The centre-right is waking-up to the potential political benefits of independence – for England
By James Maxwell
The Conservative Party’s unflinching fidelity to Britain’s multi-national state is as irrational as it is politically counter-productive.
The principal disadvantage imposed by the Union on the Tories is Scotland, which has for the last five decades proved an immovable rock of social democratic opposition to successive centre-right governments in London.
If the current Coalition government lasts the full length of this Westminster parliament and then wins another term in 2015, Scots will have been ruled in the post-war period for longer by Tory regimes without majority support in this country than by Labour administrations carrying firm democratic mandates from the Scottish electorate.
This is a frankly stunning prospect. Apart from exposing the fragility of the Westminster system’s claim to democratic legitimacy in Scotland, it also gives some measure of the depth and scale of Scots aversion to the Tories – an aversion that remains undimmed.
The relationship between Scotland and the Conservatives has barely improved since its 1997 electoral nadir when the party lost every one of its Scottish seats. Today they hold just one Westminster constituency in Scotland and are represented at Holyrood by a paltry sixteen MSPs. Recent polls have suggested their vote is going to shrink at the upcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections.
Despite his party’s increasingly peripheral status north of the border, David Cameron has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to maintaining the United Kingdom’s unitary political structure. In a recent trip to Bute House he said, “An imperfect union is better than a perfect divorce. I want to keep the UK together. We’re a family [and] I don’t want this family to fall out.”
However, a growing number of Cameron’s supporters in the press and in his party are beginning to realise just how dysfunctional and restrictive this ‘family’ can be.
Writing in the Times after the SNP’s 2008 by-election win in Glasgow East, Simon Jenkins articulated the likely political benefits to the Tory Party of an independent Scotland: “An autonomous Scotland, a country as big as Denmark, should liberate the English parliament to enjoy a politics freed of the alien encumbrance of Scottish seats. It should liberate English politics from the distortion of 50 Scottish socialists, most of them indelibly linked to old-fashioned concepts of public spending”.
Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips also sees the dissolution of the UK as an opportunity for England to unshackle itself from the tyranny of archaic Scottish welfarism: “[After separation] the Scots would lose their massive subsidy from the English taxpayer. And Scotland is unlikely to become a Celtic tiger economy given its top-heavy public sector culture. As Scotland’s taxes would inevitably rise, English taxes would fall, leaving many English individuals and businesses significantly better off.”
Phillips is here outlining one of the favourite themes of contemporary right-wing English populism, namely that the industrious, wealth-producing residents of the south heavily subsidise their slovenly, unproductive Celtic cousins in the north.
Putting to one side the fact that this is demonstrably untrue (and that it perpetuates a rather vicious ethnic stereotype), it is easy to see why such a perceived imbalance might stoke resentment in England, especially during a period of extended economic downturn.
It makes sense, then, that as part of their campaign to reduce the UK’s record public deficit, the Conservatives should seek to wipe the unnecessary financial burden of Scotland’s supposedly bloated welfare state off the British Treasury’s books forever.
As Phillips and Jenkins argue, without the dead hand of Scottish socialism laying heavy on the irrepressible spirit of English commerce the free-market would flourish, lavishing on the good people of Albion unprecedented wealth and prosperity. Surely no right thinking apostle of the market could possibly be opposed to that?
The break-up of Britain offers the Tories another massive potential benefit: a weakened and marginalised Labour Party.
Labour relies on Scotland to provide it with forty or so MPs at every General Election. Although it wouldn’t have robbed Blair of his majorities, the absence of those staunchly loyal Scottish Labour parliamentarians from Westminster would have made winning key votes considerably more difficult for the last government. It would also have turned Brown’s 2010 election defeat from a manageable loss into a catastrophe.
Further, as anticipated by Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian formulation, since devolution Scottish Labour MPs have on occasion voted to force through controversial reforms at Westminster – most notably on foundation hospitals and university funding – that only apply to England and would not have passed in an independent English parliament.
This constitutional disjunction is not lost on top-ranking Conservatives, who are increasingly coming to the conclusion that separation may be the fastest way to rid England of a moribund Scottish Labour mafia which wields disproportionate influence in the halls of Whitehall and Westminster.
As Peter Oborne explains, “Senior Tory strategists are aware that they and the SNP share a common enemy – Gordon Brown and his Scottish Labour Party. They realise that Scottish independence will not merely bring with it the end of Britain, but go a long way to destroying Labour, which has relied on Scotland as its power base for so many years, as the party of government.”
And in the most satisfying consummation of all for English nationalists declared and undeclared, Scotland’s secession would leave England free to form a coherent national identity without having to pay constant heed to the cultural sensitivities of the Scots (and the Welsh, of course, if they too chose to go it alone).
The vacuous abstraction that is ‘Britishness’ would at last be allowed to peter out into the ether, leaving the English unencumbered by the responsibility of maintaining such an antiquated historical concept. This would, in turn, create fertile ground for the growth of a new kind of ‘one nation conservatism’, which is England’s best hope for its own progressive politics.
Yet, beyond the realm of rhetoric and conjecture, the Tory Party as a whole remains obstinately faithful to the Union. This is in part because it is convinced the UK is still a first rate global power. These Churchillian delusions largely rely on Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, which would be enormously costly to re-locate if a free Scottish state demanded it be removed from the Clyde.
Raw financial interest also holds sway over political expediency. With oil prices set to rise, the 30 billion barrels of crude waiting to be extracted from the North Sea are simply too valuable for the Treasury to just abandon.
Who wouldn‘t bet, though, that as those reserves begin to run dry so too will the Conservatives desire to halt Scotland’s gradual tilt toward full self-governance?