Few would doubt that the UK is broken. The political union between Scotland and England is disintegrating. Some would claim, not without justification, that the union has already ended and that it is simply a matter of formally recognising this fact. Increasingly, and in all manner of ways, Scotland looks and acts like an independent country. Westminster seems less and less relevant. On those occasions when they venture north, British politicians look ever more like visiting representatives of a foreign power. Scotland’s First Minister appears totally at ease in her role as the face and voice of Scotland in Europe and the rest of the world. And leaders of other nations appear comfortable with accepting her as such.
Devolution is a mess, of course. A lash-up. A dog’s breakfast of inept constitutional tinkering by which the British political establishment has sought to keep Scotland subordinate within the structures of power, privilege and patronage that define the British state. All of which is made worse by more recent efforts to use devolution as a device by which to undermine the SNP administration by setting various political and fiscal traps.
For all this, the granting of “new powers” to the Scottish Parliament has served to create the impression of a Scotland largely operating as an autonomous entity. An impression augmented as an unintended function of the British parties’ determination to overstate the capacities of the Scottish Government in order to generate public expectations which cannot be satisfied. Add to this the manner in which both the Parliament and the Government conduct themselves and the hypothetical alien visitor might well be forgiven for thinking Scotland was already independent.
Then there is the growing divergence of political cultures. Even unionists who once strenuously denied that there was any such thing are now being forced by the weight of evidence to acknowledge Scotland’s distinctive political culture. In rejecting the concept, these unionists would commonly deploy a straw man argument which portrayed the suggestion of a distinctive Scottish political culture as a claim to superior Scottish attitudes and values. In fact, there is absolutely no suggestion of superiority. There is no reason whatever to suppose that fundamental attitudes and values vary much across the UK – or even beyond.
While there may be no measurable difference in attitudes and values at the level of the individual, the particular institutions, processes and procedures in Scotland are such as to allow that these attitudes and values are better reflected in public policy than is the case in England. The difference may be marginal. The amount by which Scotland’s systems of proportional representation, for example, render policy-making more responsive to the people may be very small. But even a tiny change at a crucial point in a system can have significant impact. Especially where a positive feedback loop serves to reinforce and multiply the effect.
It would be difficult, in any case, to deny the evidence of different voting patterns in Scotland, even if one were to discount Scottish Government policies which contrast starkly with, and often are contrary to, those of the UK Government
All of this – a detached, almost alien, Westminster elite; Holyrood as the prime locus of politics in Scotland; a distinctive Scottish political culture – comes together to make Scotland look like a nation apart from the UK.
Clearly, the UK is broken. But does this imply that the British state might be also?
Looking at the appalling débâcle of the EU referendum and its still unfolding aftermath, many people would be inclined to say that it is. But established power is, of necessity, robust and resilient. It is not beyond imagining that the British political establishment could recover from its present farcical disarray and reassert the authority that was squandered in the recent orgy of generalised incompetence. It is entirely possible that, in the whole Brexit process, a political fudge will be found sufficient to allow various interests to persuade themselves that they have been adequately served. Although it is pretty much impossible to see how Scotland could be part of any such grudging consensus, it is just credible that those structures of power, privilege and patronage would remain more or less intact.
Which would be unfortunate.
Many people, both north and south of the border, have long harboured the hope that events in Scotland would prompt a positive political realignment in the rest of the UK. It was thought that independence and the pursuit of a distinctive policy agenda in Scotland would provide both a model and an incentive for progressives in England while simultaneously weakening the power of the British state sufficiently for there to be some kind of break-through. It may all sound a bit like wishful thinking. But the wish is sincere and well-intentioned. As I wrote recently,
“England’s politics is broken. Only the people of England can fix it. Brexit has been sold to them as an easy fix. As the folly of this becomes clear, the temptation will be to seize upon some other easy fix offered by slickly plausible political chancers even more false than Boris Johnson. And even more dangerous. We must hope a mighty hope that the people of England don’t go down that route.”
Scotland is in the process of demonstrating that established power can be successfully challenged by democratic power. The British state may not finally be broken until the people of the rest of the UK awaken to their own capacities.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of iScot Magazine.Views: 7019
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