I am arguing for English politics to be turned over to the English, and for Scotland to become independent under the European Union. In general I deplore nationalism, the sort of nationalism that is deliberately equated with patriotism in the United States, and believe it was a major cause of the First World and other wars. However, in this case, it seems to me that the union of England and Scotland serves no other purpose than to encourage British Prime Ministers to posture to the world as more important than in truth they are.
In the days of Conservative Party rule, when there was a real choice of government in Britain, it was reasonable to support the union of England and Scotland. The Labour party has for a century depended upon Scotland to return a large number of Labour M.Ps to Westminster, and this has had the effect of levelling the political playing field. Labour has depended on Scotland for significant support. To give Scotland independence meant the Conservative domination of English politics.
However, Blair has succeeded in making Labour indistinguishable from the Tories. In fact, now that he is privatizing by stealth the single most important national institution (from an electoral point of view), the National Health Service, and has cringingly kowtowed to the American Administration like any Tory, it is becoming difficult to see why anyone of left wing inclination should vote Labour at all. It is astonishing to see the current Conservative leader sounding more left wing than the "Labour" Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Blair has created a "pretend" parliament in Scotland and has been running something similar to a "pretend' parliament in Westminster, where docile Scots MPs nod through legislation that neither applies in Scotland, nor has the support of most English people, such as the hunting ban, tuition fees, and foundation hospitals. One benefit of this situation, maybe the only benefit, is that we can look at Scotland more clinically and less emotionally.
A majority of the English, according to a recent poll, now favour Scottish independence by a majority of 59%. (see note 1) This is a big change from traditional support for the union. Part of the reason for it lies with the perception (maybe quite unfair) that the Scots are never satisfied, always complain about the English, demand big subsidies and - - while they made a huge contribution to the Enlightenment and the British Empire- - seem today to contribute less than they used to in terms of dynamism, ideas, or energy.
On the other hand, supporters of the Union understandably look back to common traditions and a colourful and successful history. One could argue that the British Empire took off only when the Union came into effect. One plus one really made three in this regard, and the Scots played an essential role in British success. There are few Englishmen without some Scottish connections or blood, and the economies and peoples are heavily intertwined and interdependent. There is also the fact that the Queen is head of both States and other knotty little legal and constitutional matters, such as status within the EU, to contend with. Independence will make a marginal difference to England, opponents say. The anomalies created by Blair could be ironed out with good will. Why upset the apple cart?
From the Scottish point of view, some people are well aware of the curse of oil and a hard petro-currency that can wipe out local industry. Mr. Salmond of the Scottish Nationalist Party says he would invest oil revenues in a special fund, like that created by Norway, a fund, they claim, that could be worth £90bn in ten years. That is "£20,000 banked for every man, woman and child in our country", as the SNP says in its announcement. But others fear that, given independence, a Scottish government, far from abolishing subsidies and carefully investing the oil revenues, would opt for even more handouts and dependency. They also feel that Scotland plus England is more effective in the world than Scotland minus England. They are concerned that their geographical position makes them vulnerable to adverse economic tides. Remaining part of the UK offers a safety harness. Better the devil you know...
But then we have had Prime Minister Blair at the helm. Blair has fiddled with the constitution to give devolution to Scotland as a way of heading off the Scottish nationalists, and thus maintain the status quo and the numbers of Labour Members of Parliament. But devolution has been a failure, and the nationalists are surging in the polls. Why is there this unease and unrest on both sides of the border, and why is Scottish independence the answer?
The "West Lothian question" refers to the fact that Scottish MPs can vote on local English matters, but English MPs are debarred from voting on questions relating to internal Scottish affairs. This is seen as unfair, to put it mildly. Only English students face tuition fees. Cancer drugs are free in Scotland, but have to be paid for by the English. Scottish prescriptions are free, English are not. Elderly Scots do not have to sell their homes to pay for nursing home, the English do. And so on. Whate'er you sow, so also shall you reap. A Scottish-dominated British parliament has stoked up previously non-existent English nationalism. Maybe this has been deliberate; if so it is also irresponsible.
The idea of the union in 1707 was to finally put paid to the age-old habit of the Scots and French ganging up against the English. Over the centuries this led to frequent invasions and counter-invasions, French meddling and Scottish plots, ably countered by English meddling and English plots. The two nations together were likely to achieve more together than apart. For centuries this worked, but we now have the EU. England and Scotland can co-exist under the auspices of the EU and maintain the illusion of independence, if they wish. The reality is that both countries are in the grip of world economic forces that make true independence a sham. But to those who still look back to the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 instead of forward to the 21st century, this signifies little. The reality is that it matters little whether England and Scotland are a single nation state - the nation state itself is on life support. If relationships improve as a result of Scottish independence (pace the Republic of Ireland), then that matters more than the treaty of union.
Labour has deliberately broken England into regions in order to eradicate any expression of English national identity. Under English independence under the EU, this unnecessary and bureaucratic idea can be crapped and a leaner government re-introduced.
As mentioned above, Scottish politicians show only a modest interest in becoming a vibrant, go-ahead place, like Ireland. Public expenditure per capita in Scotland runs at 30 percent above that in England, but the GDP per capita is 5 percent below it, and the situation is not improving. The public sector accounts for 50% of GDP, ten per cent higher than that of England. All kinds of subsidies are offered, often to well-heeled groups that are good at lobbying. In 2003-04 the tax revenue from Scotland was 34 billion and spending was 45 billion. (see note 2) And the English pay the difference. In the recent ICM poll (see note 1) 60% of English voters complained about the higher levels of public spending in Scotland. Even 36% of Scots thought them unfair. Meanwhile, the culture of hand-outs discourages entrepreneurship and keeps too many Scottish workers on the dole. (see Note2) Many go-ahead Scots emigrate because of that culture. To be fair, Scotland has a small population of 5 million, and much of the country is by nature unproductive. But this is hardly the point - - if the Scots want independence, given their geographical situation on the fringe of Europe, that is their decision to make.
The Anglo-Irish relationship, eighty-five years after a terrible sundering, is good. But then the Irish decided, for better or worse, to free up the economy and attract serious foreign capital. The Scots, on the other hand, are used to big government. There may be a great national leader out there who can modernize the country — one hopes so -- but at the moment he or she has not yet come forward. While Scotland continues as it is there is an incentive for the English to demand their own independence.
The huge issue for the Scots is "who owns the North Sea oil?" It is a fair question. I am no lawyer and am not qualified to comment on oil or fishing rights, international ocean boundaries etc. There are, however, some observations that are legitimate to make:
- the oil fields are currently owned by the United Kingdom, and the tax revenues from them are used (by a Scottish dominated Westminster government) to fund defence, foreign policy, foreign aid and many other expenditures incurred by central government. The Scots and the English would have to fund these things separately, given independence. This would seem to be less efficient than pooling resources, but, although expensive, it is relatively less expensive to the English than the Scots. If that is what the Scots want, so be it.
Oil experts say that even if all the possible yet to be discovered and yet to be proven reserves are included in the equation the UK oil reserve is now three quarters depleted. If you only consider proven reserves the figure is worse at four fifths depleted. Either way the best oil output is a thing of the past and it is now a matter of mopping up the reserves to recover the remaining dregs. Thus, to be cynical, there is no reason for the English to hang on to the Union for the dubious sake of oil. We should be reducing oil consumption in any case, and deprivation of oil and gas should spark innovation in energy use in England. (see Note 3)
The interesting question is, were oil tax revenues to be handed over to Scotland and the annual Treasury subsidies terminated, who would be better off? The UK economy has benefited from £203 billion (at constant 2004 prices) in North Sea taxes since the mid-sixties. Tax receipts have been on the increase since 2003 and rose by £1.0 billion to £5.2 billion in tax year 2004/5. They may have climbed towards £10 billion lately. The UK government does not make the situation clear on-line. However, to state the situation as simply as possible, on the face of it there is a current shortfall of tax from Scotland of £11 billion, which has to be made up from the Treasury in subsidies. On the other hand, and if there is an oil tax revenue of £5.2 billion in tax year 2004/5 that might have climbed to nearer 10 billion because of recent oil price rises, the net result is that there is still a small financial benefit to the English in handing over the oil tax revenues to the Scots. An expert in the Treasury might complain about these figures, but they cannot be all that far out. It is clear that not many people know the true position.
Fifthly, the concept of Britishness is in sharp decline in Scotland and one gets the impression it is near to non-existent in England. In answer to the question, "What nationality best describes you?" 56 % of Scots said they were Scottish and 38% said they were British. As some observers have pointed out, three hundred years have not dismantled tribalism. Perhaps the English should now concentrate on their own tribalisms - - particularly the immigrant groups reluctant to assimilate, and the culture of yobbism - - and stop trying to accommodate the Scots.
The UK is believed to be one of the most over-governed countries in the world already. Politicians try to control every aspect of life, interfering and nannying. The last thing we want is yet another layer in addition to regional, "federal" and EU government. This is not an option.
There would be a loss of prestige, but then we have had fifty years or more of losing prestige. Only a few would care. The English should be concentrating on modern concerns, the amazing opportunities created by burgeoning modern technology, the opportunities that have opened up in China and India, in Russia and Eastern Europe. They should be reinventing themselves once again as the enterprising international trading nation they have been in the past, not concerning themselves how to live as an oil rentier nation. The English economy, no longer dependent on the old industries, has recovered a reasonable place in the world economy, even if its attitude to the EU induces despair. England can thrive without oil. It is time for a new constitutional settlement that undoes the "empire building" of the past and lets the individual constituents of the United Kingdom go their own ways.
I would suggest that separation could be the best thing for all the constituent nations, particularly the Scots. Eventually, a new generation of Scots will come along and embrace the latest technologies and opportunities of the time, and Scotland will be great again. From the English point of view, it would be the final death-knell of any lingering imperialistic sentiment in England. We should look forward, not back. It would also have the effect of making the geographical focus on the EU absolutely clear and end any lingering concerns about the back yard to the North. Many nations have taken off (think only of Dubai and Bahrain) when they have been faced with falling oil revenues. It focuses the attention.
The point has been made by a Scot, Mr. D. Mitchell, that an independent English government would probably be quite right wing, and that it could expect a flood of Scottish refugees, escaping from their highly-taxed state to the North. I personally do not want a right-wing government in England (Thatcher was quite enough); on the other hand I would not object to a flood of well-educated go-ahead Scots coming to boost the English economy!
Notwithstanding the above tongue-in-cheek comment, the abolition of the Union of England and Scotland could and should be good for both countries, and we should embrace it as an opportunity, not as a disaster and humiliation.
Note 1: ICM Research interviewed a random sample of 1,003 Scots by telephone on November 22 and 23, and a random sample of 869 English people by telephone on the same days. The poll found that 52% of Scots and 59% of the English want Scotland to go it alone. English respondents also favoured a break with Wales and Northern Ireland.
Note 2: Prospect magazine December 2006 Michael Fry "Why Scotland should go it alone".
Note 3: North Sea Oil: (Money Week November 27th, 2006).
Easily extracted North Sea oil has been declining at the annual rate of 6% to 7% for some time. Production, which peaked at 2.9 million barrels a day (bpd) in 1999, is set to fall to near half that level next year (2007), when the UK will be a net importer of oil and gas. Production from these reserves will drop to one million bpd by 2010 and dry up a little more than five years later. At current rates of extraction, the last drop of oil could be sucked out of the North Sea field as soon as 2015. Britain is also running out of gas. Given that a large chunk of the country's electricity generation depends on gas, the shortfall will have to be made up somehow. The UK is expected to be 50% dependent on imported gas by 2010, and 80% dependent by 2020. However, it is said that there are an estimated 27 billion barrels of oil remaining untapped in the North Sea, hard to extract, and only worthwhile for small producers if prices continue to exceed $50 for a barrel of oil (see Note 3 The Scottish Nationalist Party recently claimed that there could be as many as 38.7 billion barrels of oil still remaining in the North Sea - worth £391bnm ore if the oil price stays high.. But oil experts say that even if all the possible yet to be discovered and yet to be proven reserves are included in the equation the UK oil reserve is now three quarters depleted. If you only consider proven reserves the figure is worse at four fifths depleted. Either way the best oil output is a thing of the past and it is now a matter of mopping up the reserves to recover the remaining dregs. Thus, to be cynical, there is no reason for the English to hang on to the Union for the dubious sake of oil. We should be reducing oil consumption in any case, and deprivation of oil and gas should spark innovation in energy us in England.
Other sources: Telegraph.co.uk, The Scotsman, www.opendemocracy.com