Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic! The UK should hold its nerve

Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic! The UK should hold its nerve

by Alan Sked
article from Tuesday 12, January, 2021

DESPITE her looming showdown with Alex Salmond, British politicians are still scared stiff of Nicola Sturgeon and her threat of Indyref2. Only Boris has the measure of her. As far as he is concerned any second referendum can wait till 2055 and she can wait till then too if she survives. I don’t think he takes her or her witless followers in the Commons seriously. His plans for post-Brexit Britain are designed to bring prosperity to the North – including Scotland. Blackford bores the Commons to death. Boris makes regular fun of him. Boris does not have much to worry about.

Except, that is, the panic all around him among the major parties encouraged by a Remainer establishment that would love to see Sturgeon as leader of a new EU member state.  Even Lady Davidson and her politically underwhelming Tory boy Douglas Ross MP give the impression that if forced to choose they might like that idea. In fact Boris’s only true allies in Scotland are George Galloway with his Alliance4Unity, still ignored by the Scottish and British media, although the probable Rutherglen by-election should change that – and Michelle Ballantyne MSP, who defended Boris so often she ended up leaving the Scottish Tory Party. 

In the meantime Starmer, although withdrawing his apparent earlier support for a second referendum, has fallen under the baleful influence of Blair and Brown, the gravediggers of the Union in 1998 (see my articles on devolution and after in my series revising Scottish history). They are apparently advising him to set up yet another Constitutional Convention to award Scotland yet more powers. Did they learn nothing from the first one or from their earlier delusion that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”? Apparently not. In fact whatever Labour says or does is of no importance. It has one Scottish MP and no traction in Scotland and both Blair and Brown are anachronisms. But Labour discussion encourages needless press speculation about constitutional concessions to Sturgeon. 

Meanwhile, normally more sensible figures appear to have lost the plot altogether. After publishing a letter in the TLS recently on the need for a hard line on a second referendum, I discovered published next to it by Frank Field (now a colleague of Ruth Davidson in the House of Lords) another letter advocating that Davidson should become ‘Prime Minister of an independent Scotland’. According to Field it is ‘now too late to save the Union through current politics’ and the only way forward is ‘a totally new constitutional arrangement’ with each of the four countries of the UK having their own parliament with the Lords becoming a Senate with authority over money and defence. 

His defeatism is breathtaking. 

The loss of a second referendum is taken for granted. So too are other ludicrous outcomes – the agreement by other parts of the UK to such arrangements and the idea that Davidson could become Scottish Prime Minister. None the less exactly the same case was put forward recently in the Daily Telegraph by Nick Timothy, former joint chief executive to Theresa May when prime minister, who argued that Boris has no time to lose to save the Union, that this meant “moving to a fully-fledged federal model with a government and parliament for each of the four nations and a federal government and parliament residing in Westminster.” There must, he stressed, be “equality, not disparity between the four nations”. The federal government, he argued, should do all the things federal governments normally do and there would have to be a new role for the Supreme Court within a written constitution. One advantage would be that a Scottish politician could become British prime minister. (Sturgeon? Just imagine it!) As a result a new constitutional future would be his “self-confident and comprehensive offer to the people of Scotland”. I laughed myself silly once I read it and wrote an appropriate riposte to the Telegraph which of course refused to publish it. 

Why do people like Field and Timothy want to tear up the historic constitution of the United Kingdom for the likes of Sturgeon and her third rate administration? The irony is the Scot Nats are not the least interested. They never wanted devolution save as a stepping stone to independence. Likewise,  they have no interest in any federal system that would tie them to a British state. Independence to them means independence means independence (from Britain but not the EU). As for the rest of Scots, they are not interested in reshaping the House of Lords, the Supreme Court, or the governments of England and Wales. Grown men should know better. 

Fortunately, the Telegraph also recently published an article by Professor Vernon Bogdanor in which he both defended Boris’s refusal to hold a second referendum – if lost Unionists would just demand a third one – and destroyed the case for federalism

The latter he achieved on several levels. Firstly, he looked at the situation in Quebec which held two referendums on separation from Canada in 1976 and 1985 respectively. Both failed but between them 700 firms moved out of the province and by 1980 only one of the five largest Canadian institutions by assets still remained there. Scotland, he argued, did not need the Quebec experience. In fact independence would bankrupt Scotland overnight as every bairn here knows. 

Then there is the fact that a federal Britain would be unlike any other federal system in the world having one unit (England) 85% as big as the others. So much for Nick Timothy’s idiotic prose about ‘equality not disparity’. One solution would be to give parliaments to the English regions but in 2004 the region thought to be most sympathetic to such a solution – the North East – rejected the idea by four votes to one. Moreover, it would be absurd to pass different laws for Exeter and Durham, while no one who lives in Worcester or Bristol believes they live in a region. 

Again, more powers for Scotland make no sense at all. Sturgeon already runs her own affairs – health, education, transport, housing, police and a variety of social services – although in fact she is incapable of running all the social services she has legal responsibility for. She also determines her own income tax rates. Yet the only result is higher taxes delivering lower revenues and poorer services, including police, health and education. Bogdanor in fact set out what Scots already know: that the 2018 PISA scores showed that since 2006 Scotland’s ranking in the OECD in science had fallen from 10th to 19th, in reading ability from 11th to 23rd and in maths from 11th to 24th. He concluded rather caustically: “Perhaps the best argument for the Nats’ policy of ‘independence in Europe’ is that Scotland could hardly be worse governed from Brussels than by the SNP.” Indeed. Why not ‘independence in Africa’? Or Latin America? Or anywhere save under the SNP?

Recently the SNP MP Joanna Cherry has said that a referendum is not necessary to establish Scottish independence since Scotland could simply copy the example of Ireland. But that involved British military action in Ireland, an Irish civil war, partition, irredentism, and terrorism. And Ireland is still divided. Does she really wish to visit such events on Scotland? In any case the Scottish government could only negotiate with London after a referendum – but it secured that ‘once in a generation’ opportunity in 2014 and lost. 

The main obstacle meanwhile to upholding Westminster’s right to refuse a second referendum still comes, it seems to me,  from so-called Conservatives who always panic in a crisis. The real problem is after almost half a century in the European Union, most conservatives have little idea what they stand for. My advice to them would be to read the excellent article by two brilliant Israeli scholars, Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony, entitled ‘’What Is Conservatism?” in the journal American Affairsfor 20 May 2017, pp. 1-32. In this the British conservative tradition is traced back to Sir John Fortescue and John Selden centuries before Burke who emerges as a mere disciple of them. Locke is described as a liberal and rationalist and not a conservative at all. In fact these authors make a distinction in principle between conservatives and liberals that must always be borne in mind. Conservatives base their views on a sort of nationalist historical eclecticism. They trace the history of their country, compare it with others and examine its strengths and weaknesses as it develops and decide if gradual improvements may be necessary in keeping with its national development and established institutions. This, of course, is how the Union developed between 1707 and 1945.

Liberals on the other hand base their views on mere speculation or ‘reason’ as they prefer to put it, and believe any rational man is as capable as the next of thinking up the perfect blueprint for society. This view derives from Grotius and Locke (with his imagined state of nature where everyone was free and equal) and passed on to Rousseau whose ‘Du Contrat Social’ condemned civilisation (historical development) in favour of the General Will. The outcome was the clash between Burke and the French Revolution. Locke, of course, is today often credited with establishing our rights but this is nonsense. Our rights were already well established in Selden’s Petition of Right passed by Parliament in 1628 and all the major rights in the US Bill of Rights of 1791 are already to be found there.

Today conservatives should see devolution as a liberal failure not one to be excelled by schemes of federalism or independence. There may be a conservative case for patching it up by repairing the failed record of SNP governments but further constitutional change within the UK should be ruled out, especially while Brexit is being introduced and British sovereignty recovers from that other failed liberal experiment, EU membership.

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. @profsked 

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