England deserves better from Scotland

England deserves better from Scotland

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 2, March, 2020

ONE OF THE MOST PERPLEXING outcomes of the ‘These Islands’ conference (first discussed here on 24 February) was the condescension or impatience displayed towards England.  England’s poorer regions have made no objections to large fiscal transfers to Scotland and Northern Ireland, nor to increasing emphasis being given in legislation and high-level deliberations to the governance of Scotland and Wales. With 85 per cent of the British population there are plenty of grounds for seeing patient and un-obstructive England as the most cohesive pillar of the Union.

The subliminal message at the event was that England’s role in the territorial politics of the four nations of these islands was to adapt to what constitutional recipes were prepared for the Celtic parts of the British archipelago.  Angus Armstrong, an incisive economist who was foolishly rejected by the normally Labour-voting folk of East Lothian at the 2015 general election in preference to George Kerevan, an SNP journalist obsessed with breaking up Spain, came out with a staggering proposition.

He argued that, in the event of Scottish independence, the rest of the United Kingdom would probably be left with little alternative but to continue pumping money into Scotland – to stave off large-scale distress. Abundant and open-armed England would be like a Gulf Stream in all constitutional seasons sustaining Scotland even when its self-proclaimed liberators found the country to be economically unviable under them.

Ayesha Hazarika, an Evening Standard columnist and former Labour adviser, days away from hosting ex-prince Harry’s conference in Edinburgh on behalf of the travel industry, expressed bemusement and scorn that the English were so retrograde in terms of developing an identity comparable to those of their Celtic brethren.   

Later, Carwyn Jones, Labour’s First Minister of Wales from 2009 to 2018, was as enthusiastic about devolution as any trainspotter for steam-power railway engines. There was no mention of the appalling state of the health service in Wales after 21 years of Labour rule. Additional powers were needed before the devolution experiment would truly come of age. Moreover, England would need to stop sulking on the sidelines and join the devolution bonanza.  Otherwise, England might end up being the one abandoning a United Kingdom totally geared towards the maximum decentralisation of powers.

It was the needs of members of the political class not the modest expectations of citizens who voted them in to enjoy decent public services that preoccupied this professional Welsh devolutionist. He was well matched by Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester.  He called ambiguously for a ‘more federal solution’ for the whole of Britain. His most eye-catching proposal was to support the contentious Barnett formula which, since the late 70s, ensured the other three nations a greater proportion of central funds for their spending needs than most of England. He argued that it needed to be rolled out across Britain. When it was pointed out (by me) that similar unwieldy propositions for distributing funding had ultimately created unsustainable pressures in multi-national Yugoslavia, ensuring the destruction of that fragile state, he saw the parallel as an invidious one. He suggested I was an unfeeling super-Unionist ready to see the benefits such as free bus travel for vulnerable teenagers across English cities put at risk by standing in the way of innovation. 

His revolution in governance resulting ‘in the transfer of powers from Whitehall to local decision-makers’ sounds emancipatory. But strip away the packaging and it turns out to be a top-down offensive from politicians, without any serious local backing, for more powers for themselves.

The clearest he got in terms of articulating his vision, was for ‘nations and city-regions being represented on key government committees where key decisions are made and policies formed.’ But with city bosses like Sadiq Khan and regional rulers like Nicola Sturgeon using their powerbases to frustrate initiatives from the centre and carve out profiles as global actors, Burnham’s vision of multi-layered governance on a territorial basis already appears a recipe for chaos.

Surprisingly, there was little reflection on the disruption and ill-feeling caused by existing forms of devolution, not just from the Labour figures who easily made up the majority of those present but from someone of the standing of the 7th Marquess of Salisbury.

He is someone with an excellent track-record of speaking up for often-disregarded Unionist concerns in Northern Ireland. His Constitutional Reform Group believes that in order to save the UK from collapse it must move speedily towards a federal system with four parliaments enjoying sweeping powers. At Newcastle, he was candid that no detailed arrangements for the governance of England were included in his blueprint. 

It might have been harder for ‘England’ to end up a tabula rosa upon which practitioners of politics could project their devolutionary fantasies if the views of a few of the dozens of conservative MPs elected in the Midlands and the North for working-class seats had been canvassed. The 2016 referendum on EU membership, as well as two subsequent general elections, have shown growing impatience among lower-income voters of being taken for granted by a remote establishment impatient with the idea of a cohesive and well-run Britain. For the first time the Conservatives were the main choice of citizens on modest incomes across England. But unless the Tories resist the temptation of patronising their new supporters, convincing themselves they can be fobbed off with gimmicks rather than measures to overcome the peripheral status of many of their communities, their electoral ascendancy might well prove short lived.

There are no shortage of articulate and well-informed people – activists like Darren Grimes, the pro-Brexit campaigner from Teeside, the constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor (pictured), or John Denham the ex-Labour politician – all able to criticise a territorial politics based on deals between central government and assertive regional politicians.

I came away from Kevin Hague’s Newcastle conference worried that a lot of well-meaning people, committed to strengthening the United Kingdom, will end up essentially recommending for the whole of Britain a variant of the Scottish devolution settlement which has been a recipe for friction between Scotland and England, as well as within Scotland itself.

I possess little or no confidence that those absorbed by constitutional change will have the good sense to ensure this quarrel will not be transposed to England with regions warring over resources and status. In Scotland, forty years or more of campaigning and then applying devolution has given the place little of tangible benefit. Instead, a spirit of decrying the English for daring to be different from them has been promoted by the devolved government and its media allies. 

During the power struggle over Brexit, fashionable commentators across Britain and Ireland competed with one another to mock ‘the backwardness’ of the English working-class.  Ordinary folk in places beyond London and the university centres who had voted for Britain to be self-governing were apparently just as unfit to be mature partners as the ruling elite at Westminster.

On 8 February Anglophobia was on display at the Scotland-England international at Murrayfield when the English side arrived at the Edinburgh stadium.

Scots have been on the receiving end when they return home with their children who have grown up elsewhere and don’t speak with Scottish accents.

@Craig63Anderson

As a Scot who has an English wife and 3 kids born south of the border, who brought them "home" only to put up with shit because of their accent. We moved to Australia and have not looked back. I gave my home country it's best shot but the hatred towards the English blew it.

It’s such a petty prejudice but one that could soon have damaging results. What is to be done, I was asked on twitter.

I replied that perhaps the time had come to form an English Appreciation Society in Scotland.  There were plenty of encouraging responses and Effie Deans devoted a blog to the idea, suggesting how it might become a reality.

Much of our good fortune in Scotland arises from having as our neighbours English people who have usually displayed great forbearance towards our foibles. Just imagine if, in the state it has now been reduced to under the SNP, it was Scotland and not England that was the principal driving force in Britain. I would suggest the British story would be rapidly heading towards its final chapter given the damage that would be inflicted on the elements that had kept the island together for so long.  

There is the need to counter the hostility to England and the English in contemporary Scottish society by telling the stories of common endeavour in building up Britain, protecting its natural heritage, pressing for improvements, and safeguarding its freedom. 

@JoanHenry7 29 February

I have a very good friend lives in Alness in the Highlands. I just can't believe the hatred her family get up there. She does happen to be Jewish, but honestly, the hatred comes from them being English. Just seriously shocking.

As Effie Deans has written:

‘With friendship and appreciation of our nearest neighbour we would move on from any desire for separation. After all divorce is founded on dislike and hatred rather than friendship and love.’

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divided his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016. His twitter account is @cultfree54   Photo of Vernon Bogdanor by Gresham College - https://www.flickr.com/photos/greshamcollege/21647631936/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51685147

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