Love Will Tear the British Union apart…

Nora Connolly 

Image© The Scottish Government

The SNP`s commitment to the principles enshrined in the British post-war settlement appear to be the motivating factor propelling Scotland toward independence. The party which oscillated between the left and the far right during the 1970s is now the party of consensus, promoting a benevolent nationalism whilst campaigning on a progressive social democratic platform. This seems reasonable and persuasive, especially given the SNP propensity to campaign in the poetry of Burns, whilst governing Scotland in the prose of Keynes and Beveridge. Bevan is also close to the SNP leadership’s heart, the Welsh architect of the British NHS. This is then, big tent inclusive nationalism, seemingly devoid of any racial component, anti-English rhetoric or sentiment. After all there is an estimated 400,000 people of English origins living in Scotland with a projected 10% of this cohort supporting the SNP. Of course Scotland is no egalitarian utopia. And while the country may exhibit more social cohesion and solidarity than other parts of the UK, it’s far from perfect and it would be naive to suggest otherwise. If you have ever attended an `Old Firm` game then you will quickly appreciate my point.

The other main policy plank is the SNP`s commitment to the European Union, an agenda with pragmatic and ideological resonance. Although it`s worth pointing out that opposition to Europe was an initial feature of British consensus politics (Herbert Morrison famously blamed the Durham miners for blocking the UK`s early entry into Europe). A situation that eventually altered and today a pro-European position is synonymous with a social democratic stance. This contrasts with developments south of the border, as writers scurry to win an essay prize of £80,000 for the best submission explaining why the UK should leave the EU.

The SNP appear to be arguing that the best way to preserve the spirit of 1945 is by dismantling the Union. It is the SNP`s love of the British social democratic past that compels it to formally tear the union apart. Independence, so the argument goes, will preserve a precariously balanced social democratic legacy that is rapidly slipping away, without a murmur of protest in the rest of the UK (especially in the South-East of England). This is an alluring agenda and one that may be accepted next year by Scottish voters. And indeed a progressive consensus is emerging as the Scottish Socialist and Greens get behind the SNP independence policy.

Time will tell but what appears clear at the moment is that devolution has allowed the SNP an opportunity to prove they are capable of governing (with the help of the British Civil Service) in much the same way that the Labour minority government of 1924 provided the fledgling Labour Party an opportunity to move away from the politics of opposition and sectional interest, allowing Labour to become respectable. The British Labour Party in the mid 1920s morphed into a genuine party of government (only to be dealt a cruel economic hand in 1929) and a similar political transition has now taken place in Scotland. At the moment an SNP referendum victory next year looks possible, though it will be an independence of severe limitations. The most notable restriction the decision to remain in Sterling, with interest rates set by London. This is the democratic deficit at the heart of Scottish independence. There are of course other limitations the Queen will maintain her position as head of state, whilst energy and transport continue to be integrated and Scotland remaining under the NATO umbrella and the social union status quo prevails.  Given the paucity of the SNP`s constitutional demands it seems remarkable that their support base is content with this situation, though the SNP`s gradualist approach could be a stepping stone to further independence. Besides the constitutional lacuna within Scottish nationalism, it is also worth contemplating how genuine is the party’s commitment to the much heralded 1945 settlement. Thatcherism rejected consensus and devised a new orthodoxy and political discourse shaped around low taxation as the central motif of economic policy. This went to the very heart of the Keynesian settlement (which Labour under Callaghan undermined). Rather than reject this notion, the SNP fully accepts the need to pursue a low taxation agenda as a necessary requirement to stimulate the economy. The SNP paradoxically promising to provide Scandinavian social provision financed through USA taxation levels. It is depressing that the Nationalist are following this fundamental breach of the post war consensus with such vigour. How will the promised Welfare provision be paid for if independence is secured?

Independence will of course mean a vastly reduced tax base and the Barnett formula will quickly become a distant memory. The SNP`s ideological commitment to low taxation may also suggest that Scottish nationalism is more divergent than it’s generally assumed. Whilst the commitment to the Attlee consensus generates support in West Central Scotland the consensus may have less relevance for those living in the North East and Highlands of Scotland.

While Scotland contemplates the de jure demise of the Union, it`s worth remembering that the de facto separation of the UK is well under way, as London and the South East of England increasingly resemble a separate state, a society cut adrift from the collectivist spirit of 1945. This process has had a long gestation period, though it has become more apparent recently given the decision to cap welfare benefits. This policy has significant implications for the poor living in the wealthier parts of the UK, especially London and the South-East. An essence of this was detectable in the recent edition of the `Moral Maze` as Michael Buerk described life in Johannesburg during the period of Apartheid, making a direct comparison with contemporary Britain, where economic segregation is the name of the game. The programme informed us that the capping of benefits dovetails with further research this week which highlights that a third of the country is no longer accessible to the low income working poor of the UK.

Of course the Coalition is making it difficult for the poor to live in any part of the UK; regardless of the geographical location, one need only look at the impact of the bedroom tax on council house tenants to see that this is the case. This agenda south of the border can only strengthen the SNP campaign in favour of independence, as the rest of the UK increasingly moves away from the 1945 social democratic legacy. As Andy Murray (British and Scottish sporting icon) knows only too well, love means nothing in tennis and perhaps this applies to politics also.


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