The English problem

The Scottish SNP government’s pursuit of a referendum on independence has created a constitutional crisis for the UK.  But the real problem is England, not Scotland.

I don’t walk the corridors of power in Westminster, or mix with the great and the good who take in hand the the country’s affairs as an oblivious public goes about its daily life.  But I imagine that something close to panic is taking hold there.  Scotland is moving inexorably towards independence from the UK, while compromise proposals seem to raise more awkward questions than they answer.

The humiliation that beckons for these people – senior civil servants and senior Conservative and Labour party types that I will now refer to as “the British establishment”- can scarcely be imagined.  We get a flavour of it from some of the awkward questions that would be posed by Scotland’s exit from the union.  From the seemingly trivial – like what do we call the country that is left behind?  “Britain” won’t work any more, since this geographical term refers to the whole island; the “United Kingdom” will no longer be true (neither Wales nor Northern Ireland are kingdoms, unlike Scotland) and has no adjective to describe its citizens; “England” does not cover Wales and Northern Ireland.  And then there are more serious questions, like what future does the country’s nuclear deterrent have?

Scotland is a core part of the country’s historical identity.  How on Earth to explain its departure?  There is no precedent, outside the break up of colonial empires and or the demise of the multinational Habsburg and Soviet empires.  What do the British establishment tell their opposite numbers in Germany, Spain, Canada, and so on, countries that have all managed a diversity of identity within their borders of greater historical significance?  The loss of international prestige would be enormous; instead of being up there with Germany and France, the country will be jostling with Spain and Poland.  All this humiliation will be felt most acutely by the Conservatives, who have a romantic attachment to the country’s past greatness.  Where will it fit in Michael Gove’s new history curriculum? David Cameron will not want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who lost Scotland.

But such a prospect is real enough.  The usual levers of power seem to be ineffective.  With the AV referendum – the most recent perceived threat to the British establishment – the establishment could rustle up strong support from Tory grassroots and donors, plus a more or less united press, while neutralising the Labour Party.  None of this will work north of the border, where the British establishment has been comprehensively outmanoeuvred.

To make matters worse, there seems to be no, establishment friendly middle way.  There is the idea of “Devo-max” – where Scotland would take to itself full taxation powers, leaving defence and foreign affairs to London…a bit like Gibraltar.  Except that the Scots will want a say in who the British Prime Minster, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary are and the policies they follow.  But surely it is unacceptable that Scottish MPs could still retain their say over English domestic policy?  This problem has troubled constitutional experts since Irish Home Rule was mooted in the 19th century, and no acceptable solution has been found.

The British constitution is failing, with generations of complacency from the British establishment at last taking its toll.  The problem is England.  The logical, time-tested, way for the country to deal with the Scots desire for more autonomy is through a federation.  There would be a constitutionally constrained federal government, with highly autonomous states operating as a tier beneath.  But in the UK England is just too big to be treated as a single state in a structure like this.  Either it is so powerful that it can force through whatever ever it likes on the other countries, so no real advance; or the tiddler states of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are given such powers over the whole that the English will resent their right of veto.  I can’t think of any successful federation that is so lopsided.  Russia and the Soviet Union had a similar problem, which could not be resolved democratically.

So what about breaking up England into a series of regional states?  But this reverses hundreds of years of systematic centralisation.  Coherent regional identities either don’t cover swathes of the country (where does Northampton fit?), or are too small (Cornwall).  London, Yorkshire and East Anglia may fit the bill – but it gets much more difficult after that.  Worse than that is the total disdain with with British institutions treat the idea of English regionalism, from the Westminster establishment to the popular media.  The English public is indifferent to hostile.  John Prescott’s attempt to push regionalism in the last government was crushed when a referendum to set up an elected assembly in the North was voted down even more overwhelmingly in a referendum than was the Alternative Vote.

And yet the United Kingdom is crying out for a rebalancing of powers between different levels of government, including English regions – and such a rebalancing, across the whole country, is the only way to deal securely with the Scottish demand for autonomy.  It would benefit England too, but most English won’t have it, and that is the real problem.  The British establishment has suppressed sensible debate about the topic for so long that it seems too late to start it now.  The Scots are miles ahead.

The best way of dealing with the SNP’s drive for independence would be to offer a constitutional convention across the whole of the UK, and to ask the Scots to wait for its results before having their referendum.  This would at last allow the unionist side to take the initiative.  This would be a good idea for the Liberal Democrats to take up – since it closely follows the party’s existing policy.  But I can’t see the Conservatives biting.  The English simply aren’t ready for a mature constitutional debate.

If the British establishment are humiliated, as increasingly seems likely, they will only have themselves to blame.

19 thoughts on “The English problem”

  1. Matthew, excellent analysis of “The English Problem” and something which is often missed in peoplese minds, certainly south of the border. This is a huge deal for England (and NI, Wales, etc). The Telegraph published comments by a certain Conservative: “will Scotland be allowed to keep the British pound or will it be forced to take the Euro”. Another article said Scotland would “lose it’s access to the excellent resources of the Foreign Office”. Both miss the point. Replace the word “Scotland” with “England” in those statements and you get an incling of how much more difficult this is in reality. For example (and there are many) why would HM Embassy in Ballsbridge in Dublin (which I know to be in an excellent location with a modern building) become the English/Welsh/NI/Etc Embassy? Surely the Scots could get that one in exchange for Brussels, Paris and Berlin? More to the point, who would decide on how British resources are divided. We’re talking about a messy divorce with a large CD collection to divy up (some of them neither party wants). Sometimes though, the agony of divorce isn’t enough to keep the family united. That would require someone to admit that they’re part of a family in the first place and need to fit in….you know I’m talking about right?

    1. Thank you James. The arrogance of so many English commentators is at least as bad as those Scots that blame all their troubles on the Union.

    2. No, I can’t agree.
      I think if the Scots want independence the other nations, England/Wales/NI are perfectly entitled to carry on as normal Britain.
      Scotland is in reality yes a big land area, but economically a bit part of the UK.
      There was talk recently of BAE closing down its portsmouth yard, while keeping open its yards on the Clyde.. well how many orders are they going to get from an Independant Scotland? not many.
      You want to talk about getting Scotlands fair share of British assets while you want to take all the “Shetland” oil, the hypocrisy is amazing.

      Meanwhile predominantly English taxpayer is bailing out the Scottish banks, who met their disaster while the Scottish Chanceller was asleep at the wheel.

      If the Scots want independence fine for cultural reasons fine, but I find it disgusting the way they pretend to be so hard done by in the UK, they gain the most out of it.

      1. No. I think the Scots attitude to the UK is a bit like yours to the EU. A convenient source of blame for all sorts of problems, without acknowledging the benefits and, indeed, the impossibility of any country other than the US and China being properly independent in the modern world. Of course the British fiscal flows to the EU are pretty much one way, while those between Scotland and UK are much more ambiguous (depending on how you treat the oil money…).

        1. England and Scotland (+others) had been a unified for 300 years.

          With Scotland having massive influence over British affairs.

          We entered the EU purely as a trading block, its expanded from there without the peoples permission.
          Political party’s can only win by promissing referendums on key EU issues.
          Single currency, constitution.
          Even Blair promised to be strong on Europe, said he wouldn’t need the veto as he was going to win the issues.
          Now supposily Cameron has locked in a referendum on and new treaty, which I don’t believe they will kept to.

          If the EU was so great they would argue for it on their own merits, instead of the establishment trying to bounce us into it.

          (I refain from further comment about the EU in this thread. excuse my venting)

      2. Some Scots feel hard done but but most don’t. They are acutely aware of their place in the UK which is why this isn’t a deabate about independence or forming a new nation. It’s about breaking the Union.

  2. The issue of Scottish “independence” is a tricky one, as is Welsh independence.
    I mean look how its worked out for the Irish..
    They were “independent” for a very short period of time before now being taken over by the EU which is holding them to ransom for debts that are not the peoples responsibility.

    The reality is, Scotland is not arguing for Independence, they are arguing to be a seperate member of the EU than England/Wales/IN, which is not the same thing as independence at all, the Scottish government would be subservant to the EU on almost all issues.

    To me it seems very strange. At the moment Wales and Scotland are the heartland of the Labour party and as such punch above their weight on the national scene, being considered very important power bases, and the Conservatives are also always under pressure to improve their standing in those areas of the UK.
    Their importance far out weighs English regions with similar population sizes.
    Scots have dominated British politics for the last 14 years, and now even David Cameron has Scottish ansestry.

    So they have a position of power in a strong country that is Britain, yet they want to ditch that for becoming small country that will have almost no voice on the EU stage..

    I regard the whole thing as a pro-EU game of divide and rule.
    Which is also why I think the English rejected devolution, they have never had wide spread pro-EU sentiment and saw through this trick.
    Besides Labour didn’t put a proper devolution offer on the table in England, they were only offering to do it in a few areas where they thought they had a lot of support.

    1. “They were “independent” for a very short period of time before now being taken over by the EU which is holding them to ransom for debts that are not the peoples responsibility.”

      You really can’t have that. Those Irish debts were nothing but their own responsibility, as they let their property boom go unchecked and the finance industry run amok. Very similar to Iceland, but on a bigger scale. You seem to live in a world where all the problems are somebody else’s fault!

      Incidentally the period of Irish independence outside the EU was a very grim one. Things took off once they entered, and then their government (fully supported by the people, I don’t doubt) couldn’t understand the limits.

      1. Erm, so you believe its fair that the debts of a bank should be tranfered to the taxpayer the vast majority of which had absolutely no clue what was going on?

        1. It was a sovereign decision by a democratically elected government. The population may not have been aware of quite what was going on, but they were very happy to live off the boom in the good years. Once in the mess they just wasn’t an easy way out. If their banks had gone bust rather than just their government the Irish people wouldn’t have been any better off. Their economy would have fallen off an even higher cliff than it did. As it is they’ve been funded by lots of non Irish taxpayers, including us, in order to get them through the sticky patch. The problem was allowing that situation to develop. An irresponsible government elected by an irresponsible electorate failing to control irresponsible banks.

          1. “It was a sovereign decision by a democratically elected government.

            A democratically elected government only has power over what happens during their term in office, usually a very short period of time.
            Parliament may not bind its successor.
            Can it be right that one elected government can put a debt burden on a country taking generations to pay off, which those subsequent generations may not support?
            Personally I very much think not!

            “The population may not have been aware of quite what was going on, but they were very happy to live off the boom in the good years.”

            So? a drunk will drink if given the chance, a gambler will gamble, a drug adidict will do as they do.. And a politician will spend all the money they can get their hands on.
            Its the lenders who should see that the politicians are using the money mostly for preelection bribes and realised that there is going to be a problem if that continues.
            The lender is the one in position of power.

            “If their banks had gone bust rather than just their government the Irish people wouldn’t have been any better off. ”

            Well Iceland are doing ok.

            “Their economy would have fallen off an even higher cliff than it did.”

            Agreed, but have we finished falling ?
            I believe there is too much debt that can’t be repaid and we’ll revisit these problems shortly. There are still a lot of questionmarks over the Euro.

            “As it is they’ve been funded by lots of non Irish taxpayers, including us, in order to get them through the sticky patch.”

            If this was a purely domestic problem Ireland would have had little attention, imo.
            By bailing out Ireland we were bailing out our own banks who would have otherwise possibly gone bust, but certainly lost a fortune.

            “An irresponsible government elected by an irresponsible electorate failing to control irresponsible banks.”

            Huh, sounds like you’re talking about Britain!

            The Banks’ might not have been so irresponsible if it wasn’t for the moral hazard of knowing the government would bail them out.

          2. Yes it sticks in my throat too that those irresponsible lenders were let off the hook. I just don’t think there were many practical alternatives at the time. The answer is not to get into that situation. I wish that job could be left to governments, central banks and what have you (EU commissioners??!!) – but I’m afraid the public has to play a role too. Angela Merkl is quite right that it can’t just be a question of people shrugging and passing on the bill to the Germans, even if the Germans should own up to their contribution to the fiasco.

            Ireland’s politicians were not profligate – they ran a much tighter ship on government expenditure than we did. Neither did they say anything (to my knowledge) to suggest that all debt debts would be guaranteed. But they, and their electors, were blind to the dangers of the massive private sector surge in development. At least in this country we don’t have very many derelict half-built housing estates.

            The comparison with Iceland is illuminating. Each country took a different route to solve their bust. Both have ended up in more or less the same place – their busts having bottomed out (though I wouldn’t describe things in either country as “doing OK”). It will be interesting to see how their respective economies go from here.

            And you are right that main reason that we and others got involved in rescuing Ireland was to protect our own bankers – though our exporters also come into it. We didn’t export very much to Iceland.

  3. I believe what the SNP want is really Devo-max, because they probably wouldn’t win independence at the moment but Devo-max would be so unfair on the English (unless the West Lothian question is answered) that it would cause an eventual split, and probably on more favourable terms for the Scots than if they left unilaterally.

    Devo-max would also allow the British establishment to hang on a bit longer, giving them more time to integrate us into the EU, which is clearly the plan especially if you look at the way the armied forces are being taken apart.

    1. Agree with your first para. As for the second para – surely it is NATO to blame, not EU, if you must persist in blaming everybody else for all our problems!

      1. I don’t follow how NATO is to blame?

        The EU want to create an EU armied service. The elites reduce national defences to that end.

        1. It is NATO which is integrating our armed forces so much with America and other nations that they can’t operate independently any more, making a mockery of the idea that we are somehow an independent nation. The idea of an EU army s a fantasy of a certain type of Euro fedaralist that has never been a realistic proposition, and which ahs always been rsisted by the British establishment.

  4. James Gray mentions the problem of the Embassy’s .
    But that is a minor issue, what about our over seas dependances, Gibralter? etc.
    A breakup of the UK would probably envoke an invasion of the Falkland islands as well.

    The whole thing would be a disaster.

    Also, Scotland for a long time has had 50% of students in higher education and since Scotland doesn’t need that many Uni grads a very large number come to work in England..

    If Scotland was no longer in Britain could it be right that Scots still dominate the ranks of British civil service?
    You might think terribly illiberal to ask such a question, but could the reverse happen? Would the Scots accept a civil service dominated by the English? I doubt that very much.

    People seem to talk of independence as if Englands union with Wales and Scotland (avoiding Ireland for a moment) has been some sort of fleeting arrangement, but its lasted longer than very many countries have even existed.
    Its been long lasting and a great deal of mixing has taken place, a split would be very difficult.

    1. The more you think about it, the messier it gets. Probably why there will be a no vote, and why Salmond is actually after Devo-Max

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