Why are Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems so implacably opposed to the SNP’s proposed referendum on Scottish independence? For the same reason that they are opposed to any break up of the United Kingdom, which would be the inevitable by-product of a vote in favour of Scottish independence.
They do, however, seem to have reached some sort of consensus that extensions to Scotland’s devolved powers are required; for instance, in the area of tax and spending. This is the second of three ‘realistic’ options set out by the SNP today in their call for a ‘national conversation’ in Scotland about constitutional reform – the others being the status quo and full independence.
It’s unlikely that the bill for a referendum will make it through the Scottish parliament, given the united opposition from the three main national parties. Nonetheless, the developments in the debate do offer considerable encouragement to those of us who would like to see an English parliament and / or independence. If even greater powers are devolved to the Scottish parliament, such as full independence over fiscal policy, the call for separate voting in the UK parliament on England-only matters would surely be irresistible. And once that concession is made, this might set a momentum going that would lead to still further extensions of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – with consequent pressure for further political separation for England.
Note that I use the word ‘separation’ rather than ‘devolution’ in the case of England. The very fact that the term devolution is applied to the process of handing over more and more powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland goes to the heart of why a separate English parliament or state is unthinkable to the political establishment.
Why can’t we talk of devolution for England? This is not because it is impossible as a theoretical concept, far from it. It is because devolution, applied to England, is a logical non-sequitur: devolution from what? The point is that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution is a devolution from England: that’s how they see it and that’s what’s implied by the very term devolution – a transfer of government power accorded by the English to the other countries whose destiny and governance England has essentially controlled for centuries through the Union.
At work is a profound identification between England and Britain: the two terms are virtually synonymous; and Britain, to all intents and purposes, is the English state – its political identity and raison d’etre. Hence, English devolution is a contradiction in terms. Conceptually, this would imply not powers being devolved by an entity known as Britain to a component part of Britain known as England; but rather, this would be a case of England devolving powers to itself.
So, on one level, why bother, the main parties would argue? England already has its own parliament, which is the UK parliament. Well maybe, but if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own parliaments, why don’t we re-name the UK parliament and call it the English parliament? Obviously, this doesn’t happen because England-Britain still hasn’t devolved full powers to the other countries of the Union. So maybe we’re going to just have to wait till this happens for Britain to mutate into England – conceptually and in real-world politics.
Let’s finish off with an analogy. Imagine the UK as a conglomerate: Britain Holding (UK) plc. This company has four wholly owned subsidiaries: Britain (England) Ltd, Britain (Scotland) Ltd, Britain (Cymru) Ltd and Britain (Northern Ireland) Ltd. The holding company is a nominal entity, effectively exercising only a supervisory role and being the legal personality for the company (think of it like the British monarchy). As the largest subsidiary in the group, Britain (England) plc has the real executive power and responsibility for strategy, while inviting senior management from its sister enterprises onto its management board. However, in response to calls for greater operational independence, ownership in the smaller subsidiaries is gradually transferred to local shareholders. And eventually, a series of management buy outs results in a complete divestment of the three subsidiaries.
Far from representing a strategic setback for Britain (England) plc, this is now seen as a chance for the company to set its own priorities and concentrate on its core competencies and business objectives, freed from the responsibility to cross-subsidise its less profitable sister companies with their distinct management cultures and economic opportunities. The rationale for a separate holding company no longer exists, and it is merged into the operating company, which is re-branded England plc.