Category Archives: history

Real home rule

Tory anti-Home Rule poster
Tory anti-Home Rule poster by Plashing Vole, on Flickr.
I've been wondering for a while whether modern Scottish Labour Unionists are right when they invoke the struggle for home rule by the founders of Labour in Scotland as an argument in favour of devolution and against independence, so I read George Kerevan's article about Gordon Brown and James Maxton in The Scotsman with great interest:

Here is the authentic James Maxton speaking at a rally in Glasgow in support of the 1924 Scottish Home Rule Bill. Maxton declared that he asked “for no greater task in life than to make the English-ridden, capitalist-ridden, landowner-ridden Scotland into a free Scottish Socialist Commonwealth”. He went on to say that “with Scottish brains and courage … we could do more in five years in a Scottish parliament than would be produced by 25 or 30 years heartbreaking working in the British House of Commons”.

Just try referring to “English-ridden” Scotland today and you will be rightly ticked off. But James Maxton was an angry man. [...] His anger was understandable to everyone in Glasgow. It expressed not an anti-Englishness, but a hatred of a class system run from London.

The Home Rule espoused by Maxton has nothing in common with the drip-feed of powers by London Labour. [...] The Red Clydesiders [...] wanted Home Rule in the sense of the full, de facto autonomy already enjoyed by Australia and New Zealand.

At the time, it made good sense to aspire to home rule like in Canada, Australia or New Zealand. These places had been running their own affairs for a while already. For instance, the modern-day Parliament of Canada came into existence in 1867 (and full legislative autonomy would be granted in 1931), and Australia's Commonwealth Parliament was opened in 1901.

To a large extent, the British Empire consisted of countries that had a lot of independence (notable exceptions being foreign affairs, defence and international shipping). In other words, they had significantly more independence than Scotland has at the moment.

One could argue that the British Empire was the equivalent of EU and NATO of that era, maintaining an internal market with free movement of goods and people while providing a reciprocal security guarantee.

It made sense to want independence within the Empire. It wasn't easy being a fully independent small country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To take but one example, Denmark got her capital bombarded and the fleet confiscated in 1807, went bankrupt in 1813, lost Norway in 1814, lost Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 and was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1945 without being able to liberate herself. If Scotland had remained an independent country instead of forming a political union with England in 1707, it's quite possible similar national disasters would have occurred.

To return to the present, it's still the case that most Scots want the Scottish Parliament to handle everything with the possible exception of defence and foreign affairs. (According to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (PDF), 32% of Scots agree that “the UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else”, and another 31% want all decisions to be made in Scotland.)

The various devolution plans put forward by the three main Unionist parties don't go nearly far enough. They're mainly concerned with letting the Scottish Parliament collect a few more taxes, but they're not even close to offering Devo Max along the lines outlined by the SSAS.

To be honest, I'm not sure many Scots really want Westminster to make decisions about defence and foreign affairs (gauging from the Scottish reaction to the Iraq War and all that). What people want is to make sure Scotland won't get attacked by foreign countries and that we can continue to trade and travel freely.

In fact, a large majority of the Scottish population agrees with Keir Hardie, James Maxton and other early Scottish Labour politicians. We want real home rule, meaning independence with free international trade, the ability to travel and work abroad and a security guarantee. That's what we'll get by voting Yes.

The positive case for the Union in 1707

Imperial Wine Gallon, 1707
Imperial Wine Gallon, 1707, a photo by east_lothian_museums on Flickr.
When Better Together and other unionists are asked to present the positive case for the Union, they tend to struggle.

Most of the time, they simply mention some past achievement, such as winning the two World Wars, but if pressed, they either come up with something that isn't of great benefit to most Scots (e.g., the UK has more embassies than an independent Scotland is likely to have, for instance in South Sudan), or they make a thinly veiled threat and say that it's positive because it won't happen if we vote No (e.g., there are currently no border posts on the English-Scottish border -- forgetting that manned border posts are rapidly disappearing all over Europe).

However, if you go back to 1707 when the Union was formed, it would have been relatively easy to present a positive case, such as:

  • Sharing the colonies -- given that Scotland had practically none, this was of great benefit to Scotland.
  • Getting protected by the Royal Navy instead of being hassled by it.
  • Access to sell products in England -- at this time there were lots of trade barriers between countries.
  • A guarantee that Scotland wouldn't get invaded by the English -- again, a real possibility at the time.

I'm not saying that creating a political union with England in 1707 was necessarily the right choice, but you could at least put up a positive case for it. However, the modern international set-up (including organisations like the EU, NATO, WTO and the CoE) means that these arguments have lost their potency.

Of course nobody knows the future, but there aren't many signs that all the current international organisations will be abolished any time soon, and unless that happens, it's unlikely there will be a positive case for small countries to attach themselves to their largest neighbour.

Focusing on London

233/365 Washed Up
233/365 Washed Up, a photo by thebarrowboy on Flickr.
There's an interesting article by Larry Elliott in The Guardian today.

He neatly sums up why Margaret Thatcher was a disaster north of the Severn-Wash line but a huge success south of it:

In the 1930s, the centre of gravity of the British economy shifted to the south-east. [...] Manufacturing jobs had peaked in the mid-1960s and the workforce had shrunk by a million. Britain's industrial competitiveness had been impaired in the 1970s by high inflation, offset by a lower exchange rate. But the first two years of the Thatcher era were a veritable bloodbath. Industry faced a quadruple whammy: higher oil prices; an appreciating foreign exchange rate courtesy of sterling's emerging status as a petro-currency; rising inflation caused by a doubling of VAT and high pay claims; and sky-high interest rates deemed necessary to reduce the growth in the money supply.

[Then there] was the big bang in the City. This accelerated the economy's transformation away from manufacturing towards the service sector and the financial services sector in particular. The government's thinking was that it made sense to exploit the size and international reputation of the City, because this was a sector in which the UK had a comparative advantage.

In other words, Mrs. Thatcher accelerated a process whereby economic activity was moving from north-west to south-east. A more sensible government might have tried to create more economic activity in the struggling parts of the country, but instead they decided to concentrate on the areas that were already doing well.

Larry Elliott continues:

The economy's structure means that the growth sectors when it recovers are [...] likely to be financial services, professional services and communications, digital and media. All three are concentrated in London.

So basically, because a large list of UK governments allowed the economy to shift gradually towards Greater London, this pattern has now been set in stone because all growth will by default happen there.

The future governments of an independent Scotland will certain not just give up and allow the economy to shift to London. It will do its utmost to create economic activity in Scotland.

I just feel sorry for the people of Northern England -- they really could use independence from London, too!

How Thatcher destroyed the coalition of nations

Anti-Margaret Thatcher badge
Anti-Margaret Thatcher badge, a photo by dannybirchall on Flickr.

Did Margaret Thatcher create the current independence movement in Scotland?

I was intrigued by a blog post on the pro-independence blog Bella Caledonia, which quoted James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still:

One of the unintended effects of Margaret Thatcher’s revolution [...] was to destroy Scottish loyalty to the British State. If it didn’t provide you with a job, if it didn’t give you a decent pension or adequate health care or proper support when you were out of work, what was it for? It wasn’t for anything – except maybe things you didn’t want or believe in, like nuclear weapons on the Clyde, or the poll tax.

When you're trying to govern a coalition, whether of parties or of nations, it's important to keep them all happy.

Let's have a brief look at Danish politics. Just after the last general election there was an interesting interview with Henning Dyremose, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the first of Poul Schlüter's Conservative governments (in my own loose translation):

What the Social Democratic Prime Minister needs to do is to create a situation where the Socialists win, where the Social Liberals win, and where she can ignore the Social Democrats. The latter are so delighted that she becomes prime minister that she does not have to give her parliamentary group and the ordinary party members any kind of concessions. If she can make a deal that makes both Socialsts and Social Liberals happy, she knows the Social Democrats will also be happy. If the Socialists -- who were weakened in the elections -- are also weakened in the government programme negotiations, their members will begin to ask whether the price they pay for supporting a Social Democratic prime minister is too high. If the Social Liberal leader doesn't get enough concessions, she could just as well remain outside the government. The Social Liberal Party would have more influence if they chose to remain outside the government. That's why they'll be expensive to include in the government.

I find it interesting to apply Dyremose's advice to the UK. That is, one should realise that the smaller nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have the ability to leave and realise their ambitions elsewhere, so England should give them more influence than strictly speaking necessary to keep them happy. Ultimately, English politicians (and to some extent English voters) will be content so long as England is leading a strong United Kingdom, even if the smaller nations sometimes get their own way. (This also applies to Spain, of course, where Catalonia is clearly not seeing the benefit of remaining within the Spanish Kingdom any more.)

It reminds me of my old suggestion to double the number of Scottish MPs in Westminster.

Anyway, I don't think anybody in Westminster is going to pay heed to the advice above. The Scottish loyalty to the British state has been broken, and the natural way forward now is to vote Yes in 2014.

Not a day to celebrate


Union Jack
Originally uploaded by Orange Sweets.

Where are the flags? Why is today not a bank holiday in Great Britain? Today is the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England (with Wales) and Scotland. If it's such a great thing as the unionist parties proclaim, surely they should be out there celebrating it.

Instead, all is quiet. There's nothing at all in the online edition of The Scotsman, and only a small article or two in slightly less unionist The Herald. Most of the coverage is found in the English newspapers (such as this piece).

Isn't the fact that unionists think the best way to preserve the union is to keep quiet about it the best proof that the two countries are heading towards a peaceful divorce?