A toxic union

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by Peter Thomson

Gerry Hassan’s article in the Open Democracy – Our Kingdom blog clearly poured not just salt but vinegar on the wounds of a number of English bloggers whose grasp of the history of the Union is clearly sketchy at best.  So let us deal with the myths that inform this asymmetric assessment by the English side of English largesse.

Myth 1: Scotland was bankrupt in 1707.

Well , no, it was not.

The burghs were cash rich.  In the decade prior to 1707 the Scottish economy was growing at 2.5% per annum, according to research by the historian Michael Lynch.  So who was bankrupt?  Well that was the Scottish land owners who had mortgaged their lands to fund the Darien Scheme.  If they had not been bailed out by Westminster, the burgh middle classes would have taken control of Scotland, something the English Government could not allow.  The Whig English Government had also been buying off the Jacobite lords in Scotland at the cost of £1 million a year (£1 billion into today’s money) to ensure the Hanoverian succession.  The Jacobite lords were playing the ‘we could ask the French for help’ card which meant  Horse Guards, the headquarters of the English armed forces, had to keep English regiments on the Scottish border.  These regiments were needed in continental Europe by the Duke of Marlborough in order to prop up England’s war against France.

What actually happened was that the incoming Tory Government of the day decided they were not gaining anything.  Daniel Defoe quickly reported that most of the Jacobite lords were unlikely to support James VIIth’s claim on the thrones of Scotland and England, so shifted the bribes from the Jacobite lords to the Tory inclined Scottish Lowland lords who were in trouble with their Darien mortgage repayments coming due and were in danger of defaulting – the ‘parcel o rogues’ of Burns poem.  The English Parliament needed the Union to secure their northern border once and for all and created pressure to persuade the Scots that Union was a good idea.   The pressure included siding with the Spanish to ensure Darien failed and passing laws to exclude Scottish traders from all England’s colonies by imposing excessive duties.

Myth 2: The English Parliament absorbed the Scottish Parliament

Well, no, it did not.  The Treaty of Union makes clear that both parliaments were suspended and a new UK parliament formed with a new seal.  The Treaty of Union does preserve a number of important issues with respect to each nation’s sovereignty, laws, freedoms and liberties.  The importance of this is that in Scotland sovereignty lies with the people and not the crown or parliament and is what modern political theory would call a representative democracy.  The sovereignty of the Scottish people was legally established in 1328 when the Declaration of Arbroath was entrenched in Scots Law.  The 1698 Claim of Right (Scotland) reaffirmed this important difference as it was made clear that James VIIth was actually kicked off the throne of Scotland by the sovereign Scottish people – he did not abdicate – and restated the sovereignty of the Scottish people.  This was unlike the English Claim of Right which declared the English Parliament sovereign.

The Treaty of Union preserves the sovereignty of the people of Scotland for all time.  In a judgement on a case in 1953 the then Lord President of the Court of Session made clear that where the Treaty of Union says ‘for all time’ that is exactly what it means.  During the restructuring of Scottish Councils in the early 70’s the people of the ‘Kingdom of Fife’ appealed to the crown that to split Fife between Tayside and Lothian was a breach of their longstanding sovereignty, liberties, rights and freedoms.  The result was that the Crown ensured that Fife remained intact.

Myth 3: The union of the crowns

There never was any union of the crowns.  The current Queen swore a separate oath to the sovereign people of Scotland the night before her English coronation and uses the ‘Honours of Scotland’ when north of the border – as required by the 1689 Scottish Claim of Right.

Myth 4: England subsidises Scotland

The Treasury’s own figures show that Scotland has returned a tax surplus every year in the last 30.  Last year it was £1.6 billion – not including any tax take from the North Sea – an estimated £32 billion a year from the Scottish sector.  It is difficult to be precise as the actual figures for oil and gas income are hidden in the Treasury’s extra-territorial account.  If you crunch the numbers you find that for every £100 that is ‘spent’ on Scotland by the UK Government, £170 is ‘spent’ in the Greater London area for the same population.

You can add the money that should have come to Scotland as part of our pocket money which the Treasury is sitting on for one pretence or another  – some £500 million a year at the last counting – which still shows on the Treasury Accounts as ‘going to Scotland’.

Myth 5: It’s Scotland’s fault when England gets a Labour government

No that’s all England’s doing as Scotland returns, at present, 65 MPs (Cameron is looking to cut that to 59) of whom currently 40 are Labour MPs out of some 650 MPs in total.  The political volatility is all England’s.

Myth 6:  The bank rescue

The UK banks are regulated by the UK Government so their failing is the responsibility of the UK Government.

If the two nations were separate then the losses incurred by those parts of RBOS, HBOS, Lloyds TSB and the rest are the responsibility of the country in which they operate.  The RBOS Merchant Bank loss makers with the CDO toxic loan bundles were all registered as English companies trading in the City of London.  The profitable parts of RBOS, such as traditional banking, were Scottish registered and in the year after the crash this part of the Scottish finance and insurance sector which grew by 7%, according to CBI Scotland.  NatWest and its subsidiaries remained an English registered company.  As for HBOS – again it was the high level of toxic CDO exposure in the Halifax Bank section that brought about its downfall.  This was made worse by Brown and Darling’s clumsy attempt to shore HBOS up with Labour’s great Lloyds TSB take over which turned a solvent Lloyds Bank into another fiscal basket case.

Currently the only difference between Westminster and Dublin is the mortgaging of North Sea oil and gas income by the Treasury to shore up foreign exchange deals.  Meanwhile the Tory austerity package is killing the UK economy as reflected in the rising unemployment figures in England.  Yet in Scotland the reverse is happening, unemployment is falling, how can that be?

The difference is that Scotland still has a mixed economy far beyond the Westminster peddled myth of Scotland’s dependence on the public sector.  In the last six months the SNP Government has encouraged nearly £120 million in inward investment to build and install the first generation of tidal power stations and develop the next generation.  The financial and services sector in Scotland only represents 21% of our productive economy.

What is not a myth is that Scotland spends the pocket money it gets back from Westminster in a way that best reflects the needs and expectations of the people of Scotland.  For the past four years the SNP Government has balanced its books, in spite of the actual pocket money being cut by 3.5% in real terms year on year.  Something the UK Parliament has conspicuously failed to do.

In poll after poll when the question has been asked of the Scots whether Scotland should be fiscally autonomous, 56% of Scots have said ‘yes’.  Now for the first time support for full independence has risen above the 40% tipping point while those wishing the Union to be preserved has dropped below 45% for the first time.

So where does this leave the political union that is known as the United Kingdom?

There is a massive imbalance in UK political and financial accountability across the constituent nations and English regions, an imbalance which has been ignored by every UK government since 1999 and devolution began.  The Westminster politicians and their associated chattering classes pretend that it is not happening and turn ever inwards  on themselves like modern day ostriches, certain that there is only wilderness beyond the M25.  Westminster appears to hope that by sacrificing a few of the worst expense fiddling politicians and throwing them to the masses we will allow the incipient inertia of Westminster politics and their self serving media circus to carry on as before.

The best way to achieve this end is for Westminster to spin the worst excesses of the Scots, Welsh or Irish and present them as ungrateful spongers to the English.  Something the tame Westminster media is only too happy to do.

My view is simple.  The political union, as represented by Westminster, is now a suppurating ulcer, gnawing away at the souls of all who live on this island.  It is making us all sick, angry and frustrated because it is no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Westminster has no intention of reforming itself, so must be broken up.  It is time to return Westminster to its core purpose as the Parliament of England.  Devolution is not going to be reversed and any attempt to, such as Cameron’s current Scotland Act Amendments Bill, are doomed to merely increase the tension and  anger on all sides.

Senior Scottish Thatcherites have already called Cameron’s Amendment Bill, ‘the midwife of Scottish independence’.  I would rather have a reasoned separation in mutual understanding and peace than the messy, angry divorce Westminster is heading us all for.