As the report of Lord Heseltine showed, the essence of Britain’s energy through the Industrial Revolution was devolved decision-making at city level. The great town halls and classical architecture of many of our cities owe much to the deep-seated civic pride of Victorian industrialists.
It is not only in Scotland and Wales that there have been demands for devolution. The Scottish independence referendum has been a catalyst inspiring other parts of the country to step up and challenge why they should not be considered competent to take more decisions locally.
Out of nowhere, decentralisation by Westminster has begun. NHS budgets have been devolved to Manchester. We have yet to see whether this is the start of a general trend – it comes with risk as the new NHS areas may allocate resources differently. Inequality is the price of devolution.
Until very recently, the trends had inevitably been towards centralisation. Back in 1999, several regions were given a referendum on whether they wanted a regional assembly, much like Holyrood. There was minimal publicity. Every region rejected the proposals.
For too many of us the concept of community is a minimal part of our lives if recognised at all except for children’s parties in “community” halls. Thatcher infamously declared “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” The cult of individualism with the universal acceptance (except for North Korea) since the collapse of the Soviet Union of free-market capitalism, has swept all before it. Notions of social obligation, looking out for neighbours (if we knew who they were), putting others before ourselves for the common good, have almost sunk without trace. Even in times of horrendous social injustice, British society recognised social bonds. Women on all sides of the social and economic divide were united in grief and fear for their sons and husbands in two world wars. Public school boys accepted their fate if they were drafted into the mines rather than the marines. The genuine pulling together of society to fight Hitler was the nearest we have come to a socialist state – in its only true manifestation – by consent, in a democracy.
These social values were deeper rooted in Scotland. The resurrection of Scottish nationalism from the late 1980s owes much to the antithesis of these values represented by Margaret Thatcher. Moreover, even when Labour returned to power in 1997, Tony Blair was perceived by many north of the border to preserve and extend this private market ethos into the public sector. Faith in or horror of The State has become a serious fault line between attitudes of North (especially Scotland) and South.
Thatcher’s revolution was a brutal departure from the post-war consensus that placed great store in seeking, if not achieving, social cohesion. Edward Heath abandoned his economic policy in 1972 when unemployment hit one million – it was an inconceivable social price to pay. Thatcher had no such qualms and we have never looked back.
It is not in Cameron’s list of British values, but this sense of community and shared social endeavour – most obviously represented in the NHS – was a core part of British life. It resonates still in Scotland. In many ways it is the rest of the UK that has departed from British values.
To repeat, national pride should not be about accidents of birth, but the values that that nation represents. The Scots have perhaps demonstrated this most powerfully. The Yes campaign was so vibrant because it tapped into deep-seated values about the kind of society Scots found attractive, that this was perceived to be under threat from a UK Government opposed to these ideals and thus the best way to achieve it would be to vote for independence.
And what of Scotland? Devolution maximised. Independence rejected, for now. Union affirmed? Forty five percent of Scottish voters wanted a different answer. The Yes campaign made a powerful impression. Hard to argue that Scots are probably better placed to make decisions about Scotland. The No campaign made a poor effort to express positive or inspiring visions of Great Britain, past or future. The cat was let out of the bag. Out of nowhere, Scots were offered the option of independence and for many it was an exciting prospect. The Unionists did not conduct themselves in a particularly edifying manner. All three main UK parties famously signed up to the Vow – hours before the ballot; an obvious act of desperation. Great Britain was reduced to begging and grovelling to be saved. In short, bribery. What would Churchill, Peel or Gladstone have made of it all?
Perhaps our destiny is not to become independent states of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland but we may be on an inexorable path to a federal state. The Conservative Party promised and delivered on an In/Out referendum on Europe and the British people voted for separation from the EU. The leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru have argued that any decision must also be replicated in each of the nations. It will be difficult indeed to explain to Scots who voted to stay in the UK and thus the European Union that they must now leave the EU because the majority elsewhere in the UK voted Leave even as the majority of Scots voted In! Another referendum on independence may well ensue.
All the more fundamental then to have spelled out for the electorate across the UK how this confusion would be resolved; make it crystal clear in their manifesto whether this referendum or indeed any future referendum on a different issue is now to be decided federally (i.e. results calculated separately in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England with majorities required in each) or across the UK as a whole. Of course, the politicians preferred to be silent on this question, as they were on the principle of consent, and cross their fingers that there is consistency across the nations.
As long as politicians have been upfront with the electorate and stated in their manifesto which process will apply, then we cannot argue – democracy must prevail whether we like it or not.
In a future independence referendum will “The 45” percent become an inevitable 51 or more? Perhaps. Such passions demand respect. Such passions may cool but may not reverse. The deepest damage against the Union was inflicted by the Unionists themselves. Again, the Westminster machine acted in unison to show their cynical contempt for grass-roots political passion. All three main UK parties supported George Osborne’s declaration that an independent Scotland could not keep the pound. The Yes campaign had insisted there would be a currency union. Scotland was now denied even a part of something that hitherto they were a part of. This arrogance by Westminster was important in troubling many waverers that the Union didn’t care about Scotland. That the devolved powers and rights that Scotland enjoyed were discretionary gifts by Westminster which Westminster was entitled to reverse.
As with the fundamental question of consent for constitutional change, the media nor either side of the campaign bothered to ask how a currency union between two independent nations could be valid without the consent of the electorates of both states.
Once again, politicians acted without mandates on questions never remotely presented previously to their electorates. The arrogance, cynicism and absence of inspiration seemingly endemic in our politics are the root of the crumbling of Great Britain either as a nation state or as a country to command the pride of its citizens and the admiration of the world once more. The rule of law derives from Parliament and its Parliamentarians. Without a humble and sincere rejuvenation of our politicians’ reputations, the essence of the rule of law itself is in question.
To rebuild a union; to inspire those who voted Yes to be proud and excited in being a part of The Mouthful requires a rebuilding of trust and respect in British politics itself.
But how to reconnect the political class once more with the people? How to recast British politics so that it can once again be respected as the honest endeavour to make Britain a better place?
Let us look to a gentle evolution of the Parliamentary system.