JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 3.7.15.
IN DIFFICULT TIMES, a quote from Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead, never comes amiss; and this week, we should consider this one. It comes from the famous opening scene of Lochhead’s play Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, first seen in 1987; the play’s chorus-figure, the Corbie, describes the political situation of the 1560’s like this. “Once upon a time, there were twa queens on the wan green island, and the wan green island was split inty twa kingdoms. But no equal kingdoms,” she adds. “Naebody in their richt mind would insist on that.“
And it’s worth remembering the Makar’s words when we contemplate the plight of the Union this week, as David Cameron’s government sets out its fast-track plan to introduce English Votes For English Laws (EVEL), by dint of a mere amendment to Commons standing orders. The Union, after all, has been with us for now for 308 years; its continuation has just been backed by 55% of voters in Scotland, and it is supported – nominally at least – by more than 90% of MP’s in the Commons.
Yet one of the many consequences of the recent general election is that the Union now seems increasingly friendless in parliament. What has changed is easy enough to grasp. The Labour Party, which just 20 years ago led the movement for constitutional renewal in the UK, has lost its entire group of Scottish MP’s with one exception, and is gradually coming to terms with the truth that despite the size and influence of the traditional Scottish Labour contingent, they rarely actually mattered to the formation of a Commons majority.
Then secondly, the Conservative Party has continued its gradual evolution from a one-nation movement of sorts, into a right-wing party that combines obeisance to the City of London with bursts of right-wing populism. It’s a combination that has weakened support for the Conservatives in Scotland, Wales, London and parts of the north, while strengthening it elsewhere; so that today, the Tory benches at Westminster, whatever their nominal policies, seem predominantly anti-Scottish and anti-European in mood.
And it’s because of these cultural shifts that the Union now finds itself an apparently unloved political football, kicked about in the Commons between an SNP that wants to end it, and a Tory Party that no longer knows or cares how to preserve it; and nothing demonstrates that truth more clearly than the row over EVEL, in which both parties make much of the idea – so wisely dismissed by our national poet – that the Union between England and Scotland ought to be “a partnership of equals”.
Now it’s easy enough to understand why the SNP use this phrase. They know that equality of influence is impossible to deliver, in a Union between one nation of almost 55 million people, and another of only 5 million; and that the use of the idea therefore strengthens the long-term argument for independence.
What should ring alarm-bells for genuine defenders of the Union, though, is the growing tendency for the Conservative Party to use the same phrase, in arguing that their hasty and contentious proposal will put England and Scotland back on a fair and equal footing again, after 16 years when the Scots have enjoyed the “unfair” advantage of being able to vote on English domestic matters, while Scottish domestic matters are dealt with at Holyrood.
What David Cameron is doing, in other words – and generations of old Tory statesmen must be rotating in their graves as he does it – is to reject the traditional asymmetry of arrangements between Scotland and England which helped compensate Scotland for the fact of always, or very nearly always, having to put up with a UK government chosen in England; and he is doing it at a moment when the apparent political gap between Scotland and England is already at its greatest since the start of the Union.
It may be, of course, that the kind of asymmetry that always characterised the British way of running the Union was never likely to survive for long in the age of popular democracy; it feels more like an elite political fix, than anything that could ever easily have been sold to English voters, once they noticed what was going on.
What is absolutely clear, though, is that the UK government’s current EVEL proposals are a recipe for constant dispute. They place the Speaker of the House of Commons in the invidious position of having to rule, day in and day out, on whether bills and even individual clauses have any likely impact on Scotland or not. And they also set up a double-vote system, with the full Commons chamber being expected to ratify English Grand Committee decisions, that will allow Scottish members to vote anyway, where they disagree with the Speaker’s ruling.
The idea that any such structure could possibly improve relations between England and Scotland, or in any way strengthen the Union, is therefore laughable; like other aspects of current government policy, it seems more like a sop thrown to the restless Tory right, than a serious plan for building a reformed Union that might survive into the 22nd century.
It’s a striking fact about Britain’s two leading political parties, though, that serious long-term plans for any aspect of our future now seem increasingly beyond them. For all its obvious flaws, in other words, the SNP’s famous 2013 White Paper on Scotland’s future was probably the only document voters anywhere in the UK had seen for years, that offered the prospect of a deliberate effort to build a society measurably better – in equality, sustainability, and justice – than the one we have now.
And even those who dismiss that vision as a pipe dream should therefore pause to consider how popular it has made the party that tried to articulate it. it’s almost as if voters were rewarding the SNP for at least trying to do the proper job of politics; in an age when most of their political colleagues seem content to fiddle with those details of social policy they can still control, while leaving the long-term future in the hands of those with less democratic legitimacy, more power, and very different priorities.