‘Better Together’ and the rest of the Union

Published: 11 September 2014

Richard Wyn Jones discusses the ‘Better Together’ campaign, the economic fortunes of Scotland and Wales and the ‘Barnett bonus’.

It is rapidly becoming commonplace among political commentators that ‘Better Together’ have run one of the more inept campaigns in British political history. The inquests and recriminations have already begun even as the warnings of the Old Testament-style disasters that will inevitably befall a Yes-voting Scotland are ratcheted up yet another notch. But despite it all, a No vote remains the bookies favourite. As such, it remains striking how little scrutiny has been given to the concessions that the No side have won from the British political establishment in order to try to secure victory on the 18th of September. By which I mean not the various proposals for more devolution to be enacted after the UK general election in May 2015, but concessions that are already ‘in the bag’ so to speak. These concessions will ensure that the Union remains obviously unfair and unbalanced and, as such, imperilled even if victory is achieved next week.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the referendum campaign is the extent to which responsibility for making the case for the Union has been devolved to the Scottish franchises of the main political parties. Until now, Cameron, Miliband and the rest have been allotted only the occasional, palpably uncomfortable walk-on role in the No campaign. It is largely Scots that have made the pro-Union case.

Scottish dominance of the No campaign has been more than a matter of accents and voices. Scottish Unionists have ensured that what is being promised to the Scottish electors to ensure a No vote serves the narrow self-interest of both Scotland and, it must be said, Scotland’s pro-Union politicians. Politicians in the rest of the UK have meekly gone along with the pretence that what’s good for Scotland is somehow automatically good for the rest of us. Unfortunately, however, this is simply not the case.

Wales has most reason to feel aggrieved at Scotland’s pro-Union politicians.

The economic fortunes of Scotland and Wales are markedly different. Scotland is a relatively prosperous, economically successful part of the UK whilst Wales is anything but. Yet despite these differences, levels of public spending in both nations are directly linked via the ‘Barnett formula’. The operation of which ensures that per capita public spending is much higher prosperous Scotland than it is in substantially poorer Wales (let alone in England). In 2009, the independent Holtham Commission calculated that if devolved public services in Wales and Scotland were funded on the same basis used to allocate public spending within England, Wales would be some £300 million better off per annum whilst Scotland would see a cut of some £4 billion a year.

The extent and generosity of Scotland’s ‘Barnett bonus’ is further underlined when one considers that if Wales received the same levels of public spending per capita as Scotland, then (on 2012-13 figures) Welsh public services would be boosted to the tune of some £450 for every man, woman and child in Wales.

No one who cares for fairness or social justice could possibly justify the relative treatments of Wales and Scotland under the Barnett formula. Indeed the reform of Barnett was an explicitly stated as a long-term goal in the coalition agreement that underpins the current UK government. Even the Labour-dominated Calman Commission reluctantly acknowledged the case for a review. Yet during the course of the campaign, Scottish pro-Union politicians have managed to ensure that their parties have all pledged to retain Barnett and with it Scotland’s ‘Barnett bonus’. The impact of this pledge on Wales seems to be a matter of complete indifference to senior Scottish Labour leaders like Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. This despite all their rhetorical stress on the UK as a ‘sharing union’ that protects the interests of the vulnerable. The hypocrisy is as transparent as it is shameless.

Crossing east over Offa’s Dyke, what do English voters think of the Union? Well, they very clearly want to keep it. Figures from the recent Future of England Survey shows that the English want Scotland to remain part of the union by a margin of 3 to 1. But that is not to say that they are happy with the Union as currently constituted.

English opinion is deeply affronted by one of the consequences of devolution, namely the fact that non-English MPs can vote on laws that now only apply in England. That feelings run so high when the ‘West Lothian question’ has raised its head so infrequently in practice stands as a stark warning as to what might occur if it were ever to become a regular occurrence. Say if a Labour UK government with a relatively small majority were to be elected after May 2015. It is not alarmist to suggest that there would be a real legitimacy crisis facing a future UK government seeking to govern England without a stable English majority.

Yet the subtle and sensible proposals of the McKay Commission for a form of ‘English votes for English laws’ appear to have been scuppered. Scuppered largely thanks to the efforts of Scottish pro-Union politicians. Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs have blocked the coalition from embracing McKay. Scottish Labour MPs have also used their influence to ensure that Ed Miliband poured cold water over proposals for ‘English votes for English laws.’ That the Labour leader did so at a meeting in Edinburgh says a great deal about the centre of gravity of debates about the future of the UK – England included.

Party leaders of all stripes seem to have decided that it is better to allow a perfectly legitimate English grievance to fester than to offend Scottish pro-Union parliamentarians who fear a (further) diminution in their status.

The other major English grievance is, of course, the widespread belief that Scotland is feather bedded. But as we have already seen, Scotland’s pro-Union politicians have ensured that any moves towards reforming Barnett have been shelved – indefinitely.

So there we have it. If the Scottish electorate votes No then they have been promised that their country will continue to be funded through a system that generates per capita levels of public spending that are substantially higher than those seen in England. This in addition to having been given every indication that there will be no change to the status of their elected representatives at Westminster.

The problem, of course, is that no attempt has been made to explain to the population of the rest of the UK why all this is a price worth paying to keep Scotland in the Union.  There’s no doubt that that this would have been a difficult sell. But the fact of the matter is that no one’s even bothered to try. The unsurprising result is that there is simply no ‘buy in’ south of the Scottish border to the some of the key promises being made by Scotland’s pro-Union politicians. The opposite is in fact the case.

The findings of the latest Future of England Survey suggest that, following a No vote, an overwhelming majority of the English electorate want to see Scottish MPs barred from voting on laws that apply only in England. Similarly, a large majority of English voters want to see per capita levels of public spending in Scotland reduced to the UK average. This would mean a reduction of some £7 billion in the annual level of public spending in Scotland. An eye-wateringly large cut given that the annual budget of the Scottish Government is some £30 billion.

English views if Scotland votes NO to what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements (%)

Future of England Survey, 2014. N = 3695

All of which suggests that even if a No vote is secured on the 18th of September, the Union will remain in a deeply precarious position. The Scottish electorate will, quite legitimately, expect that the promises made to them will be honoured. Failure to do so would lead to huge resentment and bitterness – and likely another independence referendum. But these promises run directly contrary to majority views in England. Neither has there been any effort to explain let alone justify them to voters in the rest of the UK. Which means, in turn, that it is far from clear that they will feel morally bound to abide by the promises made in their name. In such circumstances, why should they?

It is not enough that Scottish pro-Union politicians have run an inept referendum campaign. Even if they ultimately prevail they will bequeath a Union that will find it even more difficult to reconcile the expectations of its constituent nations.

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