The Scottish Referendum and Devolution


scottish flagIt’s nearly three weeks since the Scottish independence referendum and now that the dust has appeared to settle it’s maybe a good time to look back in a more dispassionate way and take stock of where we are right now.

At the time I was watching it all unveil whilst on a month’s holiday in Western Canada I was able to see it partially through the eyes of another nation, one with which Britain has been inextricably linked for almost as long as the Union has been in place. Also it’s one that has more than a vested interest in the Scottish referendum in view of it’s own preoccupation with Quebec and the attempts by the Quebecois to divorce themselves from Ottawa over the last thirty years.

First of all Canada was obsessed with the Scottish vote and CBC covered it wall to wall for some two weeks up to and after the event. I had been concerned on leaving UK that I would miss out on the coverage from home but I needn’t have worried. Peter Mansbridge and Suhanna Meharchand  were brilliant,  dispassionate and refreshingly non sensationalist in their analysis. These two outstanding broadcasters reminded me of the former heady days  when the BBC was less concerned with aping the tabloid press and it’s obsession with opinion polls and the undecideds.

The referendum process absorbed, excited and engaged the whole of the UK in a way I simply cannot ever remember.  People everywhere were thinking and talking about politics, the union, values, hopes, history. It was quite astonishing.  It would be a tragedy if it all turns out to be a storm in a teacup, and immediately after the no vote I really hope that doesn’t happen.  

Too many fundamental questions were asked for it to simply to evaporate along with all the other political hot air as the party conferences approached.  The term ‘westminster elite’  has become a phrase that so many people  have connected with - and many want to change.  Especially, I suspect, the young.  I am convinced that the very nature of our nation, and what makes it hold together, is now being re-assessed by many.

The result in the end was a big relief and played out as we may have expected. Interestingly, it seemed to fall very closely in line with demographic characteristics. The less challenged communities, the more professional, the more affluent and yes the more elderly seemed to vote  NO. The more challenged communities with less affluence, more unemployment and social need tended to be more inclined to YES.

Much was made leading up to the vote of the opinion polls and particularly guessing how the so called undecideds would cast theirs. In retrospect I guess it was inevitable that the majority of undecideds would opt in the end for NO. If you genuinely are ‘havering’ and cannot make up your mind on the basis of all the arguments for and against  - with all the uncertainty of taking that ‘leap of faith’ that seemed to underpin much of the separatist view then it is something of a ‘no brainer’. You dare not to not take that risk and opt to vote YES.

Apart from a surprisingly brilliant speech from Gordon Brown which left me dewey eyed the day before the referendum, offers of far greater devolved powers from all the mainstream parties helped to sway the outcome. Scotland now needs to screw Westminster for a real deal on greater powers and we, who dwell in the regions away from London, need to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Scots and give them wholehearted support in that endeavour.

England would be well advised not to do what Ottawa did to Quebec when they reneged on promises they gave prior to the referendum in 1980 and rubbed the French noses in their defeat on separatism after that referendum. This completely antagonised the Quebecois such that it nearly produced a yes vote later in the referendum of 1995. It was rather worrying therefore to see quotes of one of Boris Johnson’s jokes at the Conservative Party conference only a couple of weeks after these promises had been made where he talked of a new party fisheries policy of ‘throwing Salmond over board then eating up the kippers’ -- hardly likely to inspire Scots to believe in the sincerity of those hurriedly concocted pre referendum commitments.

‘The UK has the most centralised form of government in the whole of the western world’ and that is a quote from a recent article by Michael Heseltine. USA has it’s states, France it’s departments, Holland it’s twelve provinces, Australia it’s six states, Sweden it’s counties, Canada has it’s provinces and so on and the last four all have much smaller populations than the UK.

The Scottish vote should now really energise the whole idea of devolution of power to England as well as the home nations - but not this diversionary drivel about an English Parliament so that we can solve the ‘West Lothian’ question. That is the anomaly where Scottish MPs can vote on English issues in the UK parliament whilst English MPs cannot vote on Scottish issues in the Scottish devolved parliament. Frankly I am much less concerned about this and much more obsessed with the establishment of a proper federated structure that decentralises power away from the Metropolis and establishes regional government in the English regions, just like almost every other sophisticated western nation. This incidentally would also largely solve the problem of the ‘West Lothian’ question at the same time.

The North West has a population of nearly 7m. Greater Manchester alone has a larger economy than Wales. The West Midlands and Yorkshire is on a par with Scotland's economy and population and so on. We had a modicum of regional devolution with the Regional Development Agencies which did amazing work in stimulating economic development in the regions but for some unaccountable reason these were scrapped by the current government in 2010. What were they scared of?

This sense of disengagement from government, of disenfranchisement and injustice the further from London you are is much the same in Yorkshire or Cornwall as it is in Dundee or Inverness. I still believe this is essentially what motivated the Scottish referendum and not  a new wave of rampant Scottish nationalism fired some might say by a clever politician bent on self aggrandisement. It is ludicrous that with a population of some 60m that all government emanates from London. We need to address the issue of devolution to all of the regions of England as well as the home nations. I'll vote for any party next time that guarantees that.

Do you know what though? I won't be holding my breath and despite the right noises being made recently by George Osborne about establishing a greater industrial and economic powerhouse across the North of England and despite the genuine views of Michael Heseltine about more decentralisation I bet the power-brokers amongst the metroplitan elite will still want to corral all the power where it now sits and to continue it’s obsession with London and the S.E.