Category Archives: England

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.

Irvine Welsh: “Better together? Yes, certainly, but better independent and free together.”

IRVINE WELSH: IN PERSON, a photo by EIFF on Flickr.

Bella Caledonia has today published an original article by Irvine Welsh (of Trainspotting fame).

It’s a very thoughtful piece by a writer who has spent a long time in England, and I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.

Here are a few bits that struck a chord with me:

[The British] state has stopped England from pursuing its main mission, namely to build a inclusive, post-imperial, multi-racial society, by forcing it to engage with the totally irrelevant (from an English perspective) distractions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. From the viewpoint of the Scots, it has foisted thirty-five years of a destructive neo-liberalism upon us, and prevented us from becoming the European social democracy we are politically inclined to be.


The idea of the political independence of England and Scotland leading to conflict, hatred and distrust is the mindset of opportunistic status-quo fearmongers and gloomy nationalist fantasists stuck in a Bannockburn-Culloden timewarp, and deeply insulting to the people of both countries. Swedes, Norwegians and Danes remain on amicable terms; they trade, co-operate and visit each other socially any time they like. They don’t need a pompous, blustering state called Scandinavia, informing them from Stockholm how wonderful they all are, but (kind of) only really meaning Sweden.


The Union Jack is the increasingly shrinking fig leaf that strives to cover the growth of an English nationalism and consciousness, which is visible in almost every aspect of life in these islands over the last thirty years. And that, in a post-imperial world, is how it should be, and probably how it has to be. The problem that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have to face, is that they have no place at this party, and neither should they: it just isn’t a great deal to do with them.

It’s a very powerful article, and even more so because Irvine Welsh knows England so well. As he concludes: “Better together? Yes, certainly, but better independent and free together.”

Scotland should have 109 MPs, not 52

The Tories and the LibDems are reducing the number of seats in the House of Commons from 646 to 600. As part of this, the four nations’ representations will be equalised to the same number of voters per seat (until now, the smaller nations have had smaller seats than England); for instance, Wales will see its number of MPs drop from 40 to 30.

Most people seem to think this is fair, and many English MPs are even calling for a further reduction in the number of Scottish MPs to cancel out the effect of Scottish devolution.

However, according to the Penrose method, also sometimes described as the square root formula, each nation should get allocated seats according the square root of the population to achieve equal voting powers for all people represented.

Here’s a table showing the figures for actual and calculated numbers of MPs:

Country Population Actual 2015 seats Square root seats
England 52,234,000 502 344
Scotland 5,254,800 52 109
Wales 3,006,400 30 83
Northern Ireland 1,799,392 16 64
Total 62,294,592 600 600

The square root method has been suggested for allocating seats in the European Parliament (although the current method used there results in similar results).

I guess it all depends on the status of the four nations of the UK. If they’re just seen as electoral regions of a single country, the CoLD coalition’s proposal makes perfect sense (but then devolution should probably be abolished); on the other hand, if the Westminster Parliament is seen as a supranational parliament for the union of the four sovereign nations of the UK, the Penrose method should be used.

If Penrose isn’t used, I presume it means Scotland will have more influence as an independent country, so unless the No parties put Penrose on the table as an alternative, I would strongly suggest voting Yes to independence.

The two meanings of ‘British’

Nationalists and Unionists have been having a curious little spat for the last couple of days. I think it started with Ed Miliband claiming that Scots will no longer be British if their country votes to leave the United Kingdom. Nationalists were quick to reply that given that Scotland is geographically a part of Great Britain, Scots will always be British, no matter which state they’re living in.

I do believe it’s a bit of a silly fight to get into.

It’s a matter of fact that the word British has at least two meanings in modern English:

  1. relating to, denoting, or characteristic of Great Britain [where Great Britain can then mean either just the island or include also the small adjacent islands such as Skye and the Isle of Wight] — parallel to the modern use of Scandinavian
  2. relating to, denoting, or characteristic of the United Kingdom — parallel to the occasional use of Scandinavian to refer to people from the short-lived Kingdom of Sweden and Norway

The second meaning is probably more frequent than the first for the simple reason that there isn’t any other convenient adjective describing somebody from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and it’s obviously this meaning that Ed Miliband was referring to. However, the first meaning seems more primary, and of course you can’t tell people in Scotland that they suddenly aren’t allowed to use this sense of the word.

I guess it’s related to the question of what the rUK will be called after Scottish Independence:

  1. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? It’s really not a good name when one half of Great Britain has just left.
  2. The United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland? Although Wales was part of England prior to the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain, I doubt they’d accept this.
  3. The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? I’d say this is the most likely result.

However, which adjective will people use to refer to somebody or something from The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Although it will annoy the Northern Irish and the Scots in equal measure, I have a feeling many English people will continue to use British. I mean, what’s the alternative? Engwalnish?

A different country

307/365 bunting
Originally uploaded by dbtelford

This week-end’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London (and, I presume, most of England) have been somewhat strange to observe from Scotland.

Gauging from the photos I’ve seen and the comments I’ve read on Twitter, London has been drowning in excessive bunting, and companies have been trying to put the Union Jack on as many items as possible, even toilet paper (which in earlier times would surely have been seen as an act of lèse majesté).

However, Scotland has been remarkably free of bunting, street parties and British flags, apart from some events organised by the Orange Order in Glasgow (thanks, Labour).

It was probably not what the monarchists intended, but the feeling I’m left with is simply that England is a very different country from Scotland.

How to minimise the number of students from England after independence

At the moment, the main reason why English students are not all going to university in Scotland (where university tuition is free, compared to English universities that will typically charge £27,000 for a 3-year degree) is that Scottish universities charge them up to £27,000 for their degree. This is only possible because the EU rule about not discriminating against EU students only applies to students from other EU countries (such as Ireland, Denmark or Bulgaria) and not to students from other parts of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

As soon as Scotland regains her independence, rUK students become EU students and will have to be treated in the same way as students from Scotland.

However, some lessons can be learnt from Scandinavia. Denmark in theory has to treat Swedish students the same as Danish ones, but this is not the whole truth.

Denmark used to have a big problem with too many Swedes studying medicine in Copenhagen and then going home after graduation. In 2007, Denmark therefore did two things (link in Danish): (1) They changed the number of advanced highers (“højniveaufag”) a student needs to pass to get a grade top-up, which benefitted Danes in comparison with Swedes. (2) They changed the way they translated Swedish grades into Danes ones (that is, they made it harder for them to get in).

Apart from this, Denmark pays generous grants (typically £7616 per year) to university students who are either Danish citizens, have lived in Denmark for five years prior to starting university, or who have parents that are EU citizens and have moved to Denmark for work reasons. Other students don’t get a penny.

Scotland could copy some of these policies after independence. There are already plenty of differences between A Levels and Scottish Highers to provide opportunities for tweaking the entry requirements to make it harder for English students to get into Scottish universities (the brilliant ones would of course still get in, but that would be to Scotland’s advantage anyway), and Scotland could introduce tuition fees for everybody, but cancel out the effect by creating grants for Scottish citizens and long-term residents.

In an ideal world such measures shouldn’t be necessary, but until it dawns on the English that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by pricing bright young people out of universities, I fear that Scotland will have to take a leaf out of Denmark’s book.

Update (May 2013): Denmark’s rule about only giving grants to long-term residents has been found unlawful by the EU Court of Justice. Now everybody who has moved to Denmark in order to work (even if only for the summer holidays before starting university) has the right to get Danish grants when studying in Denmark.

Independence for Shetland and Orkney?

Originally uploaded by image_less_ordinary

Tavish Scott and some of his unionist friends have been having fun recently suggesting that Shetland and Orkney might separate from Scotland in the case of Scottish independence.

As far as I can see, there are theoretically four options for Shetland and Orkney if Scotland becomes independent:

  1. They can remain part of Scotland.
  2. They can become part of Norway (or Denmark) instead.
  3. They can become part of England.
  4. They can become independent.

Option (1) is of course the most straightforward option. Although option (2) would perhaps tempt some of the islanders temporarily, I’m not sure they’d really want to learn Norwegian as their first foreign language, introduce Norwegian law, go to university in Norway, and so on. Option (3) would possibly appeal to some of the islanders, especially those of them who have moved there from England; however, would the majority of the population really want to be flown to England for complex hospital treatments, or by default go to university in England? Also, the islands have never in their history belonged to England, so it’d be a somewhat strange outcome. Option (4) is of course a possibility, but they have a very small population and don’t even have experience with devolution.

I think it’s a good idea for Shetland and Orkney to get some degree of autonomy within Scotland. Perhaps this would over time develop into full independence, although I’m doubtful. However, to leap from being a full and integrated part of Scotland to becoming an independent nation overnight would be a complete shock to the system, and I’d be very surprised if the islanders themselves would go for it, especially as there is no established independence movement on the islands as far as I know.

I can therefore only conclude that Tavish Scott is just trying to spread uncertainty and fear about the prospects of Scottish independence – he’s not really advocating separating the islands from mainland Scotland. I would have hoped the unionists had some positive arguments in favour of the Union, but that might have been too much to hope for.