If it's good enough for the Scots it's good enough for the English
By Simon Heffer
The weird windows of the ugly Scottish Parliament building - a building paid for courtesy of the English taxpayer.
One of the more astonishing features of our politics is the way in which really quite clever and experienced people fail, from time to time, to see the blindingly obvious. One example is the way in which some of those around Tony Blair — and for all I know Mr Blair himself — have believed, on and off over the past few years, that it might be possible to stop Gordon Brown becoming PM. Another was the even more foolish, and much more widely held, fantasy that granting devolution to Scotland would not, sooner rather than later, lead to a rampant rise of Scottish nationalism. As the more astute among you will immediately realise, these two concerns are inextricably linked.
I begin to suspect that the likely timing of Mr Blair's departure from office — in the late spring or early summer of next year — has been set to cause the most difficulty to his probable successor. For on May 3, the third elections for the Scottish Parliament will be held. Scotland is now governed by a coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems. However, the SNP was five points ahead of Labour in a poll published this week. That this is no flash in the pan can be judged from how the Scottish Labour conference in Oban last weekend was dominated by big beasts of the Cabinet, from the Prime Minister downwards, warning the assembled multitude that waste, devastation and quite probably complete apocalypse would follow for Scotland if it elected the SNP. The SNP reported a further ground-swell of interest as a result of these attacks, and a Labour internal poll revealed yesterday that the SNP's lead had extended to eight per cent.
So: imagine you are Mr Brown, and you have just become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Imagine, too, that the people of Scotland have, a few weeks earlier, elected an SNP government to rule them — a minority government, no doubt, but a government none the less. You, as Prime Minister of a nation that is about 85 per cent English, are yourself Scottish. You sit for a Scottish seat at Westminster. Your fellow Scots have, however, put into power a party committed to calling a referendum on whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. More than two thirds of the 85 per cent of the foreigners over whom you now rule want (according to a poll just published by The Sunday Telegraph) an English parliament. And all concerned have the temerity to do these things despite the fact that you yourself, sensing trouble ahead, have spent much of the past two or three years making regular, cynical and implausible speeches about "Britishness". Oh dear.
Please forgive a moment of self-regard, which I introduce purely (well, almost purely) because it is relevant. Eight years ago, I wrote a book entitled Nor Shall My Sword: the Reinvention of England. It appeared a couple of months before the first Scottish elections and it made the following points. First, that devolution would lead inevitably to separatism.
Second, that if the Scots wished to separate from England, there was nothing we could, or should, do to stop them (oh, if only Gladstone's Irish Home Rule Bill of 1886 had been passed, etc etc). Third, that this might actually be beneficial to the English taxpayer. And fourth, that in any political system the rulers ignore the rights of majorities at their peril: and that the inevitable consequence of denying the English the same constitutional rights as the Scots — a referendum on their own separateness, and allowing any wish for separateness to be expressed in an independent parliament — would lead to towering resentments.
The way in which this book was received speaks much of the flavour of those less enlightened times. It had a rave review from Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP. Michael Portillo, then in the middle of reinventing himself as a proto-Cameronian, addressed the work in a tone that suggested the men in white coats would be coming for the author within a matter of hours. When I read in The Sunday Telegraph not just that 68 per cent of my fellow English now want their own parliament, but that 59 per cent would be happy for Scotland to be fully independent, I know we will never be able to build the madhouses fast enough.
It is not hard to see why the English feel these things. First, they have had largely alien rule for the the past 10 years. Serve you right, the Scots would say, recalling the Thatcher years, when they, too, felt occupied. But the Scots sought, and received, a remedy for their alleged sufferings: all the English now want is equal treatment.
Second, the English have been treated to the most preposterous justifications of why Scottish Labour MPs should still vote in the Westminster Parliament on matters that, in Scotland, are dealt with by the Parliament in Edinburgh. Foundation hospitals and top-up fees are only on the statute book because of the help the Government received from Scottish MPs with no interest in the matter.
No wonder, with a much smaller majority now than when those measures went through, Labour is desperate to retain this lobby-fodder.
Increasingly, though, in an era when we are all feeling grotesquely overtaxed, there is the question of money. Sixty per cent of those questioned in The Sunday Telegraph poll resented the far higher per capita public spending in Scotland compared with England. The revenue-raising powers of the Scottish Parliament do not have to be used to fund handsome new capital projects in Scotland — not least their extravagant new parliament building — while the English taxpayer is standing by to have his pocket picked. As an article on this subject in this month's Prospect points out, per capita spending is 30 per cent higher in Scotland, but GDP per capita is five per cent LOWER than in England.
Despite this herculean level of bribery of the Scottish voter, growth rates simply do not improve. It is a glowing, and ghastly, example of the evils of the subsidy culture. And, quite clearly, not only is it not doing the English taxpayer any good, it is also not doing the Scots any long-term good either.
Scotland is on its way to sovietisation. The amount of GDP spent in the public sector, at 50 per cent, is 10 per cent higher than in the United Kingdom as a whole. £11 billion more is spent in Scotland than is raised in revenue there. The SNP says this takes no account of the oil revenues. But, should Scotland ever become independent, there will have to be an interesting discussion about the nature of territorial waters, and about the origins of the money used to develop the oilfields. There might also be a debate about whether Shetland, in the event of independence, would want to be part of Scotland, or would prefer to remain a dependency of England, or would even like to revert to being part of Norway (most Shetland Islanders don't even consider themselves to be Scottish. Despite being a part of Scotland and Britain their preferred "nationality" is "Shetland Islander" first and foremost.)
So far, all the decision-making in these matters has been placed on the Scots. That has to stop. The English deserve their referendum, too, on whether they wish to remain in any sort of union with Scotland. If they can have their own Parliament, then why shouldn't England? If they wish to be separate, then why should the English subsidise them? Above all, why should the rights of the English majority be so aggressively denied?
I know this is horrid for Gordon Brown, who, like Napoleon, or Stalin, or Hitler, aspires to come from a distant province or satellite state and take over the mother country. But he and his friends started this process: it is a shame, given how very brilliant we are always being told he is, that he wasn't clever enough to realise how we might finish what he started.
Last edited by Blackleaf; Nov 29th, 2006 at 02:43 PM..