Scottish independence: the London problem

12 Jun 14

One of the reasons for increasing support for Scottish independence is a rejection of London-based dominance in public affairs. Many Scots dislike the arrogance and patronising attitude of London-based elites in politics, media and the arts.

Fewer than 100 days to go to the Scotland’s independence referendum and panic is starting to set in among the political elites, particularly in those parties supporting the union. Never in their wildest dreams did they expect the Scots to vote for independence and the polls seem to suggest a strong majority in favour of the union. However, as former Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, ‘a week is a long time in politics’. The latest polls suggest a tight race with a serious possibility of the Scots voting to leave the United Kingdom.

So what has gone wrong? Well, on the one hand, it was bad luck or bad planning for the Scottish referendum to be proffered by a Conservative government. Toryism is still a toxic brand in large parts of Scotland, and a vote for the union is increasingly being seen as a vote for the Tories even though the ‘Stronger Together’ campaign represents all main UK parties and is chaired by former Labour Cabinet Minister Alistair Darling.

Arguably, the more David Cameron appears on television urging Scots to vote for the union the more the Tory-hating Scots are going to vote for independence. If it had been a Labour Government that had offered a referendum then things might have been different. However, that is the way the cookie crumbles.

Then, there is the general backlash against the established UK political parties of all colours. In England, if you are completely disillusioned (as many are) with the existing Con/Lib/Lab trinity, there isn’t much you can do about it other than stay at home on voting day or vote for Ukip, which millions have already done. Those of us in Wales and Scotland have the luxury of being able to vote for established nationalist parties (Plaid Cymru and the SNP). Thus many Scots voting for independence may really just be showing two fingers to the established UK political parties.

However, I suggest there is another issue. The roots of this problem are deeper and are based on the dominance of London in the UK. Firstly, the population of London dominates the UK population to an extent rarely seen in other developed countries. Secondly, London (and the rest of the South East) dominates the UK economically as a consequence of the concentration of financial, business, government and third sector organisations based in the capital. Thirdly, London dominates the UK politically with most of the levers of political power being based in the capital.

For most of the UK, public services are planned and managed via a strongly top-down command and control process driven from Whitehall and Westminster with limited regional or local discretion. This creates alienation from government coupled with large-scale dissatisfaction about the effectiveness of public policies.

In 1992, the then Leader of the House of Commons, the late Robin Cook (also a Scot), stated that ‘Britain was the most centralised state in the EU’. Many would argue now that the UK is one of the most centralised states in the world. Indeed the Economist once suggested that the UK was the second most centralised country in the developed world after New Zealand. By contrast, in most developed countries the capital city is not even the largest city and so only in the UK does the largest city dominate politically, economically and demographically.

Fifteen years ago the Blair Government initiated a policy of devolution that led to the creation of devolved assemblies or parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Devolved administrations for English regions were also toyed with in some places but were rejected by the local electorates who saw not true devolution to the local level but the imposition of another tier of government at additional cost to the taxpayer.

The devolution approach adopted in the UK was very limited in that it only applied to certain areas of government policy and, by definition, only applied to the 15% of the UK population in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Moreover the whole process of devolution has been messy with add-ons to the original devolution settlement taking place every few years.

Not surprisingly, the whole devolution process suffers from a huge failure of understanding. A recent poll showed that in Wales almost half of those questioned thought the Welsh NHS was still the responsibility of the UK government as opposed to the Welsh government.

I believe that one of the main reasons for increasing support for Scottish independence is not a rejection of England per se but a rejection of London-based dominance in public affairs. Many people in Scotland, Wales and indeed in parts of England dislike intensely the dominance, arrogance and patronising attitude of the London-based elites in politics, the media and the arts with which they have nothing in common. To Scots, achieving an independent Scotland would be seen as an end to London dominance whether or not that would be the case.

Rather than limited devolution to the Celtic regions, a solution to this problem might have been the conversion of the UK into a proper federal state with the powers of the various tiers of government defined and enshrined in a written constitution. At the moment, the continued existence of the devolved administrations is not constitutionally protected but is in the gift of the UK parliament and could, in theory, be repealed at any time.

Under a federal structure, the federal government based in London would have responsibility for certain policy areas best organised on a UK basis such as defence and foreign affairs. Responsibility for other policy areas would be devolved to regional-based governments (eg Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the English regions however configured). Policy in areas such as education and health would be developed and implemented at the regional level without interference from the federal tier and this would also be constitutionally protected.

Clearly the size of the federal government, in terms of elected representatives and civil servants, would be vastly smaller than the current UK government but regional government structures would need to be developed in the regions of England.
What are the chances of such a federal arrangement being considered let alone implemented in the UK? I would say approximately nil. The same London-based elites referred to above would ensure that it never happened since their loss in power and influence would be enormous.

Consequently, I think the break-up of the UK is very much on the cards. First Scotland may well go independent and, if it did, then Wales, on a me-too basis, might demand a similar referendum which might also lead to Welsh independence. However, I may be wrong – let’s remember that ‘it ain't over till the fat lady sings’ and there are fewer than 100 days to go to the referendum. We live in interesting times.

  • Malcolm Prowle
    Malcolm Prowle

    Malcolm Prowle is professor of performance management at University of Gloucestershire. He is formerly professor of business performance at Nottingham Business School and a visiting research professor at the Open University Business School. Malcolm is an expert on the economics, finance and management of public services. He has advised ministers, senior civil servants and public service managers on a wide range of public policy and implementation issues.

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