Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Scottish referendum shows us why the British political class must embrace real change or die.

Charles Lees discusses the need for political change in Britain following the Scottish referendum.

There was a moment this week when a clutch of opinion polls[i] showing the Yes vote ahead or neck-and-neck with No in Scotland sounded the first audible death rattle of the Union. Even if the No camp eventually crawls over the finishing line ahead of Yes on the 18th of September, the current scare has been a near death experience for the British state in its current form. So, whatever the outcome of the referendum, Britain’s political class will very soon have to implement some important lifestyle changes. But that is for the future. At the moment the patient is still collapsed in the street, looking up at the autumnal sky, listening for the sound of the ambulance sirens that might signal help is on its way.

So how did the British political class find itself in this position? It is not as fatuous as it sounds to refer to the need for lifestyle changes. The British state retains a pompous theatricality and the Westminster village a degree of complacency and cynicism that is not just inappropriate in today’s world but has begun to actively grate on the sensibilities of significant numbers its citizens, and not just in Scotland[ii]. The dissonance that we hear in the dialogue between rulers and ruled is not just a function of British decline, it is also about other countries successes. An increasingly well-informed and well-travelled citizenry can see and experience for themselves that there are alternative ways to organize our political affairs and more equitable and often more successful economic models on offer as well. But, with one or two honorable exceptions[iii], the British political classes have been unable or unwilling to recognize the growing disconnect with voters and quick to discount and denigrate constitutional alternatives as unworkable or – a favorite term in the village – simply bonkers. And in this fashion opportunities have been lost.

The most regrettable lost opportunity – and not just in the context of the Scottish referendum - was the failure to enact a root-and-branch reform of the structure of the British state in the late 1990s. The asymmetrical and frankly incoherent devolution of limited powers to three out of four of the constituent nations was not intended to unleash and empower the political forces that had been building up since the early 1970s but to buy them off and contain them in what many regarded as talking shops, albeit with differing levels of real political power. In particular, the complete failure to address the ‘West Lothian’ or ‘English question’[iv] at all revealed the contempt of many members of the political class for their voters. The joke at Westminster was that the only answer to West Lothian question was not to ask it in the first place. How we laughed.

So, as we now know, Westminster’s granting of a flawed Scottish parliament did not ‘kill nationalism stone dead’ as George Robertson once predicted[v] and the current two-year referendum campaign that is reaching its unpredictable climax has revealed a complete inability to articulate a positive message in defense of the Union in its present form. I am not blaming the Better Together campaign for that – I cannot think of a convincing way of doing that either. And the reason for that is that the status quo has become untenable. David Cameron has come under fire in recent days for not including a third option for Devo-Max in the referendum question. This is missing the point. Cameron was right to not allow three choices in the referendum, as this might easily have split the no vote (see how Prime Minister John Howard split the yes vote for a Republic in Australia in the 1990s[vi]) as divide supporters of independence. The real problem was much more fundamental in the failure to recognize that there should have been a straight vote between some form of Devo Max and outright Independence. If this had been part of a wider offer as part of a federal solution to the ongoing disfunctionality of the modern British state, so much the better.

As it is, the No campaign has been reduced to making threats about the consequences of change. Many of the threats have substance but the No camp is increasingly facing a credibility problem. The most hotly contested of these threats has been UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne's 'no ifs, no buts' refusal (backed by the leaders of the main Westminster parties) to countenance a currency union between the residual UK and Scotland in the event of a Yes vote. In a UK economy that has been allowed to grow over dependent on the fate of the banking sector this threat has the potential to inflict enormous self-harm. For If Scotland votes yes and the markets take the UK government’s threats at face value there is the potential for a run on ‘Scottish’ banks. If that happens the Bank of England will have to guarantee the liquidity of those banks during the run-up to independence, which could beggar us all. The best way to avoid such a run on the banks would be to agree to let Scotland share Sterling after separation. And that is why the SNP and large swathes of the Scottish people are apparently confident that the UK is bluffing on the issue.

So, as the patient lies there on the road, he or she might consider if they could have done more to prevent this trauma happening in the first place. Could they have been more generous and imaginative in the late 1990s when there was a window of opportunity for real reform of Britain’s outmoded imperial state? Did they really think they could put off further devolution of powers when it became clear that the SNP’s re-election in 2011 meant an independence referendum was on the cards? And do they really think, at this late hour, that any raft of new Devo-Max measures for Scotland can be passed without considering the further destabilizing effects that they would have on the rest of the British state? Like the recovering alcoholic or the coronary survivor, the British political class will have to embrace meaningful changes to its lifestyle or else the next significant event may be terminal for the British state.

Charles Lees is the Head of the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath. 

[i] Curtice, J. ‘TNS now say it is a dead heat’. What Scotland Thinks blog.
(accessed 10 Sept. 2014).

[ii] Hansard Society (2014) Audit of Political Engagement, 11, (accessed 10 Sept. 2014).

[iii] See for instance Graham Allen MP on constitutional reform. British Politics Group blog. (accessed 10 Sept. 2014).

[iv] See Robert Hazell on the ‘English Question’ (accessed 10 Sept. 2014).

[v] See Garland, W. (6 May 2007). How Bulldog Brown could call Braveheart Salmond’s bluff. The Scotsman. Johnston Press. (accessed Sept. 10 2014).

[vi] Kirby, M (2000), ‘The Australian Republican Referendum 1999 – Ten Lessons. Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales. (accessed 10 Sept. 2014).


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