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The End of the UK - or a New Beginning?

Former BBC Newsnight Political Editor James Cox Asks "Has the English Political Class' Staggering Complacency Cost Us the Union?"


It is as if it came as a bolt from the blue, a meteor strike from outer space or a guided missile misguidedly launched in error. The headlines say it all: “Ten days to save the Union”; “Nothing else now matters in British politics”; “Leaders take the high road to Scotland”. It is as if, suddenly, the establishment has discovered that Something is Up: “I say, Carruthers, better get someone on the case here – it could be serious.”


Yet this “crisis” has been long in the making and almost entirely predictable. The referendum was announced two years ago. The debate inside Scotland has been hotting up to boiling point ever since. Not since the Iraq war has a political issue so engaged, and so divided, at least part of the electorate.


But it has been an issue which has been simmering on the back burner for years. Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP, or 'the Nats') scored a massive victory to become the Government in Scotland in 2011. Inevitably that was going to lead to a challenge to the British state sooner or later.


But Scottish and British politics have been diverging for nearly fifty years, since the Nats emerged as a serious force in the 1974 elections. A strict historian might even trace it back to Winnie Ewing winning the Hamilton by-election for the SNP in 1967.


How have we got here? And why has it come as such an apparent surprise to Westminster politicians?


Westminster has always been rather dismissive of Scottish stirrings. In the 1970s it tended to dismiss the SNP as a bunch of 'bekilted weirdies', and indeed that was not a wholly unjustified description of the party in those days. But the SNP became a more potent force with the emergence of serious politicians like Gordon Wilson, Margo McDonald, George Reid and, latterly, Alex Salmond.


It was taken sufficiently seriously by the Callaghan government to lead to the proposal to create a devolved parliament, which was put to a referendum in 1979. The result was a catastrophe for all concerned. The Scots actually voted Yes, by 52 to 48 per cent. But this fell foul of a constitutional innovation brought in by the anti-devolutionists, that 40 per cent of ALL the voters on the register had to vote Yes for the decision to stand. With the No vote swollen by the Don’t Knows and Don’t Cares, it failed to pass this target.


Worse followed. The 11 SNP MPs, in a fit of pique, withdrew their support for the already battered Jim Callaghan (this was the 'winter of discontent', after all), he lost a vote of confidence and the subsequent election, and Mrs Thatcher, whose ignorance of Scotland was profound, came to power.


The 18 subsequent years of Tory government seemed to put the whole idea of devolution back in its box. In fact, we can now see with hindsight that it greatly encouraged it to bubble away beneath the surface.


Until the 1980s, all the main UK parties were represented in Scotland. The idea that it was a Labour fiefdom is misleading. Indeed the only time a single party won a plurality of the votes and seats in Scotland was in 1955, and that was the Conservative party.


Mrs Thatcher changed all that. Her uncompromising right-wingery was disastrously out of tune with Scottish sentiment. Tory representation collapsed. Labour, lost in its own private battles, seemed incapable of offering a viable alternative, so the large pro-Labour vote in Scotland was irrelevant. The unfulfilled hunger for devolution remained, and grew.


In the 1990s, John Smith and Donald Dewar were wont to say that devolution was “unfinished business” and when returned in 1997 Labour duly legislated for a Parliament in Edinburgh, which was enthusiastically endorsed in a further referendum.


But once again the Scots proved their own worst enemies. The new Parliament became a laughing stock for ludicrous over-spending on the cost of its building and for the general incompetence of its members. Westminster could, it seemed, safely dismiss Holyrood as a toytown Parliament for a toytown nation, though it later became a place of national pride, and quite good at running Scotland too.


This only spasmodic acknowledgement of the differentness of Scotland does help to explain Westminster’s ignorance of where it was leading. It doesn’t explain why the current situation has come as such a total surprise.


David Cameron must take most of the blame. He set up the referendum, or at least concurred in Alex Salmond’s plans for it. He didn’t insist on a second question, on 'Devo-Max' (maximum devolution). He didn’t set any limitation on the validity of the result, as they did in1979 – so, technically, the entire future of Scotland and the UK could be decided by a single voter in a single ballot booth in Blairgowrie.


Above all, he didn’t seem to appreciate the magnitude of what might emerge.


He has continually repeated (as have others) that this is “solely a matter for the people of Scotland”. But in its consequential effects on the whole of the UK, it isn’t. This is a debate in which many others have, or should have, a lively interest. It is an intriguing if mischievous thought that, had there been a vote on both sides of the border, the English might have voted to kick the Scots out while the Scots voted to stay in.


But having set up the referendum in the way it was done, the pro-Unionists went about conducting their campaign in the most ham-fisted way possible. If they planned it to make Alex Salmond look good, they couldn’t have done it better.


At almost every turn Salmond was able to portray this as a David-and-Goliath contest between plucky little Scotland and the wicked world of Westminster. The Unionist parties spoke with different voices and with different prescriptions for the problems that Scotland presents.


From the start they used what became known as Project Fear – endless warnings about the dire consequences, economic, social and political – if Scotland went it alone.


The luckless, highly intelligent but not very charismatic Alistair Darling was set up as their chief spokesperson in this endeavour, and was appropriately dour for the job. But what was striking about the No campaign, especially in the second televised debate between Darling and Salmond, was its utter failure, even perhaps refusal, to make a positive case for the Union.


The UK may have many faults, but it is a remarkable example of international co-operation, over 300 years, bringing together many differing ethnic and social strands into one society which has been astoundingly successful in its role in the world, and remains so to this day, even if in reduced circumstances.


This was never put as a good argument for being “better together”. Indeed the very fact that Cameron agreed to make the referendum a binary question – Yes or No – gave the Yes side an immediate advantage, because, sociologists argue, Yes seems a much more positive, cheerful and optimistic vote than a dreary No.


(Though one has to add a caveat here: there has been a big late switch towards Yes, which is what has caused all the heart-searching among the No campaigners. But the arguments for Yes have not been that fair, accurate or carefully balanced either; Salmond has relied on sunny over-optimism, appeals to sentiment rather than fact and a diffidence about admitting that independence may have its downside too. I know a number of people who plan to vote yes not because they want independence but to put pressure on Westminster to offer a better deal on Devo-max. Unless they are careful, they may get independence anyway. That may cause some of them to pull back from the brink at the last moment. On the other hand, distrust in Westminster is such that they may still go for yes, on the grounds that anything is better than being linked to the archaism, incompetence and – above all – Conservatism of English politics.)


And so it has come to the point that that mysterious political tide, called Momentum (the Big Mo as the Americans call it) seems to be flowing for Yes. Hence the panic. Suddenly politicians fly to Scotland in droves to beg, emotionally but rather pathetically, to the Scots "please don’t leave us”. The BBC's Huw Edwards seems to be permanently established pontificating on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. The newspapers and the airwaves are full of agonised “what-ifs” about the economy, oil, the pound, the BBC, the Queen, and Trident.


Shouldn’t these questions have been asked before? Was there really no forward just-in-case planning in Whitehall? (A recent programme by Andrew Neil suggested indeed that there hadn’t been, that the establishment was so paralysed by the prospect that they just ignored it, presumably in the hope that it might just go away. The complacency and inertia of the English governing class is staggering – and for once one can use the word “English” as a specific, not lazy alternative to “British”.)


And all this ignores the most important question of all. Whichever way Scotland votes, what next? Because things cannot remain the same.


Obviously, if it is a Yes vote, the massive process of disentangling two economies and two political structures will involve an enormous effort and a large amount of goodwill. And goodwill may be in short supply, as a bitter and rejected England argues the toss with an exuberant but nervous Scotland. There is a quite widely held view among some quarters in England – not least in the right-wing London press – that Scotland has been ripping off the Union connection for some time, and that this will be the chance to put the subsidy junkies In their place. It could get very nasty.


If it’s No, many questions still remain. If, as all the political leaders tell us, they will move rapidly to give Scotland Devo-Max, devolving almost all tax and spending powers to Holyrood, the arguments in the previous paragraph still apply; and there will also, presumably, be further transfers of power to the devolved assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast.


And that leaves the question of England. While Dewar and Smith were arguing that devolution was “unfinished business” in the 1990s, they were right, but so was Tam Dalyell and his reiterated ad nauseam contention that the West Lothian question was the disastrous flaw in the whole policy. So it remains.


More devolved powers to the smaller nations must mean that their representatives can no longer play a part in setting policy for England. There must be a Parliament, or parliaments, for England; you can’t have asymmetric federalism.


If you really want to ask why England has so failed to take aboard the constitutional arguments in Scotland, you could go back, not to 2012, or 2011, or 1997, or 1979, or 1967, but to 1707, and the signal failure of the authorities then to write a proper constitution for the new nation of Great Britain and Ireland. They could have done, they should have done. Only 70 years later, there were gentlemen in Philadelphia busy writing the most elegant and enduring example of a national constitution the world has ever seen. But in 1707 they couldn’t be bothered and we have been suffering the results of their laziness ever since.


In that sense, for everyone in the UK, September 18 is not an end, it is the beginning. But this time, the English need to get engaged as well.


James Cox

About the Writer

James has been a journalist all his working life, in newspapers, radio and television, concentrating on political coverage and commentary. He began in Scotland, with the Daily Record and then BBC Scotland, charting the rise in nationalism and the start of devolution. After three years abroad, as the BBC’s New York Correspondent, he returned to London as a lobby correspondent at Westminster and as BBC Newsnight’s Political Editor. He ended up as main presenter of Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. Now retired from full-time journalism, he continues to write and broadcast and, freed from the BBC’s constraints of impartiality, is active in politics.


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