The Danger of Nationalism

After any major incident, politicians rush forward calling that something must be done, whilst seeking to make political capital. However, as the aftermath of the near catastrophe in Scotland grinds on in Westminster, it would be wise to reflect on what actually sparked off this episode before legislating in haste.    

It was a combination of factors rather than a single event that suddenly fuelled the devolution movement; one of them being Tony Blair. When New Labour swept to power in 1997 they had already recognised Scotland as a potential time bomb. Growing dissatisfaction with the Conservative government in general and Margaret Thatcher in particular, had given the Scottish National Party a new lease of life.  New Labour attempted to defuse the ticking bomb by offering the Scots devolution and their own parliament, originally referred to as an Assembly. It was felt that this would shoot the Nationalist fox.  In true Machiavellian style the Scottish voting system was designed in such a way that an outright majority by any single party was practically impossible. With their dominance in Scotland, Labour considered that they would always be part of the mix in any event, or so the theory ran. 

Post 1997, Labour in Scotland failed to mirror its success south of the Border.  The Labour burghs were moribund and corrupt with many Scots already looking for something better.  When Alex Salmond became first Minister of the Scottish Assembly in 2007 he renamed the Scottish Executive the Scottish Government and the battle for independence began in earnest.  Initially his party concentrated on reversing years of Labour’s incompetence, nepotism and neglect to gain the electorate’s confidence.  Labour was not a hard act to follow and public approval was soon forthcoming.  As Labour faltered, Alex Salmond’s team grew stronger and many traditional Conservative voters in particular switched to the SNP in the 2011 Scottish election to cause as much damage as possible to Labour.  They certainly did not vote for separation as the question of a referendum was only referred to fleetingly in the small print of the SNP’s election manifesto.

The roots of this problem therefore lie in Westminster not Scotland. If the House of Commons had been reformed in accordance with changing times and made more accessible and accountable to the people, then the drive for devolution would probably not have gathered momentum in the first place. The vast majority of people want little involvement in politics and will accept a great deal of ‘unfairness’ to get on with their own lives. 

However, promises have now been made to Scotland, ‘something must be done’ and the Conservatives seek to profit from a false promise. David Cameron now claims that he cannot possibly devolve more power to a Scottish parliament without granting the English matching autonomy.  Although being by far the biggest part of the UK with over 80% of its population, England alone of the four partners does not have exclusive control of its domestic issues.  The favourite solution at present would appear to be the creation of an English parliament.  Probably not by the construction of a new building but rather by timetabling the existing parliament to allow English issues to be dealt with solely by English MPs.  This would appear to be a reasonable solution and matches what happens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  That said, the House of Commons has a complex timetable with many subjects often debated on the same day. Of more significance however, is that the divisions and barriers that occurred in Scotland would be replicated in England but on a very much larger scale. England’s three partners in the UK would end up being even more marginalised than before.  The problem with Scottish MPs voting on English matters is not that the Scots are necessarily unintelligent or mightn’t have something constructive to add.  The real problem is the way that they are used as pawns by their political masters.  Boris Johnson “I remember sitting in fury as an MP in 2004, and watching as Labour used Scottish MPs to impose a system of tuition fees on England – when English MPs had no reciprocal say over the arrangements in Scotland.”   However, this problem also applies to MPs from adjoining constituencies and not simply those from north of the Border. An English MP from Cornwall is no more qualified to vote on an issue at Carlisle than a Scottish MP from Dumfries.

Conclusion:   If we had intelligent and pragmatic MPs able to vote according to the facts and what their constituents wanted, then there would be no need to risk the destruction of the UK by segregating it into four actively competing factions.  English Regionalisation has already been rejected and rightly so, not least because this would have opened the door to further assimilation by the EU.  However, a return to Localism where local decisions are made by local people according to local needs and aspirations is long overdue and would be warmly welcomed. We need less overpaid councillors and party apparatchiks and more voluntary stakeholders.  The case for the man on the Clapham omnibus being given his say, and not just once every five years, is fast becoming irresistible. We must redirect our politicians, many of whom have plainly lost all sense of perspective as well as the confidence of those they serve.

Both England and Scotland encompass many districts, dialects and differences, who is to say where the lines are to be drawn?  Budget airlines and the internet are now shrinking distance and building understanding between different countries and continents.  This is no time to recreate ancient borders or open up new divisions.  They say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Whilst there may be some excuse for forgetting a historical foul up, there can be no excuse for forgetting or ignoring what almost happened a few short weeks ago in Scotland.