A New Place Called The United Kingdom

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Forty-five percent wanted independence; that is serious. Gordon Brown, theeminence grise of the No-campaign, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg panicked, and promised Scotland enhanced devolution in a whirlwind campaign. They will have to deliver. The English Question and a new structure for the UK will have to be worked out, but constitutional change takes time. De facto, if not by name, a federal structure will be the outcome, but beneath lies economic decline from the 1980s onwards – the Thacherite transformation of the economy. Without economic recovery, Scotland cannot swing back into the British mainstream; but how can there be economic renewal, how can Britain rise again, when global, European and American capitalism is gasping? The rebuff of separation by the people of Scotland only buys time. But there is this huge problem ahead; the economy not constitutional hurdles may prove insurmountable; entirely contra Sri Lanka

1620395_571805869582630_679170154_nThere are lessons for Lanka, most edifying is how civilised nations do it; real democracy in action. All of the UK has respected the Scottish people’s right to self-determination and done it in exemplary style, ensuring freedom of expression, the right to campaign, and freedom of choice. Britain has displayed extraordinary confidence in its own democratic chutzpah. I am delighted it accepted Scotland’s right to secede and I also hold that the decision the made by the Scots is spot-on for now. Both align with my stand on the national, or the Tamil question in Lanka. While lauding the practice of democracy in this referendum, I leave unsaid its subversion by people and state in Lanka. Unsaid speaks louder than anything I can put in words.

[Declaration of Interest: I hereby admit potential personal benefit in Scottish Independence. The price of whisky, especially quality malts would have declined as member state access rights to the EU ended and marketing networks in England were disrupted].

Electoral processes and economic prospects

The turn out in some counties was over 90% and the average 85%, the highest in the electoral history of Scotland and one of the highest anywhere in the world. There was passion in the air and Edinburgh was electric in the last days. People intensely believed in the truth of the referendum. Truth! What does that mean? A counter example will clarify. If you are familiar with polls in Lanka this spectacle would seem bizarre; no flagrant vote buying, no abuse of state resources, and no mob violence under a police umbrella. It is unthinkable to question the probity of Scottish election officials or their processes. The gigantic general election in India this year was untainted by Lanka style shenanigans. UVA-PC, the most recent is a procession of wickedness. Processes in Scotland or in Lanka are surreal; you choose.

There were other patterns; social class was of great importance. Working class, poor and impoverished constituencies voted in favour of independence; 53% of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city of past industrial glory, opted for independence. Of Scotland’s 32 counties only three more, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Dundee voted Yes; these too are working class and depressed. The Scottish worker despite his former Labour Party (now Scottish Nationalist) allegiance has lost confidence in the economy and sees little future in the Union. Britain ceased to be an industrial power because the world moved on and Western capitalism declined. Thatcher was the human agent of a process that wrecked trade unions, binned social democracy and the welfare state, and took Britain into a tinsel age of markets, services and finance capital.

Scotland, home of ship building, iron and steel, coal mining and machine-making suffered grievously. The proud Scottish worker was dumped on the scrap heap and industrial cities and towns decayed; he sees no hope in the Union. I have no glib answers to this misfortune and whether Britain has a future of economic renewal, and whether there is hope for Scotland therein, is too big a question for this essay. What was clear is that breaking away offered no hope either. The Scots, like Lanka’s Tamils, are in a Catch-22 trap but for different reasons. The latter’s dystopia lies in the political and constitutional domain, the former’s in the relentless logic of global change.

A significant innovation was that the voting age was lowered to 16 enabling 16-18 year olds to participate. Young voters exercised their franchise with maturity and responsibility. I followed their discourses in the media and am convinced that the voting age must be permanently lowered in all countries for all elections (parliamentary and local government) to 16. If the geriatric and the senile, the corrupt and the selfish are allowed to deceive and defraud a nation, why should intelligent and idealistic young people be denied an opportunity to correct it?

The English Question and the Federal option

There is universal agreement in the Yes and No camps, among English, Welsh and Northern Irish political leaders and of course all Scottish leaders, that Britain will not and cannot be the same again. Something has changed and changed irreversibly. If it were simply a matter of devolving more power to Holyrood it would be simple. Already its powers are substantial (13A ++ and 10-times plus). Further devolution to change the tax rate up or down by 10%, stamp duty and landfill tax control, and the right to borrow up to 2.2 billion pounds, is already in the works. The rest of the UK is unfazed by the notion of substantially more power in Holyrood. In England, some 80% were laid back even by the prospect of Scottish independence: “Oh just let them do as they please”.

The problem lies elsewhere; it is called the English Question. The progress of devolution has created parliaments or assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but none in England. A survey in 2010 found that only 29% supported establishing a separate parliament for England and the idea was dropped. The incongruity is that while others have assemblies that legislate for and exercise power in their regions, legislation that affects England is enacted by the national parliament in Westminster by not only English MPs alone but by MPs from the other regions as well. That is the Scots, Welsh and N Irish participate in making laws and in running England. This did not matter thus far, but with the ramping up of the powers devolved or to be devolved to regional assemblies, the incongruity stands out like a sore thumb. Voices are raised in England (supported by the other three regions) for a separate English Assembly. It can share the Westminster building with parliament or can be housed in a different place – No don’t be funny; you can’t confine it to the Tower!

All this is easy in theory but the devil is in the details and requires constitutional amendments that take time to finalise, win public support and enact. Secondly this (one English Parliament or two or three regional assemblies in England) would de facto make the United Kingdom a federal state; not a federal republic but a federal monarchy. These constitutional changes are doable but need time. The other option being canvassed is to make no structural change but that English MPs sit alone excluding others when matters concerning England form the agenda. This too is doable but then the Executive Question has to be addressed. Will the UK’s Prime Minister and Cabinet simultaneously be the Prime Minister and Cabinet of England, like say Alex Salmond and his team in Scotland? This will lead to a crazy unbalance in the division of power between the central state and the regional governments.

The national question

There is no deep hostility between the peoples of Scotland and England; if anything there is affection and pride in the glory of empire and colonialism, a shared struggle against Nazism, the industrial revolution, the birth pangs of democracy, and Henry Higgins’ lyric “The majesty and grandeur of the English language” which speaks of shared poesy and prose. William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Falkirk, Bannockburn and Culloden have receded into subliminal memories as have our Elara and Dutugemunu. No, the Scottish case for independence is much simpler, intelligent and straightforward: “Scotland can best be administered by its own people right here, not by a remote establishment in Westminster and Whitehall”. This is logically impeccable but the counterargument that this could be done by fuller devolution while retaining the advantages of Union also makes sense. Hence there is universal commitment, in the broad sense, to far reaching devolution and a profound realisation that Britain can never be the same again. This is the greatest achievement of the Scottish referendum and the Scots could pose this challenge thanks to a democratic and tolerant national ethos.

Catalan, Flemish and Corsican delegations and a team from Quebec came to encourage the campaign and watch the voting. They have taken home positive messages about self-determination, free and democratic processes and respecting the people’s choice. The real lesson however is not for minority nations but the gargoyle known as the central state. Canada allowed French speaking Quebec to choose and it decided to stay put; Belgium I am sure will let the Flemish (Dutch speakers in Flanders) to decide; I don’t know much about Corsica. The dog in the manger is Madrid which rebuffs Catalonia. Will it relent? Unlikely; nor will Lanka’s obstinate citizenry learn, nor will Colombo’s bloody-minded regime see the light.

Oh would some power the giftie gie us,

To see ourselves as others see us.

Robert Burns