John Wilkes was radical and wrong; his latter-day equivalents are merely stupid and wrong. To buttress this notion, I submit the cases* of Simon Heffer and Melanie Phillips. We are talking, as you know, about the Scottish Question upon which these Daily Mail columnists have recently seen fit to pontificate. As we shall see, if these are the people teaching Scotland to Middle England then the plain yeomen of England should demand better from their newspaper. It is one thing to peddle nonsense – everyone must do what they can to earn a living – quite another to sell an argument that contradicts itself. Yet hark at this from Mr Heffer:
As in some marriages, divorces happen when one side walks out.
However, I don’t understand why it is assumed that, in this particular marriage, that side would necessarily be Scotland. Whatever one’s feelings about whether the Union should survive, it is democratically offensive to imagine the English do not have a right to be consulted.
This is silly enough to begin with but rendered cretinous by Mr Heffer’s later to-be-sure observation that:
Of course, if the Scots are rash enough to decide to go it alone, the English cannot — and must not —coerce them to stay.
Granted, Mr Heffer appears to assume that the English would choose to kick Scotland out of the Union were they given the chance to do so. But what if England voted Yes to ridding itself of the Jocks but Scotland voted in favour of the Union? Or vice-versa? Just as you cannae put your grannie on a bus so you’re no allowed to kick your spouse out of the marriage. That’s a matter for her. The charitable interpretation of Mr Heffer’s harrumphing is that the English be given an "advisory" referendum at the same time as the Scots hold a "binding" plebiscite. That’s not what he wrote, mind you. (And since all referenda are advisory and liable to be usurped by parliament this is, in any case, a mootish point.)
If, however, he means "listened to" when he writes "consulted" then of course he is correct. No-one, except the dafter fringes of the SNP, thinks English men and women have no right to say what they think; merely that their voices, while notable, are largely illuminative and not much else.
Back to Mr Heffer:
Trying to establish exactly how much the English subsidise Scotland is slightly harder than chewing razor blades. But a subsidy there definitely is. And its very existence is the most compelling reason why England, and England’s elected representatives, must not stay silent over the possibility of Scottish independence.
Why not stay quiet? Staying quiet is, notionally anyway, a Tory virtue. Especialy so when the so-called solution to an inconvenient anachronism causes more trouble than is provided by the solution itself. As for the subsidy question, it is true that identifiable public spending is higher in Scotland than it is in England. But this is not as simple as a south-north transfer; indeed, per capita public spending is higher in London than in Scotland and one could easily, even sensibly, suggest that the north-east of Scotland is subsidising the west of Scotland. That is, these transfers are a little more nuanced than is sometimes suggested.
Meanwhile, Ms Phillips sings from the same nonsense-sheet:
For its part, however, England is fed up to the back teeth with the Scots pocketing a whacking subsidy from Westminster while constantly — and offensively — whingeing about England.
And if Scotland has a referendum on its independence, then, in any just universe, the rest of the UK must vote on the proposal, too. For while those five million Scots may argue that they have the right to decide how they are governed, they do not have the right to break up the United Kingdom regardless of the wishes of the remaining 55 million of its citizens.
I do not for a second subscribe to the battered-wife theory of Scottish nationalism (and nor does Alex Salmond) but let us consider Ms Phillips’ notion: in her "just universe" (in whichever
galaxy larger-than-a-universe-star-system-thing that may be found) the wishes of the majority (the English) should, implicitly, be permitted to trump the wishes of the minority. These calls for the English to have a vote on the future of Scotland are as daft as suggesting the French or Germans should be allowed to vote on whether the United Kingdom be allowed to remain a member of the European Union. It is possible I am mistaken but I hazard Mr Heffer and Ms Phillips would consider this hypothetical mildly objectionable.
The better kinds of Britishness, mark you, have long been aware of the fact that the Union is asymmetrical. Which is why it made sense for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be "over-represented" at Westminster. The modern mania for "equality of representation" is a foolishness partly because it enhances the power of the centre or majority. This is many things but it should not be a Tory thing.
Again, Mr Heffer and Ms Phillips each make a great deal of the idea that government-spending in Scotland are grotesquely and unjustifiably higher than it is in England. It appears never to occur to them that there might be some reason for at least a part of this disparity. A moment of contemplation allows one to appreciate why per capita health and education expenditure is higher in (parts of) Scotland than in (parts of) England. (Hint: population density is a leading indicator.) This is before one considers Glasgow’s status as the Sick Man of Europe.
I am far from convinced an independent Scotland would be all I would want it to be. The transitional years would likely be pretty damn awkward. But I know nonsense when I see it and here is Ms Phillips providing nonsense on all the stilts anyone could ever demand:
Scotland is the dependency culture writ large. It can whine about England safe in the certainty that the Westminster cash cow will continue to deliver regardless.
A choice example of this is Mr Salmond’s ‘devo-max’ which, while ostensibly giving Scotland the power to raise its own revenues, would still require Westminster to bail out the Scottish banks.
This is silly. Few people care to acknowledge that the fate of RBS would have been a British problem whatever the constitutional arrangements. It might have been awkward, even embarrassing, for an independent Scotland to go begging to the Bank of England but it does not require much sentient thought to appreciate that the consequences of RBS going bust would have been grim south of the border too and that therefore the BoE would have acted to stave off disaster. This is not gratifying but it is true and perhaps that is all that can be said of anything.
Meanwhile, oblivious to anything even approaching reality, Mr Heffer also has no idea about devo-max:
It is no wonder, in the light of these awkward economic facts, that the most popular option for Scottish Nationalists is the so-called ‘devo max’ proposal, which sounds like one of those overpriced energy drinks. It is certainly overpriced, and it is intended as a compromise under which Scotland would have more power devolved to itself, while remaining in the United Kingdom — in other words, on the English payroll.
Some of us always feared that Scottish devolution would end up as a means of setting up a parliament in Edinburgh whose main job it was to extract English taxpayers’ money from Westminster.
‘Devo max’ would give the Scots a blank cheque once more. It is simply unacceptable and unfair to England.
I would not want to call Mr Heffer a liar but the alternative is assuming he must be a simpleton. Whatever the virtues or not of "devo max" only someone oblivious to the truth could claim that the idea Scotland live within its means is an attempt to live "on the English payroll". Anyone who knows anything about either the SNP or Scotland – I concede this category excludes Mr Heffer – knows this is the case. Proof of Mr Heffer’s political acumen comes when he writes:
There are many other questions. For example, given that many of the oilfields are around the Shetlands, is Mr Salmond sure that Shetlanders wish to be part of his independent Scotland? Or would they like to be independent themselves, or a dependency of England, or even of Norway?
Like you I have overlooked the rise of the Shetland Independence Party. As red herrings go this one does not even rise to pink herring status. But perhaps Yorkshire would like to be independent of Hefferdom? And why not? The north of England is ill-served by many things after all but does not enjoy the protections Scotland does. But it is a rum brand of Unionism that plainly hates Scotland but yet cannot quite conceive of life without Scotland.
Ms Phillips, meanwhile, writes that:
Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly a strong nationalist feeling in Scotland. Much of this is based on the fact it is a historic nation with several features which distinguish it from England and Wales, such as its legal system, religion and educational and cultural traditions.
But its resentment at England has surely been fuelled by the maladroit and spineless way in which Westminster has treated it over the years. For rather than dealing with the root causes of the resentment, successive governments tried to appease it. Devolution itself was said to be the best way of defusing the angry push for independence.
But just as some of us warned at the time, the very opposite happened. Rather than putting out the nationalist fire, devolution merely poured fuel on to the flames.
For the love of god, this is piffle. Labour’s conversion to Home Rule was less about dishing the Nats than about protecting Scotland from the perceived ravages of Toryism. If this cannot be said too often it still needs to be said often. As some half-wit wrote in the print edition of the Spectator recently for Labour the SNP were to the Conservatives as Japan was to Germany in WW2: vile and needing defeating but not the primary threat. Devolution was designed to kill the Tories; dishing the Nats was a secondary objective.
Finally, Mr Heffer plays this card:
Scotland has 5.2 million people, or around 8 per cent of the population of the Kingdom. So, logically, it would be entitled to 8 per cent of British assets. Think, for example, of all those valuable embassies abroad. Perhaps, in the event of separation it should. However Scotland brought nothing into the marriage in 1707, when the Act of Union was passed, precisely because it had become bankrupt after a disastrous colonial venture in Darien in Central America.
A detailed calculation of the cumulative cost of 305 years of subsidy to the Scots might be a little cruel. But taking the 8 per cent figure of Britain’s assets, if a future independent Scotland were to take its fair share of the UK national debt — currently £1.1 trillion, excluding bank bail-outs – that would amount to £88 billion.
Though I accept this is a risky endeavour, let us assume Mr Heffer’s figures are correct. If so then while poor Scotland’s debt figures (offset though they shoud be by a proper share of Uk assets) are, while not great not necessarily awful either.
Meanwhile, though Mr Heffer is right to consider Darien a failure it is absurd to say that Scotland "brought nothing into the marriage in 1707". She brought security. For England as well as Scotland but mainly for England. And she did so at a price that was, for England, pretty close to being tiny.
Ms Phillips at least has some nice things to say about Scotland and the United Kingdom so it is perhaps unfair to put her in the same category as Mr Heffer. Neither party, however, can surely be as ignorant as they write though if they are one wonders whether this is a matter of choice or the unavoidable consequence of not having a clue.
Speaking for myself as an undecided voter these people drive me towards supporting independence just as surely as the wilder types of nationalist make me a born-again Unionist.
*Mr Heffer at least may offer a mitigating plea of being largely correct on cricket; Ms Phillips, I fear, has no such defence and must take her chances with the jury. I apologise to anyone who thinks treating these asshats seriously is shooting barrel-dwelling fish. Sometimes they need to be shot, however.Tags: Britain, Hackery, Scotland, Scottish independence, SNP