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English voters send a message to Scotland: we can’t go on living like this

20 August 2014

11:07 AM

20 August 2014

11:07 AM

Way back in the olden days, Scottish Labour won the 1999 elections to the Scottish parliament, at least in part, on the back of the slogan Divorce is an Expensive Business. (The SNP’s promise to raise income tax – the naffly named ‘Penny for Scotland’ – helped too. The Nationalists have never since risked making an overt case for higher taxes.)

Anyway, these costs run both ways. That’s made clear by new polling from England in which the extent of the oft-threatened, never-yet-delivered, English backlash to devolution is revealed.

It makes depressing reading for Unionists. True, only 19% of those surveyed think the UK would be better off without the troublesome, whining, Jocks. Or, at any rate, not sufficiently better off to make their departure an attractive proposition. 59% would like Scotland to vote No.

But that’s not the whole story. In the event of a No vote, a majority of English voters would like to prevent Scots MPs at Westminster voting on bills that only apply to England. Moreover, a majority of English voters think the Barnett Formula should be reassessed – that is, scrapped – and that Scotland should cease to enjoy greater per capita public spending than England. (Tim Montgomerie agrees, it might be noted, writing a piece for the Times today that has some Unionists wishing their English friends would just shut-up. At least until September 19th.)

More striking still, is what happens when you ask English people what should happen if Scotland votes Yes. Only 23% think it’s ‘Scotland’s pound too’ and agree that a formal currency union is the best idea for both states. Perhaps more surprisingly, only 26% said the continuity UK should endorse or support Scottish applications for EU and NATO membership.

How seriously should we take these findings? Well, the Barnett formula should be readdressed. Everyone knows this even if many people pretend not to. Many of those doing the pretending, of course, are Scots who know that even though there are some good reasons* for higher public spending in Scotland and though once oil revenues are included Scotland contributes pretty much what she gets out, it remains the case that a needs-based approach to public spending might not reward Scotland so generously. Wales, in particular, has reason to feel pinched and squeezed at present.

And, look, Barnett was only meant to be a temporary measure anyway. That was nearly 40 years ago. In other words, the distribution of funding across the UK is based on a 40 year old sticking plaster that was itself an adjustment to the Goschen Formula first introduced in 1888. You can’t accuse the British state of rushing these things but no-one can sensibly deny that looking again at Barnett is as sensible as it is overdue.

Granted, Unionists would prefer, I imagine, to talk about other things a month before the referendum. This sort of thing is the kind of thing that’s more likely to encourage Scots to vote Yes in a spirit of taking-the-huff and hell-mend-those-bastards-anyway than it is liable to batter them into accepting whatever they’re given from the Union table.

The kind of thing, frankly, to make you remember that, just as the Roman Empire was lost in Rome not the provinces, so the United Kingdom can be lost in England not on the so-called Celtic Fringe.

The clear message from this poll – which, of course, is only one survey and all that – is that the English take the view that if you want your independence you should have it. But remember that independence is just that. This view, unsurprisingly, is most sternly held by UKIP supporters (UKIP being, in large though not exclusive part, an English nationalist party) but supporters of other parties also have some sympathy with it. You’re on your own now, Jock.

Now as it happens the UK government will support Scottish membership of international institutions because it is overwhelmingly in its own interests to do so and because, when push comes to shove, very few people in England are likely to be care one way or the other about such things.

So what we see in this poll is really a reaction to repudiation. If you don’t like us then we’re under no obligation to like or help you. It is a reminder, frankly, that the impact  – and even importance – of Scottish independence is as much a matter of psychology as of politics. Divorce is an ugly business, especially for the party that didn’t want to initiate the break-up.

It will be a loss – for England and for Wales and Northern Ireland too – that will change the way these other peoples view their country. And it will change without their having been consulted. I can see and understand why that might rile or upset or discombobulate some folk. We neither asked for nor wanted this but now it’s happened this is how it’s going to be. 

Pique? Perhaps. Pique that would pass? Quite possibly. And yet also a reminder that the SNP notion that a situation that is intolerable now will be resolved entirely amicably and we will all be winners and take home prizes once independence has been achieved is a rosy-hued and optimistic vision indeed. If independence might bring some benefits it is surely the case that it must come with costs and loss in other areas too.

Be that as it may, this is research that helps the nationalists. It allows them to claim that the English just aren’t that into us and if this notion is modestly contradicted by the fact the English would like the Union to be maintained it is given at least some support by the poll’s other findings.

*Population density does matter. Some public services – health, education, roads and so on – are quite reasonably more expensive to run in thinly-populated places. The subsidy junkie tag has, in recent decades, been something of a myth.


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