The British – They Bemoan The Status Quo, They Flinch From Change.
September 21, 2014
by Martin Odoni
Friday morning was depressing.
I am not a Scot, nor in the factional sense am I a Scottish Nationalist, but I had very much hoped that there would be a Yes vote in this week’s Referendum on Scottish Independence. My reasons for this are largely because I have long concluded that Government of the United Kingdom is too-heavily centralised in Westminster and Whitehall. Major one-size-fits-all decisions that suit only London and the Home Counties are routinely made for the whole of Britain, even when they are quite plainly to the detriment of every other region. Government-from-distance is, almost by definition, Government-by-ignorance, for the legislators will be too far off to understand the immediate needs of the disparate areas of the country. The larger the country, the more different areas the Government will have to accommodate, increasing the disconnect of centralisation.
Therefore, I wanted Scotland to become answerable to Edinburgh rather than London, and hoped that after withdrawing from the UK, the Parliament at Holyrood would go on to devolve further powers to local councils across Scotland, so that each area becomes more directly-governed by people who are properly knowledgeable of it. I even dared hope that, after that, the Parliament at Westminster could follow suit and enact devolution of a similar type across England and Wales – an idea that has been given a great deal of lip-service over the last few days in the media and among politicians, though probably for cynical reasons (discussed below). This was all a bit overly dependent on hope, of course, requiring much too many people to behave in particular ways to be at all likely. But a vote of Yes would have been a start.
But the Scots said No. Not by a huge margin, but still fairly decisively, the majority of a high turn-out declared their intention to stay in the United Kingdom.
For myself, that does feel mildly infuriating. I lived in Scotland from the late-1980’s until the mid-1990’s, and one of the more unpleasant aspects of that, especially when I was in school, was sometimes finding myself the ‘English-verbal-punching-bag’ for locals who wanted someone to take their frustrations out on when they (often-correctly) perceived themselves to be victims of London-centric Government. With all those bad-tempered memories, it genuinely irritates me that when the opportunity arrived for the Scots to put a stop to all that, they said no.
Now Scotland is not a victim of ‘English colonialism’, as some Nationalists are prone to claiming for it. The Union between the two countries was fairly peaceful – there was no act of conquest, and most of the violence that followed the Act Of Union of 1707 was initiated by ‘Jacobites’ north of the border. Nor, despite what some Scots like to believe, was the Union the outcome of some dastardly, underhand English scheme to annexe-by-stealth. (The failure of the Darien Venture, a Scottish attempt to colonise Panama at the end of the 17th Century that ended up bankrupting Scotland’s economy, was not caused by English ‘sabotage’, but by appalling preparation and naive planning by the Scots themselves.)
But nonetheless, Scotland is a victim of being governed in the interests of a narrow elite largely contained in a different part of Britain. So, indeed, are Wales, Northern Ireland, and much of northern England. So I was genuinely hopeful for a Yes vote, and for the process of devolution to get under way.
I would not go so far as to say that I was shocked by the final result, or even mildly surprised by it. Unionism was clearly in the driver’s seat for most of the campaign, and there can be no serious doubt that most of the British media was on Better Together’s side throughout, so the odds were always in favour of a No vote. But that does not make what happened any less disappointing, or any less of a missed opportunity. A process of sorely-needed constitutional change all over Britain might – just might – have been set in motion if enough Scots had voted in favour, but the opportunity was spurned, and so the British constitution remains in its default position.
What is most maddening about that is that it is the second time a chance for constitutional change has been passed up during this current Parliament, and it leaves me doubtful as to when the next opportunity will be allowed to arrive; –
Back in 2011, there was another Referendum, this one across the whole of Britain, asking whether it was time for electoral reform. It offered the possibility of switching British General Elections from the current ‘First-Past-The-Post’ system to a (slightly) more proportional system called ‘The Alternative Vote’. It would have been an unsatisfactory alteration, and could be seen as no more than a stepping stone towards a substantial modernisation, but it would still have been a step in the right direction.
In the event, it was firmly rejected by the British public. The reasons why are probably not uniform, but the strong suspicion lingers that most people’s opposition to AV had little to do with the system itself, and much to do with who initiated the policy. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, had formed the current Coalition Government with the Conservatives on the basis that it could open the door to electoral reform, but, as the price for having the Referendum, he ended up having to break a number of other Lib-Dem Manifesto pledges, some of them among his party’s core principles, by helping to drive a series of right-wing Conservative policies through Parliament. Among these were increases to tuition fees for students, savage welfare cuts, and changes to the National Health Service, dragging it in a privatised direction. A lot of people who had voted for the Lib-Dems, precisely because they had high hopes that Clegg would oppose such policies, were furious when they learned just how much he had compromised in order to join the Government, and saw a No vote in the AV referendum as a great way to punish him for it. Understandable perhaps, but it was an enormous act of self-harm by the British public – a short-termist act of revenge that sacrificed long-term advancement.
My despair is that these two Referenda, with their resonant echoes of rejection, can easily be misrepresented by pro-Establishment elements as evidence that reform is unwanted in Britain, to try and block future attempts to make significant changes. Already, the whole notion of Scottish Independence has been officially sidelined for at least “a generation”. And what chance is there of an electoral reform Bill getting anywhere, when even the most minor, most similar of all possible alternative systems i.e the Alternative Vote, was dismissed out-of-hand? The logic that will be presented to counter anything new at all will be that any more extreme change must be even more “objectionable” than the basic change that has already been rejected. Any time any constitutional change is proposed over the next twenty years, the rejection of electoral reform and the rejection of changing the UK’s structure will be pointed to as reasons not even to ask the question.
Yes, the possibility of regional devolution being introduced is now being spoken about a lot, and that is a welcome development. A panicky offer of extra powers being transferred to the Holyrood Parliament was put on the table by the Conservative Party at the eleventh hour before the Scottish Referendum, in hopes of increasing the No vote. There is also much talk about providing devolution in England, in the name of ‘fairness’, from which we are meant to infer that regional devolution in Scotland has to be mirrored elsewhere in the UK to keep matters even. This is probably true, and certainly desirable.
However, in practise there is every reason to doubt that anyone who could make such devolution happen would be willing to make it happen. Less than a day before the Referendum, Anglocentrics in the Conservative Party such as Claire Perry started speaking out against the pledge to widen Scottish powers. It is disgusting that they waited until so late in the process to try and start a debate on what had already been firmly promised, but we can be sure they will do more than debate. They will do all they can to obstruct as well. It is also hard to imagine any circumstances in which David Cameron and George Osborne will not employ the most cynical stalling tactics to delay devolution for as long as possible – perhaps by talking endlessly about it while delivering nothing, and hoping that eventually everyone will just get bored of the subject. Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, has been very quick to make light of the urgency of devolution. When the odious Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party’s oily and deceitful leader, speaks out in favour of English devolution, he is plainly doing so for entirely anti-Scottish reasons – just to play up the persecution complex that privileged people so often suffer from when they think their privileges are under threat. In practise, were he ever in a position to influence national legislation, Farage would baulk at surrendering powers to regional and local authorities, no matter which side of the border they are on.
In fairness to them all, the reason why all of these people will be so reluctant to change anything is the same reason that the Scots voted No. It is because they are British. Yes, Scotland, you are truly as British as anyone in Britain.
Modern Britain has become a cynical nation of ‘talk-the-talkers’, with ‘walk-the-walkers’ in comparatively short supply. We might spend a ridiculous amount of our time moaning and grumbling about the direst inadequacies we see all around us, sneering at the obsolescences and inefficiencies that hamper the running of the country. But the moment we have a chance to address fundamental problems, we seem to get nervous and hesitant, and decide to veer away for fear of opening a far larger can-of-worms. Or we just ignore what is seriously wrong and prioritise petty retributions against small targets, just because it is easier.
Even when we genuinely endorse what we think of as a radical change, on close examination it usually turns out to be the same-old same-old, just with a new name. In the late-1970’s, for instance, political, economic and ethical thought in Britain (and the USA) became dominated by a supposedly new doctrine calling itself “neoliberalism”. This led the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher to scrap vast mechanisms of the state and to restore roughly the hierarchical status quo of pre-World-War-II Britain, bar its Empire, with the Capitalist class now restored to its former position of dominance. No one seemed to notice for some while that reverting to pre-War type could not possibly be called a ‘new’ approach. It was simply Conservatives doing what they had almost always done. The ‘radical change’ was entirely illusory.
The option this week was for the Scots to decide whether to remain pluralistically British, or to become unambiguously Scottish. The problem with being British is that it seems to be self-maintaining – a mindset of unchangingness that can be very difficult to break. Therefore, for the Scots to vote against being British, they had to stop being British – but in order to stop being British, they had to vote against it in the first place.
I know from much personal experience that, of all Britons, the ones who are most eager not to be are Scots. It’s just a shame for all of us who really want serious change in Britain that that eagerness always seems to dry up at precisely the moment it becomes possible.