26 August 2014

Northern England and Scottish Independence

I work in West Lancashire but even in our office today, the talk is about Scottish independence. As someone who still speaks with an accent with its origin from north of Hadrian’s wall, people are asking me how would I vote?

When I answer, I make it clear that if I lived in Scotland, I would vote “Yes”. If we get into a debate, I explain why I think voting Yes is in Scotland’s interests. You don’t need me to rerun that discussion. Instead you should read Adam Ramsay’s 42 reasons to support independence.

I answer the question carefully because as a resident in Liverpool, who works in Skelmersdale, two very Labour dominated areas, if someone asks me whether they think it will be good for Northern England if Scotland votes for independence, then the answer has to be a clear “no, unless…”

This is the heart of the problem for Labour campaigners and others who are crossing the border to campaign for Better Together, like our own Mayor in Liverpool, Joe Anderson. For Liverpool, for other northern cities, for the poorer northern regions unfortunately dominated by a London centric economy, then it is a case of Better Together. The presence of Glasgow and Edinburgh as major cities helps offset London’s dominance of Britain. The 59 seats in Scotland prevented the Conservatives winning an overall majority in the 2010 Westminster Election. Without Scotland, the electoral mathematics to form future governments becomes much easier for the Conservatives. Understandably, self-interest of northern English campaigners will play a strong part in those interventions, but it should not ever be mistaken for the Scottish self-interest.

This doesn't mean unrelenting gloom for those of us living in the North of England if Scotland becomes independent because there is the very important “unless” bit to consider. There are clear opportunities from a “Yes” vote for the Remaining UK. Getting rid of Trident is an obvious positive, but that would require a brave decision from a new government. I’m not very optimistic about that, but I’m not ruling it out either, particularly given the abject failure of this government to tackle our annual budget deficit and the huge cost of replacement.

Another opportunity is a fairer voting system for both General Elections and Local Elections. There may only be a narrow window of opportunity for that legislation to pass from 2015 to 2016. If Labour forms a minority government as the largest party after the 2015 General Election, with 320 seats, Lib Dems 20, Others 30, Tories 280, then Scottish independence means the remaining UK Parliament after 2016 will have Labour and the Tories on an even number of seats. The electoral mathematics would permanently be tilted in favour of southern England under FPTP and an inevitable boundary review would make a Labour majority very difficult to achieve in future. There will be some urgency for this, so I am optimistic that at least some progress will be made if we end up with a hung parliament or narrow Labour majority next year.

A final opportunity will be for England, Wales and Northern Ireland to take a clear look at the current constitutional arrangements. England could discover its vibrant 21st Century self, that is no longer steeped in a colonial heritage, but instead celebrates a newer England and embraces a future where we will become more diverse and more open to the outside world. The alternative is that new England will be dominated by a media and an establishment that pander to the worst excesses of UKIP and ultimately votes for an exit from the European Union, dragging Wales and Northern Ireland with it.

In relation to the last point alone, the biggest risk to Scotland if it doesn’t vote for independence next month is being dragged out of the EU in 2017 or later. Indeed if there is very narrow win for the Better Together campaign, but in a future referendum the UK votes as a whole to leave the EU, while Scotland has a majority in favour of staying, then expect a strong argument for another referendum on independence. However, it was only a unique political result and an SNP majority with Greens also voting in favour of the referendum that even allowed Scotland this opportunity to vote. This chance to shape their own destiny may only come once to Scottish voters alive today. The Westminster parties of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives did all that they could to block a referendum. Given the circumstances outlined above, the Westminster parties would argue that Scotland has already voted on this issue, and would block it from happening again.

The parade of civic leaders from south of the border illustrates that Better Together is definitely a valid slogan for northern England in particular. But this is a vote and a choice by the people of Scotland for the people of Scotland. If I was still living as a resident in Bo’ness where I grew up, then I would be voting “Yes”. To paraphrase the Proclaimers, I can’t understand why they would let someone else rule their land [cap in hand], especially when those people are going to be more responsive to the dominant right wing media and UKIP voters in a handful of marginal seats, than to the needs of Scotland.


Adam Ramsay said...

thanks for the plug!

dvalts said...

As someone who has been in your position but somewhat reversed (born in the North, lived in Scotland), I have to agree. If I were still living in Scotland now, I'd be voting Yes. It still leaves me feeling uneasy thinking about what the future political make up of the UK would be without Scotland, but I couldn't justify that as a reason for voting No.

The best case post-Yes scenario for England (and Wales and NI), would be for English voters to start reconsidering the idea of having regional governments/assemblies. A whole-English parliament, while it might seem like a good idea in principle, would just marginalise the outer regions of England more than they are already. Whatever the outcome, I hope this isn't the end of the devolution road for other parts of the UK.