about Scotland claiming it was a land obsessed with Bannockburn and the past. Bennett even wrote that it was hard to imagine the UK fixating in this way, oblivious to the continual war celebrations next year of World War One.
We are in uncharted waters – that confuses some old style unionists here and throws up some unattractive belligerent nationalists. That’s hardly the substantive point.
When Aaronvitch said this was as big as the Reform Act of 1832 he was on the right lines, but with the wrong example. Scottish independence would be an existential blow to UK self-confidence. The only other comparisons are the loss of the American colonies in 1783 and beginning of Irish independence in 1922. Britain really has still never fully got over either.
The Irish example is salutary. It took from 1922 to 1949 for Ireland to become fully independent: 27 years. Similarly it took Iceland 25 years from home rule to independence. The same will probably be true for Scotland. The clock is as we speak ticking on the present union. The question is whether the starting gun is 1999 or 2014?