Will the English and Ex-Pats Love-Bomb Scotland?

Will the English and Ex-Pats Love-Bomb Scotland?

by David Torrance
article from Monday 24, June, 2013

EARLIER THIS MONTH Alistair Darling launched the London branch of the Better Together referendum campaign, imploring 800,000 Scots living in the rest of the UK (including 100,000 in its Capital) to get involved in the independence debate. “You may not have a vote in the referendum,” said the former Chancellor, “but you do have a voice.”

As a tactic, it is straight out of the Canadian playbook. In 1995, with opinion polls narrowing in the battle over Quebec, anti-separatists organised a rally in Montreal to love bomb the French-speaking province with federalist love. Although it’s difficult to quantify, campaign veterans believe it helped secure a narrow victory. 

It will be interesting to see if Better Together, Scotland’s cross-party “no” campaign, can achieve something similar via a network of groups – such as that launched in London – about to spring up south of the border. Could it all culminate with a “please Scotland, stay in the UK” rally in Trafalgar Square in the summer of 2014?

Some recent surveys suggest it won’t be that easy, for when it comes to the Scottish independence debate, England – or rather English public opinion – is the elephant in the room. Englishness, long considered a dirty word in the constitutional lexicon, is on the march. 

Early last year the IPPR published a report entitled “The dog that finally barked”. England, it concluded, was “an emerging political community”; and although previously relaxed about the UK’s asymmetric system of devolution, it detected evidence of a cultural shift, concern at the apparent privileges enjoyed by Scotland within the UK.

Not only did English voters increasingly believe devolution had worsened British governance (doubling since 2007), but also that England got a raw deal from the devolved settlement. Much of this had to do with money, and while southern support for independence was low (around 22 per cent), an overwhelming majority favoured “devo-max” for Scotland.

Another elephant in the room is the West Lothian Question, one of what the political scientist Iain McLean called “two mad men in the attic” of the constitutional debate (the other being the Barnett Formula). On this, too, English public opinion was clear, with a sharp rise in the proportion (79 per cent) who wanted Scottish MPs barred from voting on specifically “English laws”.

Although the Coalition’s recent McKay Commission concluded it was relatively rare for legislation to pass on the basis of Scottish (and indeed Welsh) votes it, like the IPPR, detected a “clear and enduring sense that England is materially disadvantaged relative to the other parts of the UK, especially Scotland”.

McKay went on to rule out several potential solutions including, not surprisingly, reversing devolution (“not on the political agenda”), maintaining the status quo (“a long-term risk”), federalism (“has compelling objections”) and electoral reform (“fails to tackle the underlying issue”). Instead the Commission proposed a legislative consent motion prior to a Bill’s Second Reading as the “minimum…effective means of allowing the voice from England (or England-and-Wales) to be heard”.

It was, in other words, a constitutional damp squib unlikely to appease English public opinion. But then what would? The IPPR survey also found the emerging English “political community” had yet to crystallise around a coherent alternative. Support for an English Parliament was lukewarm at best; federalism wasn’t even on the radar.

Nevertheless it has to be tackled, UKIP’s recent electoral success (largely an English phenomenon, despite the party’s name) clearly vindicated the survey evidence. Paradoxically, rather than championing English devolution, UKIP has often appeared hostile to the status quo, hinting it would scrap the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. This unsustainable line has since been moderated, and will no doubt continue to evolve.

But in response the UK political class has become fixated with Europe, ignoring – as usual – what rising support for UKIP tells us about Englishness. The IPPR concluded that British politicians had “failed to take it, and them, seriously”. Ed Miliband and his policy chief Jon Cruddas have at least begun to explore the English dimension, but it still lacks momentum.

And there is, of course, the question of salience: English voters might voice devo-anxiety to pollsters, but how strongly do they actually feel about it? Strongly enough – on recent evidence – to vote UKIP, although it’s not altogether clear where that leads us. “Englishness” as a national identity, meanwhile, is on the rise. Ironically, only a majority of those in Northern Ireland – not part of Great Britain at all – feel “British”.

UKIP seems the most likely conduit for these stirrings. In next June’s elections to the European Parliament Farage will probably triumph in England while Salmond sweeps to victory in Scotland, and a couple of months later Scots will vote on independence, most likely achieving more autonomy no matter what the result. And unless it's paid some attention soon, the English dog’s bark will get steadily louder.


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