Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Nationalism: English and Scottish

Nationalism is a slippery concept because of the way in which it becomes a repository for other ideas, interests and grievances. I'll leave for another time the question of whether Scottish nationalism has an appropriate attitude to our history in the Union in order to focus on its more modern manifestation.

Scottish nationalism grew in the 1970s but became particularly strong after 1979, with the election of Margaret Thatcher. Her monetarist strictures were felt particularly acutely here: the decimation of manufacturing was a colossal blow particularly for towns where one large employer dominated - as was the case in Motherwell, for example, when the Dalziel steel works closed.

Add to that Thatcher's war on local government, which deprived councils of the ability to obviate central government's spending restraints (and her unwillingness to countenance devolution) - combined with Thatcher's gratingly English abrasiveness, and the poll tax (introduced a year earlier here) - it's not difficult to understand why nationalism grew in this period.

One of the key arguments that nationalists (and those supporting devolution) used was that all of this was imposed by a Tory government elected on the votes of those in the South of England.

Given that this sort of argument is now being used to justify demands for an English Parliament, it might be worth looking at this from the perspective of someone familiar with the arguments, but not persuaded by them.

In a nutshell, I don't buy it. For one thing, it's too neat and convenient. One doesn't have to examine the data too hard before it clearly shows that the pattern for Scotland was much the same for the North of England as well: this part of Britain also suffered disproportionately from the monetarist-accelerated decline in manufacturing and like Scotland, the Northern part of England (and Wales, for that matter) consistently returned a majority of Labour MPs to Westminster.

I was going to make similar points for all the issues raised by nationalists, Scottish and English with regards to representation, funding, taxation etc. but they would all basically be re-iterating the same one: you either believe the purpose of Westminster elections are to elect a government for the whole of Britain or you don't.

If the former position is held, it should not matter greatly what the ethnic and/or national make-up of the cabinet is.

At present, there is much talk about a "Scottish Raj" running Britain - which ignores the fact that this is simply due to the solid Labour voting bloc in Scotland on which people like John Reid, Helen Liddell, Robin Cook, Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown built their careers while the South of England was voting Tory.

The same goes for the Barnett formula: the point about this is that it pre-dates devolution and is still with us now - so the question as to whether it is justified should be treated separately from whether devolution leaves the West Lothian Question unanswered or whatever.

The conflation of issues can be seen in the argument that because Labour didn't win a majority of the popular vote in England, it has no mandate to govern.

This is, to put it bluntly, complete bollocks. For one thing, as any Higher Modern Studies student should be able to tell you (I stress "should") - who governs in our Parliamentary system requires a majority of seats, not votes. The other point (which should be obvious but apparently isn't) is that parties do not enter Westminster elections seeking a mandate to run bits of Britain - for even if this were desirable, the constitution has no such provision.

The way in which nationalism becomes a repository for all sorts of grievances is one of its great weaknesses and its dangers. One might resent Labour's victory on such a small share of the vote and complain it's the fault of those bloody Scots. So why not work for a better voting system instead? Or if it's the tax burden that exercises you, instead of complaining that this results from "subsidising" other parts of the country, why not vote for some slash-and-burn outfit (there's an eccentric bunch called the "Tories" who are into that apparently) that'll reduce your taxes?

Perhaps some nationalist of one stripe or another could pop in and explain this to me: if a policy is good for Scotland (or England) because it's good for business/overcomes poverty/resolves some injustice/produces more efficient public services, why is said policy not good for the rest of the country too?

Went on a bit. I think I feel more strongly about this than I thought. I got (get) heartly sick of nationalists viewing every single feckin' social problem through the lens of the Scottish/English divide. They've piped down a bit in recent years, what with a Labour government and devolution - the marvellous benefit of two layers of Labour controlled bureaucracy. (Nationalist readers: before you get your knickers in a twist, that last bit's supposed to be ironic). So, dear English voter - please don't you start now. It's very tedious.

Update: Very funny post from Steg where he essentially repeats the idiotic notion that if one is opposed to Scottish independence, one is not comfortable with your own identity. Even by his own high standards of self-deception, Steg excels himself with this line:
"His wounded, defensive, vulnerable tone contrasts starkly with the happy, optimistic and positive approach of commentators who are far more comfortable with their own, and their communities', identities."
I'm beginning to wonder if Steg's blog is a spoof and he hasn't actually met any real nationalists because as everyone knows, they are strong contenders for the touchiest, most insecure people on the face of the planet.

It's easy to wind up Stuart - but that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.

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