In what is, on one level, an astonishingly insulting and complacent article in the Daily Record yesterday, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Scottish devolution, our hapless unelected First Minister unwittingly demonstrates the case for an English parliament. He achieves this feat not only by extolling, as successes of the Scottish parliament, the very things that most embitter the English about their democratic deficit and fiscal inequality compared with the Scots (“free personal care for the elderly, tuition fees, free travel for the elderly and prescription charges”) but by advancing arguments in favour of the Scottish parliament that undermine the very integrity of the Union and can logically be applied to England in just the same way as to Scotland.
For a start, though, the above list of benefits that devolution has secured for Scotland really is rubbing English noses in it – does he not realise that these are the very stuff of English grievances about the Barnett Formula and the lack of an English government accountable to the English people? If he does realise this, then this can only be described as indulging in Anglophobic schadenfreude. Brown has the gall to imply that the absence of such benefits in England reflects a different political culture and national priorities: he calls these policies “Scottish solutions to Scottish issues”, as if they weren’t issues in England and the different policies that apply to England were somehow the expression of England’s democratic choices – whereas we know that top-up fees for English students in particular were passed into law only with the support of Scottish MPs whose constituents are not affected by them.
This law, and the equally unjust fact that elderly persons in England have to meet the cost of their personal care, which is provided free of charge in Scotland (only yesterday the government was proposing a new system where English people only will have to pay into an insurance scheme – effectively, a top-up tax – or else pay a lump sum on retirement to cover the costs of their care in old age), are perfect examples of the kind of “unpopular decisions [that] were made on health, education and policing”, which Brown brings forward as justification for a Scottish parliament.
Well, just because a government’s policies are unpopular, that doesn’t make them illegitimate if the government is properly democratic and accountable. But Brown implies that the policies for Scotland of successive Westminster governments were insufficiently democratic and responsive to the wishes of the Scottish people, and that they were not only bad policies but bad government: “people now often forget . . . how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past. People rightly felt frustrated in recent decades as unpopular decisions were made on health, education and policing. Scotland could be governed better. People deserved better”. Well, if this is the case for Scotland, then it is equally valid for England: New Labour’s policies for England only on health, education and policing are not only unpopular with the people they affect but are an instance of deficiently democratic, unaccountable government, with decisions being made for England by Westminster politicians that are not answerable to the English people.
In fact, the situation now is even more unjust than that which applied to the Scots before devolution. At least then, the legislative activity of non-Scottish MPs affecting Scotland was democratically legitimate, as Britain was a fully unitary state at that time; so there was in principle no distinction between Scottish and non-Scottish MPs, as there was just one national government accountable to all the people in the Kingdom. Ironically, though, the fact that Brown singles out these policy areas is indicative of the fact that, in his thinking, Scotland was not an integral part of a unitary kingdom even before devolution.
Ever since the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland has maintained distinct policies and systems in education and justice; or rather, the Union state has seen fit to allow Scotland to hold on to its different approaches and traditions in these areas. And this in essence is why Brown views the pre-devolution settlement as unfair to Scotland: the differences between Scotland and England in these regards, and with respect to the Kirk (an aspect of Scottish culture that is highly familiar to Brown), are seen as constitutive of a Scottish national identity that is distinct from that of ‘mainstream Britain’ (aka England). Consequently, the Scottish parliament, when it started its work in 1999, was truly Scotland’s ‘own’ parliament precisely because it handed back to the Scots the responsibility for legislating about those aspects of Scottish life that had always remained distinctive and defining of Scottish identity. So it wasn’t so much that devolution opened up a breach in the unitary British state but rather it acknowledged the pre-existing fact of the difference between Scotland and Britain. As Brown says: “For the first time in 300 years, Scotland once again had its own parliament”.
Well, I’m sorry, no: for 300 years (i.e. ever since the Acts of Union), Scotland did have its own parliament – the Union Parliament. If Scotland and England are parts of a genuine Union – two nations merging into one state – then the parliament for that state is the only legitimate parliament for each of those nations. You can’t have it both ways: either Scotland, before devolution, was part of an integral Union, so that devolution brought about something fundamentally new (a distinct Scottish-national polity); or it was never truly integrated into the United Kingdom state, so that Holyrood was in fact the restoration of something that had been lost for 300 years: a properly Scottish parliament. This is clearly how Brown sees it. But if this is the case, it undermines the legitimacy of the Westminster parliament to act as a parliament for England and, indeed, it undermines the foundations of the Union itself. If the Union Parliament’s jurisdiction in properly Scottish domestic matters has never been legitimate – if it has never been ‘Scotland’s own parliament’ – then how can we accept its legitimacy in English domestic policy and legislation? But, more fundamentally, the assertion of a distinct Scottish polity that is said to have continued in a suppressed form throughout the duration of the Union implies that the Union has never been authentic or complete: not the two nations merging to form one but remaining two separate entities merely governed through a common system that did not really belong to either of them – a common-law (indeed, Commons-law) partnership and marriage of convenience, rather than a true marriage of equals on the basis of which there is no longer any distinction between the spouses, who hold everything in common after they are married.
Either that, or the model is that the Westminster parliament – despite being avowedly the parliament for a unitary state – remained fundamentally the English parliament it had historically been, to which Scotland was effectively subordinated through the Union: a situation that the present Scottish parliament remedied. This indeed seems to be the model that Brown adopts with all of his talk about “how poorly Scotland had been dealt with in the past”: as if Scotland were something that the Westminster parliament merely ‘dealt with’ as an object of policy, rather than being a nation that governed its own affairs through the parliament of a Union of which it was an integral part. This model undermines the assumptions of the Union just as much as the idea of Scotland and England remaining separate entities while governed by a common system: in this instance, the Union is merely the political instrument of an English nation that ruled Scotland essentially in its own interests; as opposed to a common structure of government that belonged to neither of the distinct nations.
Well, if the Westminster parliament has always in essence remained the English parliament, let it become an authentic English parliament once more, just as Holyrood, in Brown’s view, is an authentic Scottish parliament: English-elected MPs only making the laws that apply to England; rather than England being ruled, as now, in the interests of the ‘Union’ (i.e. of the devolved nations) by a parliament that is not accountable to the English people. This is a direct reversal of the historical situation that Brown adduces as the justification for creating the present Scottish parliament: a Union parliament (effectively, the proxy of England) ruling Scotland undemocratically in a way that placed the needs of the ‘Union’ above the wishes of the people of Scotland.
But, in such a restored English parliament, there would be no place for unelected (non-English-elected) prime ministers such as Gordon Brown: there would be no opportunity for gravy train-riding Scottish politicians to have their Westminster cake and eat devolved government or, as I would put it, have their own Scottish cake and eat England’s, too. The way Brown puts it, in his article, is: “devolution gives Scotland the best of both worlds”. Well, yes. That statement comes after Brown has reeled off a list of ways in which the fact of being part of a ‘Union’ works to the advantage of Scotland (and very often to the corresponding disadvantage of England), such as: the bail-out of “Scotland’s two main banks” (I thought they were financial institutions vital for the British economy), which “saved thousands of Scottish jobs and protected Scots’ hard-earned savings” (what about the HBOS jobs in Halifax? Well, you see, as the Scots are so hard-working and thrifty, they deserved it more than us spendthrift English); and preferential treatment of Scottish shipyards in defence contracts building two “state-of-the-art aircraft carriers” whose actual benefit for the Armed Forces, in terms of providing capabilities that are needed (as opposed to offering subsidies to Scottish industry), is highly questionable.
And that’s to say nothing of “the [Scottish] parliament’s £35billion annual budget” that enables Scottish people – good luck to them – to enjoy 20% higher levels of per-capita public expenditure than the English: those free university and personal-care places being subsidised by the lack of them in England. No wonder that Brown affirms, towards the end of this homily to Scottish self-interest, that “I’m proud that this Government [i.e. the UK government] has never stopped focusing on delivering for the Scottish people”.
Well, perhaps it’s time we had an English government that would focus a bit more on delivering for the English people. And we know who wouldn’t be in charge of it.