Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The West Yorkshire Question

Despite my years of frothing outrage at the cynicism and cruelty of the UK Conservative Party, even I was genuinely shocked at David Cameron's reaction to the Scottish referendum result. No sooner had the dust settled on the PM's desperate bid to keep the UK together he was there again, putting the boot in on his political opponents. Labour had wheeled out the big guns to save his Premiership, and his instinctive response was to promise a constitutional reform that could conceivably prevent Labour ever governing the UK with a majority again. Of course, Labour had no choice but to do all it could to win the vote for No, for obvious reasons of parliamentary arithmetic. But now they find themselves skewered on the so-called West Lothian question as the Tories promise 'English votes for English laws'.

There is a superficial appeal to the WLQ just as there is often an instinctive rejection of 'postcode lotteries' in healthcare. Britons are quite relaxed about inequality of incomes and opportunities, but the formal equality of process is something they are quite attached to. Why should Scots get to vote on English health and education when the English can't vote on theirs? It's not fair. Of course, the reason we are in this situation to begin with is that for years - specifically between 1979-1997, and on 'reserved matters' from 2010 to now - the English were deciding for Scotland despite having no real mandate from Scotland to do so. But the English are the English. We didn't get where we are today by sharing power around.

The problem with 'English votes for English laws' is that it is so transparently a power-grab by the Conservative party. Aware that without Scotland, they would have every chance of a majority in the next parliament, the Tories are seizing the moment, with the cover of resolving the Scottish mess. They could manage to keep the Union together, but cement the dominance of England, and their own - victory from the jaws of defeat. The problem is, the logic of EVEL is actually an insidious one from their point of view. Why stop at England? Why not extend the logic of the West Lothian question to Northern Ireland, whose unionist majority in Westminster has regularly delivered parliamentary support to the Conservatives? Still better, why not consider all the representative iniquities of the UK constitution, such as the unaccountable institutions of the City of London, or the voting rights of the Church of England hierarchy in the House of Lords?

In fact what the West Lothian question does is turn the spotlight on the UK's wildly undemocratic constitution. Until now, English voters in the North of England or in major cities have not tended to see their plight in terms of territorial difference. But if with EVEL non-Tory areas felt that they were effectively condemned to permanent opposition this would be unlikely to hold. After 1979, Conservative support collapsed in Scotland, but also became increasingly territorially differentiated in England, both between North and South, and between cities and the suburbs and countryside. Will working class voters in Northern England accept a centralised state with a locked-in Tory majority? The hope of an eventual Labour victory kept England together through the 1980s and 1990s, but do we really think Liverpool, Bradford and Sheffield, or even inner London for that matter, will allow themselves to be ruled by the Tory shires forever?

The WLQ reminds us that we have an improvised, cobbled-together constitution. Devolution creates imbalances, largely because we lack any state-wide decentralised institutions of the kind that have allowed France, Spain and Italy to recognise territorial distinctiveness whilst maintaining a functioning central state. Resolving the WLQ does nothing but highlight how our constitution entrenches power amongst a metropolitan, Oxbridge-trained elite backed by the Southern English middle class. The rest of England - galvanised perhaps by the sight of an even more ridiculous old Etonian in Number 10? - could start to ask the West Yorkshire question: why should a region that has always voted Labour always get a Tory government?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Don't Leave Me This Way: Thoughts on the Scottish Referendum

All of a sudden, the Scottish referendum looks like it could cause an earthquake in the British political system, and indeed in Europe as a whole. At the very least, it is shaking the foundations of the UK establishment in a way we haven't seen at least since the MPs expenses scandal in 2009. The sight of the English leaders of the three main British-wide parties hurrying up to Scotland to appeal for a No vote reveals a lot about how this country works.

First, it shows the remarkable complacency that characterised the 'No' 'campaign' until last week - no real attempt was made to cast the Union in a positive and forward-looking light - if anything the message was: we know the UK is lousy, but independence would be even worse. Don't get ideas above your station.

Second, if they seriously think that these three products of the English elite class can convince wavering Scots to stay in the Union, they surely are making a big mistake. Clegg, Cameron and Miliband in their different ways are as out of touch as they could be with the British population in general, never mind Scotland.

Third, we can see how rarely our politicians actually ever make the attempt to understand what people want and why. Most of the time political campaigning here is about negative messages about opponents, threats of the terrible things that might happen if some popular policies were ever enacted, and manoeuvring to get the largely foreign press barons to offer their support (which thankfully is less and less important is newspaper circulation declines). The UK is held together by fear and apathy and it takes a moment like this - produced by David Cameron's unique mix of short-term opportunism and total detachment from popular sentiment - to show that most of us really don't like the way the country is governed.

The referendum has given the Scots the chance to do what many of us in the rest of the Union would love to do: defect from this elitist, unrepresentative and often incompetent political system. Fortunately for the Scots, a distinct national identity and a separate territory make this possible. For the English, anti-Europeanism seems to do the same job - after all, apart from immigration, there is no real policy issue determined at the European level that registers in the popular consciousness. When politics falls short, national identity can provide a focus for discontent and desire for change.

Very often though, nationalism offers largely delusional answers to our problems. In the case of the UK and Europe, Brexit would effectively mean that we would get roughly the same EU policies we get now, but not be allowed to vote on them (a 'fax democracy', as the Norwegian Prime Minister once put it). For Scotland, independence would have similar consequences. Scotland is so obviously interdependent with the rest of the UK that exit is a fantasy: as an independent state, Scotland would have the pound, the Queen, an open border with England and probably still a large UK military presence as part of its NATO contribution. Whatever independence it would gain would be pretty similar to what it already has: the right to spend its allocation of UK government spending as it wants and legislate over most areas of domestic social and economic policy (within the framework of EU law).

The big difference would probably be fiscal, in that rather than cashing in the Barnett Formula bonus in Westminster's allocation of public funds, Scotland would take oil revenues in directly. Whether or not Scotland would be better off under this arrangement is very hard to tell: it depends on very uncertain estimates of future UK public spending and future oil production and prices. Whichever way it plays out, managing what would become in many ways an oil-producing economy (especially since banking, Scotland's other big productive sector, would be pretty likely to move South) is a complicated business when you lack your own currency. The advantages of the oil money being recycled through Westminster is that it smoothes out the very volatile behaviour of oil revenues. Provided a beneficial settlement with the rest of the UK could be reached, Scotland would probably be better off in a fiscal and monetary union with the rest of the existing state.

Rationally, a very narrow No vote could end up being best for Scotland. It would suddenly have significantly increased bargaining power, and could use it to secure a more substantial form of fiscal independence which could involve some kind of guarantee that it gains most of the benefits of North Sea oil whilst maintaining complete control over how the money is spent. A Yes vote would present Scotland with the tricky business of creating a new state with, almost certainly, a rather less benign attitude from the rUK, which essentially holds all of the chips. It could very quickly get quite nasty and the financial turbulence we're starting to see would be an awful lot worse. With a strong but not victorious Yes vote, UK politics suddenly has to sit up and take notice, and this has already happened, with Cameron and Miliband eschewing the pointless debating society antics of PMQ in order to actually leave the Westminster bubble and make the case for belonging to this country.

There is a broader message in all this for the rest of us. Sitting moaning on our sofas about how much we hate our politicians will make no difference at all. Threatening major political upheaval will. UK politics as become a kind of elite game which can only survive with current levels of disengagement and apathy. Unfortunately it seems to be easier to mobilise around divisive and visceral national identities, than around concepts like social justice, environmental protection and democratic participation. But in a democracy, organised political action will always make a difference, and the powerful expression of popular demands can't be ignored.