The Paradox of Unionism
The Cuthberts’ Paper published here “Smith Commission: why the economic and fiscal arrangements need to be changed” (26th May) is an important reminder of the real nature of the key issues that face Scotland now. I would urge everyone who has not already done so, to read the Cuthberts’ article (which combines acute economic understanding, with the insight of insiders into the administration of government in Britain); to read it in order to understand why neither the present Westminster Government proposals, nor the Smith Commission proposals, which the new Scotland Bill (2015) is alleged to represent, can be acceptable to Scotland as they stand. The Cuthberts’ paper predates the publication of the Bill, but I do not think the Bill now offers anything to diminish the Cuthberts’ specific concerns.
I am, in particular, in complete agreement with the perceptive and critically important proposition presented in the Cuthberts introductory remarks, as follows:
“1. …. …. we argue that satisfactory implementation of Smith depends on implementing a properly federal system at UK level.”
As I understand their analysis this need for a federal solution informs most of the serious difficulties thrown up either by Smith or Barnett.
The problem is that Westminster continues to see the whole question of British government and of the government of Scotland as a specific case of “devolution” (the term still used in the Queen’s speech); and thus as a matter of narrow, traditional, uni-directional Westminster political patronage being granted to Scotland to solve an acute but passing problem; rather than facing the obvious and urgent need for root-and-branch reform of the British State, which is implied by the Cuthberts call for federalism. Radical reform is now long overdue in our threadbare State; a State that is slowly, but only too surely, becoming discredited in the eyes of a thoroughly alienated public, in spite of the current Westminster parties badly misreading the signals provided in the 2015 general election.
There is at bottom very little in that election to reassure the Conservative Party about its own long-term future, in spite of winning it. General Election turnouts since the millennium have settled in the mid-60% range (none of the five elections since 2000 have reached a 70% turnout), compared with turnouts of 70%-80%+ consistently, almost invariably throughout the politically engaged 20th century (with World War I, unsurprisingly providing the only exception).
In 2015 David Cameron is supported by only a few points more than one-third of those who voted; but the turnouts have been in long-term decline and he is in fact supported by only 24% of the British people; less than 1-in-4. One-third of the electorate is so alienated or politically desensitized by the sheer superficial, spin-doctored, cheap awfulness of British political discourse that they do not bother to vote at all. What has any of it to with them? Why would they vote? Mr Cameron, you and your party impress few, and inspire none. The best case to be made for Cameron now occupying 10, Downing Street would be to say that clearly, nobody cares; through alienation, neglect, indifference or downright despair, he has acquired accidental, and slightly suspect, squatting rights of No.10.
There is, of course one obvious British exception to this brute electoral fact: Scotland. I wonder why?
The Scotland Bill (2015) follows earlier Scotland Bills (for example 2012) that have been overtaken by events, politics and history. There is a wearisome sense of Westminster repeating the same mistakes endlessly; ‘deja vu’ meets ‘groundhog day’. Indeed, the 2015 Bill provides no comforting assurance that this new Cameronesque, newly ‘mandated’ collection of Westminster Unionists understand any better than the notably inadequate and inexpert past Westminster Unionists, how to ensure or preserve the future of the Union. This is not helped by The Daily Telegraph (Friday, 29th May) proselytising the Bill and dismissing the Scottish Government’s criticism of its failure to deliver even the Smith Commission proposals; with the Telegraph citing the approval of “senior legal figures”.
The Bill is 76 pages, including Schedules; explanatory notes are published separately, presumably to enhance the inconvenience of the experience for the general reader. It is turgidly (if not badly) drafted as an aggressively and unapologetically arcane legal document, without making even the smallest gesture towards context, or comprehension; or acknowledgement that any member of the public may wish to read or adequately understand the contents, without undertaking painstaking, personal, forensic research. This is a very bad political move in the post-Referendum age.
As a text the Bill is unreadable as a stand-alone document, because its sense depends on a veritable plethora of preceding Acts; as is too often the conventional drafting procedure in Westminster. For example, Part 1, sections 1-11 of the Bill make reference to various sections of the Scotland Act 1998, into which the Bill’s individual provisions (perhaps a sentence, phrase, or even single word) are to be inserted; with complementary excisions. It is not possible to understand fully the contents of these provisions unless the Bill and the referenced Act(s) are read together; and of course no effort is made by Westminster to provide the consolidated output of the relevant Bill/Acts for the public to read (incidentally Part 2, ‘Tax’ is no clearer to read than Part 1, including tersely drafted amendments to the Income Tax Act 2007; and I shall go no further here than Parts 1 and 2 of this deeply obtuse text).
I take my hat off to the lawyers cited by the Telegraph, who have undertaken the rigorous and careful, detailed scrutiny required, and even pronounced on the success of the Bill; all impressively accomplished within 24 hours of the Bill’s publication. This is not, however a triumph of explanation, analysis or vindication; for it is not sufficient for the rest of us, merely to offer the argument that success is achieved by satisfying a cosy group of interested lawyers, in order to make the Telegraph’s doubtful case; an ‘argumentum ad verecundiam’ in which the authority rests on a legal ‘opinion’, and thus a deduction far short of certainty, either in law or logic. Rather the Telegraph argument points to the systemic failure of Westminster to meet the challenge, to rise to the communication requirements of the age in which we live, to demonstrate the wisdom of Westminster, or to prove the mettle of those who drafted or approved the text. What should Westminster have done? Speak in clear, plain terms to the public, or take the consequences. The influence of lawyers on the drafting of the Bill is (necessary, but) bad enough; the idea that lawyers (of all people) provide sufficient final authority on the content is frankly risible.
On Barnett, I have one point to add to the Cuthberts’ thesis. The Barnett Formula is not quite what it seems. Not all Government expenditure is caught by its provisions; either ‘de jure’ or ‘de facto’; as a matter of fact, it is possible for Governments simply to avoid Barnett. Indeed London is effectively a vast Barnett bypass (and even where there are Barnett consequentials, it bypasses most of England). Within England 85% of all spending on infrastructure is allocated to London and the South-East, with 80% devoured by London alone; The population of Greater London in the 2011 census represented 15.5% of the population of England. Thus:
- London takes 80% of England’s infrastructure investment, to serve under 16% of England’s population.
- The rest of England takes 20% of England’s total infrastructure spend (but this includes the South East, which alone receives one quarter of the 20% residue), to serve 85.5% of the population.
This quite extraordinary, frankly ludicrous bias against everyone living outside London impacts seriously on the economic growth prospects of the whole country; with a greater impact the further from London any country or region is located; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are located on the periphery of English regions that are themselves infrastructurally under-resourced. It is an appalling indictment of investment decision-making that is supposedly in the ‘national interest’; which has come to mean investment exclusively London’s interest first, last and everything in between. And this miserable set of half-hidden outcomes that serves London at everybody’s expense rests firmly at the door of Westminster, and its repellant, incestuous, highly political relationship with London and the City of London. This is quite obviously politically unacceptable, and bad economics, but this pernicious effect persists and it grows like an uncontrolled ragweed, polluting and strangling our politics to this day.
At the same time its effects explain much about the farcical (if it was not dangerous) property bubble that sustains the continued complacency of a London population which is conditioned to be neurotically obsessed with property ladders; and whose prosperity notably rests less and less on actual work. Work which is merely a treadmill-mortgage-feeder conjured by an optimistic banker with a screen and a flash-line in instantly created money; no doubt borrowing the basic treadmill idea from some lurid, post-modern, dystopian vision of ‘Metropolis’; borrowing short and lending long to build a pyramid of credit resting ultimately on the vicarious ownership on borrowed money, of an overpriced house in a wildly distorted “market”.
The call for federalism is fundamental if these issues are to be addressed at all in Britain (no other mechanism has the power to change at a deep enough level), although it is important to recognise that Westminster has a recalcitrant, arrogant, ingrained resistance to facing the depth of the problem this call made by the Cuthberts reveals for the nature of the way politics and government is conducted in Britain; or of embracing more than palliative change, without understanding that such an inadequate response as Unionists currently advance is only appropriate if Westminster has already accepted that the Union cannot be saved, but is in a terminal condition; and indeed, whether Unionists (consciously or unconsciously) are already discounting an extinction event. This approach to the problem by Unionist politicians is not helped (assuming Unionism’s consistently bad political judgement is not intentional and cynical) by the real interests of the political parties, which are not co-terminus even with their own somewhat one-eyed interpretation of the British national interest; not least through party political vested interest, both individually, but more invidiously, collectively: an overarching commitment to what I term the Westminster Cartel. In short, Unionists are currently Unionism’s worst enemy.
I categorise the matter in this way, because I think this allows us to focus on the underlying nature of the problem; not least because almost nobody in Westminster adequately recognises the risks, or has the impartiality to view the matter from a wider, inclusive British perspective. In this sense Westminster suffers from a paradoxical mixture of responses; complacency and blind denial.
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