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Monday, 22 September 2014

A More Perfect Union

I wasn't surprised the Scottish referendum produced a "no" result, because I never bought the idea that Scotland was a social democratic nation. It's by no means the whole story, but I suspect it was the determination of pensioners and rentiers to protect their assets that produced the larger than anticipated margin of victory, which suggests an instrumental continuity with the original "parcel of rogues". Ironically, the deindustrialisation that has stimulated independence has also undermined it by exporting the more progressive young and leaving the country older and more cautious. The politically pivotal cohort throughout the union has been the modest middle class, not the more demographically fluid working class of the industrial belt. Salmond has resigned because he knows the Labour voters successfully attracted to yes were outnumbered by the SNP voters who quietly chose no.

The opportunism of the Tories in flipping the debate on devolution to party advantage was as predictable as Labour's confusion, but it has at least served to marginalise liberal fantasies of federalism and an elected senate. Timothy Garton Ash is already pleading "Let's not fear the F-word". Like most liberal historians, he prefers myth to reality: "In crafting our new federal kingdom, we will have a lot of international experience to draw on. One of the many peculiarities of Britain is that, while repeatedly spurning federalism, it has both left behind numerous federations across the English-speaking world (Canada, Australia, India) and currently exists inside a European Union which contains many federal countries and itself has federal elements. Britain is like a man who has left a trail of puddles behind him, and lives at sea, but keeps insisting that he doesn’t like water".

Far from "spurning federalism", the UK (or whatever it's called this week) has tried various forms of constitutional federation since the Parliament of the Lordship of Ireland in 1297, and the results have not been edifying. The key point to bear in mind is that federalism has nothing to do with democracy: it is a compromise with geography and local elite interests. Protestant Ireland had its own parliament till the "union of the kingdoms" in 1800, while Northern Ireland enjoyed home rule at Stormont from 1921 till the imposition of direct rule in 1972 (and a degree of autonomy in excess of devo-max, including control of a paramilitary police). Though Scotland lost its parliament in 1707, it retained autonomy over law, the church and education, which made up a large part of government's domestic concerns in the age before income tax and welfare spending.

The gift of federalism "across the English-speaking world" is the legacy of empire and the need for an intermediate layer of government to coordinate regional security. The original 13 colonies of America were federated to the UK and, despite the self-serving myth of "salutary neglect", were politically cohesive with the mother country until the Seven Year's War eliminated the French and Spanish threats. The vainglory of the organic emergence of federalism in 1776, with its legitimation through appeals to Republican Rome, Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, was in reality an aggressive management buy-out. The common theme in this history is the design of regional authority to entrench sectarian and elite privileges, which can either be achieved in concert with or in opposition to the centre. The Scottish swithering between independence and union, and the role that elite financial interests played in the campaign, is typical.

The creation of a formal four-state federation for the UK would be problematic because of the 800 pound English gorilla, which again highlights the inconsistency of federalism and democracy. The demand for a "fair" settlement of legislative authority and public spending (aka the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula) would mean a relative diminution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which would make the federation divisive from day one. A sub-division of England into regions has some administrative merit, but is unlikely to happen due to Tory suspicion of the "interventionist state" being recreated at regional level, the reservations of Labour centralists and Whitehall civil servants, and the distraction of antiquarianism (the dubious case for Yorkshire, Cornwall, Wessex etc).


The fundamental imbalance of the UK is about capital not current expenditure. The disadvantage of the North of England is not in higher deprivation and welfare spending, which is symptomatic, but in capital formation. This is probably visible in a street near you. Over 30 years, we have recycled national capital from the regions into property and other assets that have predominantly benefited the South East. Related to this imbalance in physical capital, the period has also seen a redistribution of human capital to London and its immediate hinterland (the Head of Transport for London chooses this moment to tell us that we must invest more or risk riots). As in Scotland, this has made the other regions of the UK relatively older and more conservative. While this has produced a bleak and reactionary temper in the marginal towns that UKIP now targets, it has also encouraged a bland conformism in much of the North outside self-consciously "buzzing" city centres.

Some Labour neoliberals are sincere in wanting to reverse this process, but are incapable of thinking beyond the managerialist poetry of "the larger cities and their travel-to-work areas". Principles such as autonomy are submerged beneath integrated transport strategies and local enterprise partnerships. This willingness to promote devolution after three decades of aggressive centralisation does not reflect a democratic counter movement. Rather it indicates the completion of the neoliberal project, which was to knit business and government so closely together that they could not be separated. For all the talk of civic pride and "regional powerhouses", modern devolution means CEO-style mayors, unelected "leadership boards" and the continued privatisation of services. A devolution plan that does not centrally address the City of London is just a bid for an enhanced dole.

The Tories have a preference for an English parliament over regional devolution, largely because this would maximise an assumed conservative majority in England and entrench English dominance within the union. But rather than create a new tier of government, that assembly would simply be a subset of the national parliament with the lesser breeds periodically excluded. Even without my sarcasm it has a patronising tone to it, not least because it is being advanced by the likes of John Redwood, a former colonial governor of Wales. The language employed over the West Lothian Question - the appeal to "fairness" - is that of a petulant narcissist. The decisive votes on all matters at Westminster are those of English MPs. There is no democratic deficit. In truth, an English parliament is less a serious proposal than a means of keeping UKIP at bay and Labour flustered.

Libertarian rightists like Daniel Hannan are as susceptible to fantasy as Timothy Garton Ash, imagining devolution as anti-government: "We could have pluralism at local level, with the freedom to innovate, to trial new ideas, to copy best practice. We could have tax competition, leading to downward pressure on rates. We could restore honour and purpose to local democracy, attracting a higher calibre of candidate. And then – a delicious bonus – we could let the House of Commons become a part-time assembly of citizen legislators, meeting for no more than 40 days a year, its MPs compensated for their time rather than paid salaries". This is reactionary ancestor worship: full-steam ahead to 1776.

What the last few weeks have shown is that the British constitution is contingent and plastic. This should not come as a surprise, given that it is unwritten and few citizens have even a vague idea of the contents of the 1689 Bill of Rights. This also reminds us that the role of the monarchy is to provide a veneer of stability and the mythos of traditional continuity where too often we have a profitable vacuum (Kate's bump will soon edge Scotland off the front pages). Cameron's Friday morning announcement briefly revealed the cynical calculation and jockeying that is normally obscured by this spectacle, but what it also suggested is that we're some way off a "constitutional moment" and that revolution isn't imminent. No wonder share prices bounced up.

8 comments:

  1. Many thanks for this high quality blog.

    If Scotland is not a social democratic nation how come it returned 40 Labour MPs out of 59?

    From Wikipedia “The Scottish Council of the British Labour Party .., often branded Scottish Labour, is a social-democratic, political party in Scotland which operates as the section of the United Kingdom's Labour Party in Scotland.”

    From the SNP website

    “The SNP is a social democratic political party committed to Scottish independence.”

    Greater Glasgow the 5th ? largest urban area in the UK and formerly second city of empire just voted in favour of leaving the UK. The UK PM claims to be “delighted” instead of being relieved at the overall no vote, but shaken to the core. The gist of this blog post is there won’t be a radical shake up in the UK as a result. I can believe this is true but I don’t fully understand why.

    There is a compelling blog post about complete abolition of the House of Lords http://fromarsetoelbow.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/house-raus.html

    Apart from this are there any posts about what form of devolution or reform of government would work?

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  2. The number of MPs is only an approximation of the political views of the population. In 2010, Labour secured 42% of the vote in the UK general election. In 2011, it got 32% of the vote in the elections to the Scottish Assembly. The SNP got 20% and 45% respectively. If you believe their joint claims, this implies a social democratic vote of between 62% and 77%.

    However, neither party is actually social democratic in the traditional sense of being committed to relatively high tax and spend, collective bargaining and selective nationalisation. Both parties have been infected by neoliberalism, hence their support for welfare "reforms", privatisation and low corporation tax. The term "social democratic" has come to mean little beyond "not Tory".

    The delusion of many commentators is that the Scottish people are more to the left of the English and (consequently) national Labour policy, which led many to assume the referendum would produce a yes victory (because that is the "progressive" cause). In fact, much of the SNP support comes from people who would otherwise vote Tory (and did in the past), while there is undoubtedly a strong strand of Scottish Labour that is comfortable with neoliberalism (Brown, Darling, Alxeander, Murphy etc).

    While the pseudo-left can command a majority in Scotland in both Westminster and Holyrood elections, this evaporates on the issue of independence, where personal financial concerns (pensions, shares etc) become more salient than anodynes about "saving the NHS", which is why Alex Salmond was initially reluctant to hold the referendum.

    Devolution is being proferred as the solution to the UK's economic and social imbalance, but that very imbalance means it cannot work. The problem is the dominance of London, and more particulary the current "independence" of the City. Unless that is addressed, and in particular we engineer a massive shift of capital investment to the regions, devolution can only turn into a national dole for depressed areas that actually serves to entrench the power of London.

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  3. I'm conscious that my final paragraph in the comment above might appear a bit thin as a programme of constitutional reform, so here's a shopping list:

    1) Abolition of the monarchy -- Specifically the abolition of royal prerogative, which allows the executive to bypass Parliament in key areas, and orders in council.

    2) Abolition of the City of London Corporation -- Incorporation of all local government functions into the Greater London Authority. Sequestration of all assets and cash by the UK Exchequer.

    3) Reform of British Overseas Territories -- They either harmonise their tax regime with that of the UK, or they become independent. In other words, they stop being tax havens.

    4) Full incorporation of Crown Dependencies (Channels Islands, Isle of Man) into the UK -- In other words, they stop being tax havens. They can stay as separate local authorities if they wish.

    5) Abolition of the House of Lords -- I don't believe we need a second chamber, even in the case of regional devolution.

    6) Reinstatement of the metropolitan county councils and GLC (i.e. upgrade the GLA).

    7) Abolition of "local enterprise partnerships" and other non-democratic regional quangos, and devolution of economic powers to local authorities.

    8) Creation of a national investment bank with a remit to direct capital to productive investments across the UK -- This isn't really a constitutional reform, however I think we should treat it as such in order to make the point that the bank will have a decades-long brief to redress the imbalance of capital formation across the country. The bank should be overseen by Parliament, not the executive (i.e. ministers).

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    1. Sorry to be pedantic, but if we abolished the monarchy we wouldn't be the "UK" any more. What official name would you suggest for a republic of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

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    2. You've probably answered your own question, but an alternative might be the United Konfederacy, which would simplify the transition and be popular wi da yoof.

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  4. Many thanks for taking the time to provide this further information.

    I take your point about how little meaning there is left in the term "social democratic". A Tory fight back in Scotland could start if they renamed themselves the Conservative Social Democratic and Unionist Party.

    There is plenty of food for thought in your list, I recognize some of the suggestions from earlier posts in the blog.

    What has surprised me about the referendum is it looks like the UK establishment can shrug it off by giving some more powers to Holyrood and doing something about English votes. Obviously they got a No vote, but it must have been a much more difficult exercise than they had initially thought. For me the difference between this referendum and a general election is the challenge to the whole system that this referendum provided. A general election only offers a chance to replace one ruling party with another that doesn’t do much different.

    Perhaps there will be slow burn effects. It seems giving the vote to 16 and 17 year olds may now become mainstream.

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  5. Actually, from my own experience, I would say that the de-industrialisation exports our more ambitious and money chasing folk, leaving the more home based, less money oriented people to vote yes. Of course increased levels of immigration from England also help tilt the balance, because they are hardly going to vote yes either.


    Anonymous at 21:00 - the Tory bastards could rename themselves the freedome and ponies for all party, but their actions would show them up pretty clearly.

    As for the language of fairness being that of a petulant narcissist, I think you're being stupid there - the language of fairness appeals to a great many people, even including myself. So calling much of the electorate petulant narcissists hardly does a good job of winning them over to your side.

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    1. Guthrie,

      I was referring to the use of the word "fairness" by Tory MPs in the context of "English votes for English laws", not in its more general use, which I have no issue with. My point is that they are unable to explain what this supposed lack of fairness is, which reduces them to petulance and vapid sloganising.

      This inability reflects two problems. First, English MPs are the dominant bloc at Westminster, so categorising MPs by the four nations makes them look like a playground bully moaning that everyone else isn't donating him enough sweets.

      Second, their objective is clearly selfish and short-term (hence the charge of narcissism), being focused on party advantage rather than principle. If they really cared about "fairness", they would extend their concern to both Greater London and the City. I've not heard any of them suggesting that Mark Field be disqualified from voting on issues devolved to the City of London, nor that the future Member for Uxbridge be disqualified from voting on transport policy outside the capital.

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