Category Archives: England

The impossibility of UK federalism

Bundesrat - Festival of Lights
Bundesrat – Festival of Lights by Stadtlichtpunkte, on Flickr.
I had decided to stop talking about federalism, for the simple reason that it’s not on offer and is a distraction from the much more urgent independence debate.

However, today Labour started talking about replacing the House of Lords with a regional chamber:

[Labour leader Ed Miliband’s policy team] are looking at proposals for a radically reformed second chamber made up of representatives from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. The body would be “indirectly elected”, possibly by elected politicians from the different nations and regions of the UK.

Whereas this proposal would probably be better than the currently unelected mess, it wouldn’t be federalism.

Federalism is at heart a symmetrical system (there are some exceptions, such as India, but what I describe here holds true for the best-known examples such as Germany and the US). What this means is that the states (Länder in Germany) all have the same powers, and it’s well-defined which powers are reserved to central government. Countries with federal systems often have a bicameral parliament: One representing the people, with one vote per citizen (e.g., the American House of Representatives and the German Bundestag) and one representing the states (e.g., the Senate and the Bundesrat); the latter sometimes give equal representations to the states (e.g., in the Senate each state has two members), but sometimes big states have slightly more votes (e.g., in the Bundesrat each Land has between 3 and 6 votes, depending on size).

Federal countries normally have states that are similar in size, but it’s not a requirement. However, England is huge (53m inhabitants, while the rest of the nations have only about 10m together), and this makes it hard to establish a federal system.

Firstly, the English Parliament would be hugely influential — it’s quite possible the best political talents would go there rather than to the UK Parliament, and it’s probably all the BBC would be talking about most of the time.

Secondly, a proper federal parliament would allow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to block legislation desired by England. For instance, using the Bundesrat scheme, the three smaller nations would have 3 votes each, so they could easily outvote England (with 6 votes).

This is of course where Labour’s devious invention comes into play. By resurrecting the English regions (which aren’t popular in England — let’s not forget how people voted No to regional assemblies when they were asked), they can overcome this problem. By splitting England into nine regions for Senate vote allocation purposes, they can ensure that England will never be outvoted by the small nations of the UK.

However, of course Labour aren’t proposing to give the English regions powers like the real nations. There won’t be an East Midlands legal system, there won’t be an independent South West NHS, there won’t be a separate Church of Yorkshire and the Humber, there won’t be a distinct London education system, and the North West won’t start fielding its own football team in international tournaments.

The problem is that if there is a debate in Labour’s second chamber about the NHS, for instance, the three nations with their own separate health systems will be outvoted by the nine English regions that not only share an NHS but also have no direct influence over it, given that it’s controlled by Westminster.

The only way I can think of to create proper federalism in the UK is to split England into two or more nations, each having the same powers as Scotland. However, this will never happen. The English feel their nation is England, and it would be an abomination to destroy England in order to save the UK. The consequence is that the UK will never become a federal state. It’s impossible.

The city upon a hill

London Skyline from Greenwich
London Skyline from Greenwich, a photo by smokeghost on Flickr.
What is Labour’s vision for Scotland and the UK? They spend most of their time criticising the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England, but it’s often hard to figure out what they’d do if they couldn’t just oppose their opponents.

One thing stands out, however. They seem to be very fond of is London and the wealth it’s creating. For instance, here’s what Lamont said in her David Hume speech (PDF, my emphasis):

I believe in something called redistribution. I believe wealth should be redistributed to where it is needed. I think that one of the best ways we do this is through the United Kingdom. Let me be clear. I think that the UK is not just made up of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I believe that we live in a union of five – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the remarkable international city state of London. The UK is the machinery by which we redistribute wealth amongst those five constituent parts. And we all benefit. I don’t believe we should give that up lightly since it represents in essence the sense of community we regard as a Scottish value.

I read this as “London makes a lot of money, and the UK is the machinery by which we take it away and give it to Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland”. If Labour members still harbour some socialist dreams, they only have any currency outwith London. In the city on the hill, different rules apply. As Peter Mandelson once said: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

It’s probably in this context that we should understand the bizarre stuff about devolved tax rates in Labour’s Devo Nano proposal (PDF, paragraph 362): “This would mean a power to set the new Scottish Progressive Rates of Income Tax applying in the higher bands only, which would be able to secure 40p and 50p rates in the event that the United Kingdom Government proceeded unfairly to reduce them. This system will ensure also that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to create damaging tax competition within the United Kingdom by arbitrarily reducing the higher tax rates in the hope of attracting well-off taxpayers from England.”

In other words, Scotland must never be able to outcompete London. It’s OK for Scotland to shoot itself in the foot, but there must never be a good reason for businesses to move from London to Scotland. As they write in section 54: “[T]axes on tax bases, which can freely be relocated to a lower tax jurisdiction, are not appropriate for devolution.”

However, I don’t think they want everybody outwith London to be on benefits, so logically it follows that they’d prefer everybody else in the UK to be public-sector workers. That would explain why they’ve been so angry about the council tax freeze, free prescriptions and all that, because they have the effect of making the public sector more efficient and potentially reducing employment there. Johann Lamont confirmed this back in 2012 when she said that “[if] we need free personal care, we need an honest discussion about what it costs with a well-managed, well-trained workforce.”

Is this really what Labour wants? A UK that is split into two parts: A wealth-creating capitalistic London containing the vast majority of the country’s businesses, where people go to become filthy rich or perish in the process, and the rest of the UK, where everybody has safe, well-paid public sector jobs. Was this their reaction to the collapse of communism? To fix socialism by adding one wealth-creating bit to each country? Do they not worry that London might get fed up with paying for Labour’s socialist nirvana?

There’s almost a religious tone to Labour’s adoration of London. It makes this son of the manse recall the city upon a hill in the Sermon on the Mount, and I also wonder whether they’ve been inspired by Blake’s English anthem (but rather misunderstanding it):

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Cross-border trade in an independent Scotland

Have you done the shopping, honey?
Have you done the shopping, honey?, a photo by Risager on Flickr.
Danish politicians are well aware that they cannot raise taxes on food and drink without looking at the taxation levels in Germany and Sweden. As soon as you can save enough money to pay the petrol needed for the trip by shopping abroad, people start doing it.

When I was a kid, almost everybody in the village where I lived (100 miles from the German border) bought beer, wine, spirit, sugar, chocolate and a few other necessities in Flensburg. Over the years, the exact products have varied depending on the price differentials, but there’s always been something worth buying.

Obviously, the supermarkets know they’re losing trade to their German counterparts, but because the largest Danish cities are a bit too far from Germany to make the shopping trip worthwhile for people living there, Denmark is in general managing to keep prices higher than in Germany.

However, the distance from Glasgow (and the rest of the Central Belt) to Carlisle is about 100 miles, too — in other words, the vast majority of Scots live close enough to England that it’s worthwhile to drive down south to buy food and drink if the price differential is big enough.

What this means is that Scottish supermarkets will never be able sell anything at a price that is drastically higher than in England, even if it means their profit margins are reduced, simply because the alternative is not to sell very much at all (which is even worse for profits).

Morrison yesterday said this: “Our view is that if an independent Scotland increased or decreased regulation or taxes we’d have to take a second look at our pricing. Clearly that could work for or against Scottish customers depending on the direction of travel.” That sounds quite reasonable. I expect some products will be cheaper in Scotland, while others will be dearer.

What my experience from the Danish-German border tells me is that the overall price level cannot be much higher in Scotland than in England, because so many Scots live very close to the border. On the other hand, prices could theoretically be higher in the rUK than in Scotland, because only a small proportion of the population live close enough to the Scottish border to take advantage of cross-border trade.

To conclude, there’s reason to be optimistic. In an independent Scotland, politicians and supermarkets will have a joint interest in keeping prices down so that money flows in rather than out as a result of cross-border trade.

Sweden in the north, Freeport Ho! in the south

The divided electorate in England and Wales
The divided electorate in England and Wales
In their book Going South: Why Britain will have a Third World Economy by 2014, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson claim the UK needs to make a fundamental choice: Should it move in the direction of a Scandinavian welfare state (similar to the Common Weal ideas currently being discussed in Scotland), or should it become a low-tax state based on free trade (called “Freeport Ho!” and “Freeport Britain” in their book)?

They don’t really discuss Scottish independence in their book, and they seem to think that the UK must make the choice as a whole.

However, it appears to me that Scotland and London have already chosen. Scotland wants to go down the Common Weal path (and what we’re really discussing in the independence referendum campaign is whether we can convince the rUK to go down that road with us, or whether we should do so alone), and Greater London has practically decided to become a global free port (which is why so many people in the South-East want to leave the EU, dismantle the NHS, and all that).

It’s probably the case that a majority of people in Wales and Northern England actually agree more with Scotland than with London, but given that the Tories are essentially a Southern English party (see the map above), and that Labour are forever chasing the swing voters in Southern England, they have unfortunately handed over the power to make this decision to London.

Only in Scotland have we got a chance to choose a different route, which is why we have to vote Yes now, before the process of becoming Freeport Ho! makes it utterly impossible for Scotland to make a different choice.

Lessons on the rise of UKIP from Denmark for Scotland

Dansk Folkeparti's Pia Kjærsgaard
Dansk Folkeparti’s Pia Kjærsgaard, a photo by Radikale Venstre on Flickr.
It’s clear that UKIP did extremely well in yesterday’s local elections in England.

Some people like to compare UKIP to the BNP or to proper fascist parties, but I actually think the closest parallel is to Denmark’s Dansk Folkeparti (“Danish People’s Party”).

Dansk Folkeparti was founded in 1995 by former members of Fremskridtspartiet (the “Progress Party”), which had been troubled by large numbers of loonies and a prison sentence for its founder and chairman. Because of this, they have always been quick to chuck out all extremists and weirdos so that they can’t be easily dismissed as a loony party.

Dansk Folkeparti has never been a great success in electoral terms, typically gaining between 10% and 15% of the votes in national elections (which is approximately the level UKIP is polling at currently).

However, ever since its foundation it has had a tremendous effect on the policies of the other Danish political parties.

The typical pattern has been like this: Dansk Folkeparti make a suggestion (e.g., to limit the number of immigrants, or to put some restrictions on Denmark’s EU membership); the other parties at first dismiss it, but the media give it plenty of coverage (because it’s always a good story from a journalistic point of view), and some dissenters within the other parties are quickly found that agree with it, and eventually the other parties implement at least 50% of the original proposal. As soon as this has happened, Dansk Folkeparti start demanding even more, and the whole process starts again, with the result that after 10-20 years, the mainstream parties have adopted policies that are more extreme than those originally advocated by Dansk Folkeparti.

The reason the other parties adopt Dansk Folkeparti’s policies is because they fear the voters will otherwise start voting for them. In other words, it’s not because Dansk Folkeparti has actually won any elections, but because the opinion polls make the mainstream parties worried they’ll lose lots of seats in the next election if they don’t do something. We can see this in England at the moment, where many Tory MPs (and some Labour ones, too) fear they’ll lose their seat at the next general election if they don’t win back the voters who appear to be shifting to UKIP.

I left Denmark in 2002, and looking at Denmark from the outside it became abundantly clear to me that the whole society was shifting to the right every single year. The effect is that while I used to define myself politically as slightly right of centre, the only party that appeals to me now in Denmark is Enhedslisten (the “Unity List”), which is the left-most party (I used to compare it to the Scottish Socialist Party).

We’re already seeing how the English parties are starting to adopt UKIP’s policies. I don’t believe the Tories would have promised an in/out referendum on EU membership if he hadn’t felt threatened by UKIP’s rise in the opinion polls, and I also think Ed Miliband’s hardening stance on immigration is largely caused by UKIP.

Unless they suddenly self-destruct, I’m therefore extremely worried that the presence of UKIP will cause a gradual adoption of their policies by Labour and the Tories in England. The way to defeat them is relatively simple — their policies need to be opposed rather than appeased. However, I don’t see any signs of that happening.

There’s not much Scotland can do if England decides to make UKIP its lodestar.

UKIP isn’t even on the political horizon in Scotland, so we will probably see the political divide between England and Scotland widening drastically over the next ten or twenty years.

Independence doesn’t prevent this political change in England, but at least it means we won’t be ruled by a government that has stolen UKIP’s clothes. I’m extremely worried that England will pull us out of the EU and start making life intolerable for all immigrants. Scotland has to get off this train before it’s too late!

Independence as a protection against NHS privatisation

Jeremy Hunt is Privileged
Jeremy Hunt is Privileged, a photo by Feroze Alam on Flickr.
Most people are hopefully aware that the Scottish NHS and the English are almost completely separate, sharing little more than the name. I have often argued that the Scottish Government ought to rename the Scottish NHS in order to emphasise this fact.

Because of the existing independence of the Scottish NHS, it will hardly be affected at all by Scottish independence (just as the education system and the other fully devolved policy areas). When some unionists say that independence is a threat to the NHS, they are clearly scaremongering.

On the other hand, remaining in the UK is a big threat to the Scottish NHS as we know it.

This is because the English NHS is undergoing privatisation at an alarming pace.

So far, the changes in the English NHS have not affected us too much in Scotland, but if large amounts of expenditure now move from the public to the private sector, it’s likely to lead to huge Barnett consequentials, which means that Westminster’s block grant to Scotland will fall if the English public sector spends less money.

If the block grant decreases, it’s likely to force the Scottish Government to privatise the Scottish NHS along the same lines as what is already happening in England.

Better Together and the unionist parties need to tell us how they are planning to allow the Scottish Government to maintain the Scottish NHS. Will they ensure that the changes to the English NHS won’t affect the block grant?

If they won’t guarantee this, they should admit that the Scottish NHS is safer in the hands of an independent Scotland.

Dividing England along the Severn-Wash line

Isoglosses for 'last', 'cross' and 'sun'
Isoglosses for ‘last’, ‘cross’ and ‘sun’. Based on this image by NordNordWest modified by User:Xhandler, with isoglosses from An Atlas of English Dialects

In the past I’ve been writing about ways to split up England for the purpose of making federalism work in the UK (see this and this and this).

For some bizarre reason one split I never suggested in these blog posts was in many ways the most obvious one.

As a linguist, I’ve been aware for years that English dialects split into two main groups: Southern English south of a line roughly from the Severn to the Wash, and Northern English north of this line. (Scottish dialects are a completely different story.) Three of the most important isoglosses are shown on the map on the right.

However, this line turns up in lots of other contexts, e.g.:

  • Economics: “The current government’s attempts to bridge the north-south divide look doomed to failure. All but one of the 20 worst districts for hidden unemployment lie north of a line from the Severn to the Wash […]”
  • Politics: “South of a line drawn from the Wash to the Severn estuary, Labour has just 10 seats outside of London.”
  • Geology: “The line links the mouth of the River Tees between Redcar and Hartlepool in the north east of England with the mouth of the River Exe in Devon, the south west. The lowlands (sedimentary rocks) are predominant to the east of the line and higher land (igneous and metamorphic rocks) dominates to the west. As well as geology, those areas to the north and west of the line are generally wetter in climate than those to the east and south. Similar lines are commonly drawn, for similar purposes, between the Severn Estuary and the Wash, and between the Severn and the mouth of the River Trent.”
  • Ornithology: “[The nightingale is] a secretive bird which likes nothing better than hiding in the middle of an impenetrable bush or thicket. In the UK they breed mostly south of the Severn-Wash line […]”
  • Medicine: “Although the 1916 and 1917 waves of meningitis in the civil population were less intense than the primary wave of 1915 […], the underlying pattern of heightened disease activity in counties to the south of the Severn-Wash line persisted.”

I’m sure there are many more examples, but these should suffice to show that the Severn-Wash line is the most obvious border. North England and South England would be different in so many ways that they would quickly develop separate identities.

Obviously I don’t think England will ever be divided, but the consequence is that an undivided England will always dominate the UK to such a great extent that Scottish independence becomes a necessity.

(Crossposted from my personal blog.)