On 18 September 2014, in the Scottish Independence Referendum the electorate of Scotland narrowly voted to reject independence and stay within the United Kingdom under the 307 year old Act of Union of the Parliaments of Scotland and England. In a recent article in The Times, senior Labour Party politician and former Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw MP, proposed making any future attempts to break the union illegal.
Mr Straw makes many claims in his article, which display not only an arrogance towards the wishes of the Scottish people, but also of those of many of the English electorate, and in which he makes false assumptions and in places is even being ‘economical with the actuality’.
In this article I shall examine Mr Straw’s words carefully and hope to illustrate just how very wrong he is.
“Now that Scotland has decisively spoken,”
55% of the vote, where the elderly dictated the majority of those against independence, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as decisive.
“after a campaign whose terms were set by the SNP for itself,”
It was the UK government which refused a third “Devo-Max” question on the ballot paper. The original question on the ballot paper was going to be “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” Following complaints from the Westminster parties that the wording was ‘loaded’ and may subliminally cause voters to agree, the Electoral Commission demanded that was changed to “Should Scotland be an independent country?” To claim that the terms were set by the SNP for itself therefore, is completely false.
“we should follow the example of stable federated countries (the US and India, for example) and say: “This Union is now indissoluble.”
Let us look at Jack Straw’s examples. The USA is a federal republic, where 46 states and 4 commonwealths act with a great deal of independence over their own affairs and are not directly answerable to central government. The whole of the USA however is and operates as one nation state. Likewise India is a federal republic, where each region has it’s own devolved government but the nation is one sovereign state. Whilst the UK is recognised as a country, it is nonetheless constitutionally two nations – Scotland and England – under one crown and parliament, plus the Principality of Wales, the Duchy of Cornwall and the Province of Northern Ireland. To try to say the Union is indissoluble would effectively strip Scotland of any vestige of nationhood, and far from leading to federalism, would give us no real rights to have a devolved Scottish Parliament. Incidentally, such a move would also strip England of her nationhood.
“If independence would have been for good, so must the decision to stay.”
This is a false dichotomy. Again, with such a narrow margin in the Referendum result, just because Scotland voted to stay does not for one moment mean that all is well. Were that the truth, there would have been no call for independence in the first place. And even if there were, there is no way Yes Scotland would have got 45% of the vote. Better Together would have delivered a crushing defeat. And not only that, not only would the Unionist party leaders never have offered more devolved powers, there would have been no need for them to do so.
Let us use an analogy to put it bluntly. A man abuses his wife and she attempts to flee. The abusive husband promises to change. The wife goes back to him. Therefore, using Jack Straw’s logic, all in that partnership is perfectly okay, and the wife is perfectly safe.
“You can’t pull a living plant up by the roots again and again, and expect it to survive. Put this commitment to the Union in primary Westminster legislation. Of course, that could be changed but only by all the UK’s MPs. “Better Together” must mean what it says.”
If you put any such commitment solely in the hands of Westminster MPs, then due to the fact of their much smaller representation, the 59 Scottish MPs would effectively be unable to influence any such change. That leaves Scotland, a country where the people are officially sovereign, powerless within the UK framework. I suspect however that is precisely what Jack Straw is proposing.
“The promises of further devolution to Scotland will be honoured, and the settlements for Wales and Northern Ireland are being strengthened.”
Except that Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband, promised in the infamous “vow” that the timetable for change would begin the day after the Referendum, Friday 19 September 2014, and all three have not only not started any such move, they are already back-pedalling on those promises. I predicted that they would, and it gives me no pleasure to discover that I was right.
I also notice there is no mention of Cornwall, despite the fact that Mebyon Kernow (the Party of Cornwall) and others are currently demanding a fully devolved Cornish parliament. If Jack Straw, a senior Westminster politician, is not aware of this fact, then one can only assume he does not care what the Cornish think or want. And if the latter is true, then just how much can he be trusted in the matter of Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland?
“Where does that leave England? Proposals for “English votes for English laws” are sedulously attractive. They have been repeated by David Cameron. However, I suggest that we English take a deep breath and examine whether they are remotely necessary, and even if they are, just how they would be put into practice.”
If Jack Straw is saying on one hand that the UK should, quote, “follow the example of stable federated countries” in one breath, then questions the need for English representatives alone to decide English issues, one seriously has to question his commitment to any such “federated state”.
“This West Lothian question is, in truth, code for an assertion about Labour — that in government we have to rely on Scottish MPs for a majority. I am proud that Labour really is a unionist party (as were the Conservatives until their fateful decision in 1987 to use Scotland as a laboratory for the poll tax). But almost always, when we win a general election, we win south of the border as well.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, the “West Lothian Question” was posed by Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, in the run up to the first Scottish Devolution Referendum in 1979. Dalyell, deeply opposed to devolution, asked that if Scotland had devolution where Scottish issues were decided by Scottish representatives alone, why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on English issues? It has stayed a sticking point ever since, and many would argue now that Scotland has devolution, that Scots MPs to vote on issues not affecting Scotland is deeply unfair. They are absolutely correct, of course. And that is why SNP MPs at Westminster abstain or do not turn up for many votes in Westminster; because the issues being voted upon do not affect Scotland. You will not hear the Unionist parties stating that when they condemn the SNP for their poor attendance and voting records in Westminster.
If Jack Straw is proud of the fact that Scottish Labour MPs vote upon issues not affecting Scotland, then frankly I do not know how he sleeps at night, far less how he faces his constituents. Any Scottish MP who votes on any issue not affecting Scotland is effectively short-changing the English electorate, and treating them with exactly the same contempt with which Margaret Thatcher treated Scotland when she launched the Poll Tax here a year before England.
“In 32 years of Labour governments since the war, Labour has had to “rely” on Scottish MPs to remain in power for just 26 months (1964 to 1966 and March to October 1974). That’s including Welsh Labour MPs. But we also had more English MPs than the Conservatives throughout the Blair/Brown administrations, as well as in the 1966 and October 1974 elections.”
And we can only thank Jack Straw for this admission; that the Labour Party only wants Scotland in the Union because they fear without us they will never form another government in Westminster. They are in effect using the Scots electorate for their own ambitions. However, this works both ways. The last time the Tories enjoyed any level of popular support was the 1950s. Since then every Conservative government which has been elected to Westminster has been completely against the wishes of the Scots electorate. In 1987 Scotland did not have one Conservative MP, not one Conservative-controlled local authority, and not one Conservative Member of the European Parliament. The dinosaurs were effectively dead north of the border. But we still had a Conservative government we never voted for upon us, and the Poll Tax enforced upon us a year before England.
The Scots electorate is one tenth the size of that of England. Therefore voting trends are seriously disproportionate. Detractors, particularly the Labour Party, try to claim that Scotland votes the same way as the rest of the UK, but past elections simply do not bear that claim out. To try to claim that “only Labour can save Scotland from the Tories” is to ignore the fact that in 2010 Scotland returned one Conservative MP, 11 Lib-Dem MPs, and yet we are under a Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition government, in a land where pandas outnumber Tories by 2 to 1.
The Union therefore is undemocratic. As long as the majority of the English electorate, who live in the south-east of England, it shall always be so.
“The unique characteristic of this Union is that one component — England — has 84 per cent of the population. England’s population is projected to grow over the next 20 years by another 7 million — more than Scotland’s population of 5.3 million. This means that almost every issue that may look exclusive to England can have knock-on effects for the rest of the UK. Take the 2004 increase in tuition fees. It applied directly to England and Wales only. But its indirect effect went north of the border. The greater reliance on private funding of universities south of the border indirectly reduced the block grant to Scotland. Scottish MPs thus had a wholly legitimate stake in the outcome.”
Well that is an interesting statement. For during the referendum debate, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Johann Lamont, Anas Sarwar and Jim Murphy, all from the Labour Party, flatly denied that NHS cuts and privatisation in England could have any possible knock-on effect to NHS Scotland. Now we have Jack Straw from the selfsame party openly stating that within the Union, decisions applying to England can and do indeed effect other parts of the UK, including Scotland.
And that is actually a self-defeating argument. In fact, the knock-on effect of English legislature upon Scotland was one of the key arguments of Yes Scotland. For if policy in England can have an adverse effect on what happens in Scotland, then that is just one more strong reason for independence.
“English votes for English laws has been tried before. Gladstone’s second Irish Home Rule Bill of 1893 came up with the “ins and outs solution”, in which Irish MPs at Westminster were to be able to vote on “imperial” matters, but not “domestic” ones. It was the Tory leader, AJ Balfour, who exposed its fundamental defects. The system, he said, “would carry the most serious evils in its train”. It would “threaten the ordinary procedure of parliament” and “shatter the cabinet system . . . if you never knew whether an issue was going to be identified as English-only or the UK as a whole”. After months of wrangling, Gladstone conceded. As Sir Malcolm Rifkind observed in 2006, creating “two classes of MP would be a constitutional abortion”.
I frankly do not see anything wrong with anything which shatters the cabinet system – and the jobs for the boys it creates. In fact, having Members of Parliament focussing upon issues which effect their areas most may tend to make them far more representative of their constituents, which is the job they are employed to do, instead of concentrating upon their own careers, brown-nosing their party leader, being afraid of the party whip, and looking forward to a future in the House of Lords.
Attempting to introduce the 19th century “Irish Question”, as it was known at the time, into a 21st debate on Scottish independence is an absurdity. Not least because the Irish Question eventually solved itself, in the guise of independence for the Irish Republic; independence which had Jack Straw’s proposals to make the Union “indissoluble” been around then, Eire would have been denied. But then, to back up his proposals, we have Jack Straw of Labour, quoting Malcolm Rifkind; one of the most unpopular and hated Conservative Scottish Secretaries which Scotland ever had.
“If we now make a reality of devolution within England — where the real democratic deficit lies — and ensure a fairer share of the cake between the south-east and, for example, the north and north-west, much of the apparent attraction of two classes of MP will go. It’s certainly worth examining whether there’d be any role for an English grand committee to discuss “English” legislation but I suspect that even this might be more trouble than it was worth.”
It could be argued that England already has it’s own parliament in the Palace of Westminster, but I do take the point that there may very well be a case for devolution for the English regions. The north of England as much voted for the current Westminster government as Scotland did, but still they got it. There has to be a strong argument therefore for some form of local government which is more representative of and answerable to those regions. And yet, Jack Straw, without supplying any evidence to back up his argument, dismisses even the idea of an English Grand Committee, and to do so in such a cavalier attitude, he gives the impression that the people in those regions, his own Labour electorate are “more trouble” than they are worth. I would advise Mr Straw to be very careful upon that. Labour once too often took their Scottish support for granted, and they paid the price for that when their own supporters helped to vote for an overwhelming SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011. Do not bite the hand which feeds you.
“We do not, however, need to tie ourselves in knots about this. Politicians have a constant care for popular support. We’ve all learnt the excruciating lesson from the Conservatives’ “Scottish poll tax” debacle. We English should stop fretting. The Union, our Union, has been saved. It’s “asymmetrical”, it’s untidy. But, hey, it works.”
In my experience politicians who have constant care for popular support are very rare creatures indeed. I have known of politicians of all parties who have been very good constituent MPs, but in the face of the vast majority of career MPs, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. If everyone had learned from the Poll Tax, then we would not have unpopular government policies like the Under-Occupancy Charge, aka the “Bedroom Tax” in place today. We certainly would not have it in places which voted never voted for the current administration in Westminster, including Scotland.
The wording of the last few sentences of Jack Straw’s article is interesting indeed. He freely admits that the Union is asymmetrical and untidy, then goes onto claim that it works. Yet because it is so asymmetrical and untidy, the Union cannot possibly work under it’s current guise, for it is unrepresentative of a great many voters, it is unanswerable to the Scottish electorate, as well as that of other parts of the UK which never voted for the Westminster government, and as long as that continues, that system is wholly undemocratic and therefore cannot ever possibly work for anyone save those of London and the south-east of England. In short, the Union and the UK electoral system are as representative of all the UK as is the voting system of Outer Mongolia.
To make statements about “we English” and then follow them up with “our Union” could not be more telling as to Mr Straw’s attitude. To make such statements reminds me of the fact that the Scottish members who voted us into the Union in 1707, tabled a motion in Westminster to repeal the Act of Union in 1708, which was voted down by English members. Afterwards the Speaker of the House of Commons, Richard Hounslow, said , “We have catch’d Scotland, let us bind her tight.”
Self-determination of any people is recognised as a human right, enshrined in international law. Any move to make the Union “indissoluble” would be wholly undemocratic, wholly unrepresentative, illegal under international law, but would nonetheless bind Scotland tight indeed, and forever.