It’s not all about Scotland: England and Wales after the independence referendum

Published: 10 October 2014

The independence referendum focussed the attention in the UK and beyond on Scotland. However, argues Professor Richard Wyn Jones, the contours of the constitutional debate throughout the UK should not be seen from an entirely Scottish perspective.

Let me cut to the chase. Folks, it’s not all about Scotland.

This is first and foremost an analytical point. The various debates taking place about the UK’s territorial constitution have their own internal dynamics that are certainly not reducible to “reacting to Scotland”. To understand what impact the independence referendum has had in England and in Wales, we therefore first need to have some kind of idea about the (different) dynamics that were already unfolding in both nations.

This may sound like a simple, even a simplistic, point, but I do think it’s fundamental. It’s also a point that many in Scotland – and particularly, perhaps, on the side that won the referendum – seem to fail to grasp.

Since the referendum there’s been quite a lot of criticism of David Cameron for responding to the referendum result by raising the spectre of English votes for English laws: “We went to bed with Scotland only to wake up with England”, etc. Cameron’s actions have been interpreted by many in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, in particular, in very cynical terms: as what observers of Irish politics might call a ‘stroke’.

Of course there is clearly are partisan considerations informing the PM’s actions. To no one’s great surprise, one trusts, politicians are political! Raising the English question does put Labour at a disadvantage, not least because that party is so palpably uncomfortable with the ‘E’ word. And the Tories have very little to lose – certainly in terms of the Westminster parliamentary arithmetic – by ostentatiously embracing English Votes for English Laws.

But Cameron is also responding to significant changes in public attitudes in England, and in particular to English dissatisfaction with their place in the two political unions of which they are a part: the European Union and the post-devolution UK. This was a trend already apparent for several years before the 18 September 2014. The independence referendum debate may well have hardened attitudes even further, but the process was already under way.

The politicisation of English identity around these issues is, to my mind, one of the most sociologically interesting developments in these islands for a very long time. But of more immediate political relevance is the fact that UKIP – in some ways, despite itself – had become the barer and beneficiary of this process. This not something Cameron can afford to ignore. He simply has to take England seriously.

I confidently predict that Labour – despite the increasingly vociferous objections of its Welsh and Scottish MPs – will be forced onto this territory. Not least because it’s preferred alternative, English regionalism, suffers from the twin problems of:

  1. Enjoying almost no public support; and,
  2. Not actually dealing with the anomalies of asymmetric devolution. No one is seriously considering legislative devolution to England’s regions, city-regions, country-regions, or whatever the territorial unit de jour is called. Yet without that, the central anomalies remain.

Obvious stalling tactics like British Labour’s (very belated) embrace of the idea of a constitutional convention are also unlikely to be enough to hold the line. Nor, at this late stage, will embracing the McKay proposals be enough. Underlining yet again that Labour’s failure to embrace these very Labour-friendly proposals when that possibly would have made a difference was nothing less than a spectacular own goal. Those Scottish (and Welsh) MPs – Labour and Lib Dem – who played a key role in blocking McKay may well have cause to rue their own short-sightedness.

My concluding point also relates to short-sightedness. During the referendum campaign I was critical of the No side for effectively behaving as if it was “all about Scotland”. Specifically, ‘vows’ were made – to use the Tolkienesque language of the final days of the campaign – that were clearly in the interest of Scotland and Scottish Unionist politicians, but which were deeply inimical to Welsh interests and that would make it more difficult to deal with perfectly legitimate English grievances. Neither was any attempt made to justify these pledges to people south of the Border, with the unsurprising result that there was no ‘buy in’ for them there either.

The most obviously problematic pledge related to Barnett and Scotland’s relatively generous per capita levels of public spending: a pledge that, of course, ended up on the front page of the Daily Record. A stroke if ever there was one! Events since the referendum have underlined the extent to which there is very little ‘buy in’ for this in the rest of Britain. Nor is there is likely to be when the best Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown can do is argue that Barnett is a ‘needs based formula’. Let’s be clear: it absolutely isn’t and given that both worked in the Treasury, Messrs Miliband and Brown must know this!

Like it or not, pressure will build in the rest of Britain to bear down on public spending in Scotland (well above and beyond the inevitable adjustment that will follow the introduction of the Scottish Rate of Income Tax.) This is to say the least problematic for pro-union Scottish politicians. How to square the circle of the implied pledge to Scots that they can keep their relatively generous levels of public spending with the lack of support for such a pledge in the rest of the UK? It seems to me that the answer is that you simply can’t square that circle as long as the only significant tax power that you are willing to devolve is income tax. Which is why I suspect that it’s in the long-term self-interest of pro-union politicians in Scotland and elsewhere to embrace full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. But that would involve joined up constitutional thinking that has been notable only by its absence. So I’m not holding my breath on that one. On public spending the No side will likely end up being hoist on its own petard.

The moral is: it really isn’t all about Scotland.

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