Mike Vickers' Blog

April 29, 2012

Scotland and the United Kingdom

Filed under: Politics, Scottish Independence — derryvickers @ 7:58 pm

A One day seminar run by the RSE and the British Academy supported by the Scottsih Public Law Group The 2nd of a series – the first in London – I wait with considerable interest for the slides.

My subtitle – A Sideways Look at Independence.

The audience was largely Scottish from the attendance list but the speakers were largely from elsewhere – Ireland, England, Wales, Czech Republic. As such it was very refreshing. A nice summary could be taken from Alison Elliott standing in for Joyce McMillan who was unwell. Getting away from Politics and taking up Democracy: consideration of Independence is for the future, not for an election tomorrow.

We heard of the largely friendly split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak republics from Karen Henderson (Senior Lecturer at University of Leicester) – but they only came together under the Communist influence. Nothing much in common with Scotland – two languages, two varieties of the Christian religion and a different set of priorities. The Czech side has around twice the population as the Slovak side. In the end the separation was agreed by private discussion between the two heads of state – no referendum – no long debate – just action.

In contrast the separation of Ireland form England was a much drawn out affair as we all know. John Oakley (Professor at University College Dublin) particularly dwelt on the name of Ireland after separation – The Free State where Ireland still had the English Monarch as head of state and was part of the Commonwealth (well as it was called at the time) – through Ireland – to Eire and ultimately in 1949 to the Republic of Ireland and to joining the EU in 1973. Over this period trade was largely with the UK.

Christopher Allsopp (Director Oxford Institute for Energy Studies) talked about Scotland’s financial position vis a vis the UK in Devo Max and after Independence. He dismissed any analogy with the Crown Dependencies eg The Channel Islands, Isle of Man – they are too small and are financially useful to the UK government. He equated the Barnett grant to the Oil revenues as being roughly equal. Problems for Scotland would be the absence of any strategic reserve and the volatility of Oil prices. Would Scotland keep the Pound, join the Euro or have its own currency – if it kept the Pound would the Bank of England accept the role of Bank of Last Resort. He pointed out the Ireland had tried every form of currency since separation including the Punt where it expected the UK to join the Euro which it didn’t.

And this took us back to Ireland with Colin Kidd (Professor at Queens University Belfast). He stressed that Union had over the past hundreds of years referring to the Union of England and Ireland (but then he would!) – this only went out of currency with the separation in 1922. Union of Scotland within the UK, he considered, had largely been taken for granted with few problem periods – punctuated equilibrium (I love this expression, much used by Stephen Jay Gould about evolution– a real favourite of mine). Punctuations have been 1707 and Margaret Thatcher and presumable 1745. As he saw it, the main problems between Scotland and England over the period have been related to issues of Church and State: the Scottish Church wanted England to adopt Calvinism wholeheartedly whilst England wanted Scotland to be much more concerned with monetary matters. There has never been a Scottish Sinn Fein. He too said that Barnett re Oil is a zero sum situation. In question time later Kidd made the quip that he couldn’t conceive of Devo Max where Scotland would be tied to the UK to provide security support – troops to Afghanistan, Trident and the sheer cost of UK delusions of Imperial grandeur – well received by the audience!

The discussion turned to Welfare Union where Daniel Wincott (Professor at Cardiff Law School) considered that the Labour Government having granted Devolution failed to follow up by providing guidance / directives on how welfare should be directed in Scotland. He admitted that his views are towards social democracy. If I have it right this is an odd view – Scotland would have more to complain about if Barnett came with strings attached – as it is Scotland can spend the grant as it likes and does.

From a different political stand point Roger Gough (currently Kent Council but previously in a Tory Think Tank on Federalism v Union) reported on the Think Tanks’ conclusion re the West Lothian Question. English matters would be debated by English MPs at the Committee stage but voted on by the full House when it came to passing into law.

Gerald Holtham (Visiting Professor Cardiff Business School) discussed financial matters in a further devolved Scotland – the German Lander collect their own taxes but central government dictates the rates eg corporation tax. He considered that whatever the level of devolution, the UK government would not accept any variation in Corporation Tax. He noted that Barnett was a straight forward simple arrangement totally under the Treasury’s control with no outside political interference. Increases from year to year are based on various cost of living factors but which took no account of population changes – Scotland has benefitted from the latter as its population has been decreasing.

The seminar finished with a brief Panel Session – John Curtice (Professor Strathclyde), Douglas Fraser (BBC) and Alison Fraser (Church of Scotland and others). The discussion was brief but wide ranging – the Czechs drove out the Slovaks, Defence Union, who would bail out Scotland, the Darien Fiasco and the West Lothian Question. Why all the rush, what about the Voluntary Sector –strong in Scotland, toxic superficial political points scoring.  What if a No vote – Yes that’s a good question that the SNP chooses to ignore!

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