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Can Home Rule Solve Scotland’s Problems?

30 January 2012

4:10 PM

30 January 2012

4:10 PM

This is not a Question To Which the Answer Must Be No. I too saw the headline Now 51% Back Independence and thought, "Well, that’s interesting but implausible". Then I noticed it was a Sunday Express splash and revised my appraisal to "That’s obviously cobblers". And so it is, making it mildly foolish for SNP types to boast of a breakthrough on the back of a sample of 200 Scots that’s harldy more dispositive than polling, say, my Facebook pals. Nevertheless, Fraser’s post yesterday won’t quite do either. For instance, the boss writes:

My hunch is that Cameron’s intervention will not have helped Salmond. The idea that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to use Sterling knocked him for six, and the more one thinks about his idea of a Scottish Defence Force, the more ludicrous it becomes.

The currency question is a problem for the SNP but, whatever the extent of that awkwardness, David Cameron is ill-placed to determine the currency adopted by an independent Scotland (though, to be sure, he would, if he wins a second term, be well-placed to impose certain conditions as part of the negotiating process). Fraser’s second point, however, is only credible if one has spent very little time thinking about Salmond’s ideas for a Scottish Defence Force.  My objections to the SNP’s defence plans lie in the party’s doubts about NATO (though here too one might pause to ponder NATO’s own uncertain future), but the idea of a Scottish Defence Force becomes less. not more, ludicrous* the more one thinks about it.

That is, it is easy for folk to scoff at the Irish Air Force but only if one never pauses to wonder just how many planes the Republic of Ireland really needs. Besides, Irish troops have played their part in international peacekeeping efforts from the Lebanon to the Congo and this, for a country of its size, is scarcely a trivial contribution. Alternatively, one might look at another small country that has played its part in the ineternational arena. The Danes have deployed 750 soldiers to Afghanistan and endured more than 40 deaths. Are their defence forces, which consume approximately 1.3% of GDP, "ludicrous"? I suspect few would consider them so. Why must it be axiomatic that an independent Scotland’s defence forces would be more ludicrous than those that serve other comparably-sized countries? 

Fraser continues:

The remedy to nationalism is to examine the question closely, and to ask: just what major Scottish problem does separation solve? I really can’t think of a single answer to that question.

This is better stuff since the question of necessity is an important one and, perhaps, actually the only vital one. Fraser writes that he cannot think of a "single answer" to this before, oddly, providing an excellent answer to his own question:

To many Scots, the whole thing is a bit comic (the ballot paper mockup, above, is just one of the many circulating the internet). But there’s a serious edge to it too. Scotland has the worst, most expensive poverty in the developed world. Foreign academics come to the east of Glasgow to study how a rich country can get social policy so wrong, inflicting such damage on a society and its people. The question is whether full self-government can yield the solutions that devolution patently hasn’t. And the answer just has to be no .

It is true that a good number of Scots – perhaps 15% of us were I to hazard a guess at this – do find the independence question comic or obviously a nonsense but whatever else it might be this is not a serious response to Scotland’s past, present or future. It is appalling that this country suffers such social problems. It is not obviously the case that independence (or the transfer of additional powers to Edinburgh) would modestly improve matters but the present political and policy arrangements are scarcely solving these problems either. Would "full self-government" help "yield the solutions that devolution patently hasn’t?" I’m not at all persuaded the answer "just has" to be ‘no’.  That is, I think it only has to be ‘no’ if one assumes the answer is ‘no’ in the first place.

But does it have to be ‘no’? Surely not!

Moreover, self-government demands a balanced parliament. That is, one responsible for raising revenue as well as spending it. The present arrangements are manifestly unbalanced. This is unfair. Not just to English taxpayers (who perceive themselves subsidising Scotland) but to Scottish voters too. I recall an excellent piece written by an excellent journalist a couple of years ago in which the writer complained that the supposed "remedy to poverty – more money – has made the problem worse." He added:

The views of swing seat voters… are treated as utmost priorities in Westminster. This is a huge drawback to our system. Those in sink estates are regarded as being devoid of political capital for any mainstream party. The welfare ghettos are, for Westminster, terra incognita.
[…] When you look at Scotland on any statistical dataset, it is one big horror story. Welfarism, health deprivation, drugs, drink – there are reams of data about what a socioeconomic nightmare the country is. When I was writing about this as a journalist, it seemed utterly alien to the country I had grown up in and (I thought) travelled well in.
[…] It is so easy to ignore Third Scotland – and Third Britain, which I’m sure also exists – because there is such little social interaction between this and Prime Scotland/Prime Britain. Glasgow is constructed so you can zip past the grim parts.
[…] Prime and Third Scotland are half a mile apart in some places, but the two nations don’t interact. Somehow along the way, we – as a country – learned to look the other way: to worry about climate change, but not the poverty just a few miles down the road. To think that the taxes Labour charge somehow promotes a more cohesive society, when in fact it’s pouring petrol on the flames. State handouts may have been the cure to post-war poverty, but it’s the cause of 21st century poverty as we see in Glasgow East.

The writer who wrote this and urged action on "the most urgent and neglected problem in Britain today" was Fraser Nelson. It is certainly possible that Britain can or will alleviate these problems; it is plainly the case that it has not done so yet. Equally clearly, the Scottish government lacks some of the powers that might assist its efforts to solve what, in shorthand, one might term its "Glasgow Problem".

Evidently, it is not the case that "full self-government" would necessarily be better government. But it has a better chance than anything else of breaking the Scottish consensus about which Fraser and I each despair. I would not go so far as saying "full self-government" must help solve these problems; I merely suggest it is not impossible it could. It may be that the country would be a slow learner and that self-government would, for a while, be worse and more expensive government. But that’s fodder for a discussion about what sort of country we wish to be after the next constitutional settlement, not an argument for suggesting the existing settlement is as good as it can get when, by Fraser’s own admission, it – the Union, before and after devolution alike – has failed (at least thus far) to create the conditions in which this "most urgent and neglected problem" can be solved.

Can Home Rule improve things? Pessimism suggests the answer is "probably not"; a more open mind suggests "perhaps" and this is certainly preferable to an immediate, unthinking ‘no’.

*PS: Since the present government is a) cutting 20% of the army and b) building aircraft carriers that will not, for some years anyway, have any aircraft to carry Whitehall owns plenty of "ludicrous" defence policies of its own.


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