He said it! As a matter of fact, GB [Gordon Brown] said the word ‘England’ four times in his nearly 12-minute-long interview on BBC Scotland’s The Politics Show on Sunday. The nature and context of those references reveals the heart of the dilemma GB is wrestling with in relation to devolution: his lack of accountability to the people of England for the decisions he takes on their behalf.
In this respect, the first of GB’s mentions of England, about three minutes into the interview, was hugely significant. He referred to the recent vote in the Scottish Parliament that “we should review the arrangements which govern the relationship between Scotland and England, particularly the financial accountability relationships”. You have to be on the alert to spot this one, as GB says ‘England’ quickly and under his breath, not articulating the word properly – a not uncommon syndrome on the part of New Labour politicians when forced to acknowledge the existence of England.
So GB’s almost physical difficulty in spitting out the word ‘England’ arises in the context of ‘financial accountability’. This also means democratic accountability: GB is talking about the idea, to be discussed in the proposed devolution review, that the Scottish Parliament should have the power to raise more of the tax income it actually spends, making it more accountable to the Scottish electorate for that expenditure. In the interview, GB evades the possible implication of this, which is that the Scottish Parliament might have to increase certain taxes from their current amounts in order to maintain the relatively high level of public expenditure per head of population in Scotland, and so reduce the subsidisation of that expenditure by the central UK government.
What the rather extraordinary, if barely audible, reference to England (rather than the UK or Britain, as usual for GB) in this context involves is an almost literally tacit acknowledgement that it’s England, more especially the English people, that subsidises Scottish public expenditure; and that, consequently, there’s a problem of financial / democratic accountability for this to England. This problem could come into even starker relief if the Scottish Parliament were responsible for raising the majority of its own revenues. Such a situation would increase the incongruity and injustice of the fact that Scottish Westminster MPs are allowed to vote on government expenditure in England, while English MPs (and, in fact, those Scottish MPs) would have even less input than now into determining the level of public expenditure in Scotland. And this would doubtless lead to more pressure for Scottish MPs either to voluntarily desist from exercising this right (through an English Grand Committee) or for this right to be withdrawn from them. The consequence: MSPs gaining more control over Scottish policies and expenditure; Scottish MPs having even less influence in Scotland, and now even less to do at Westminster, as they could not participate in England-only business. The rationale for Scotland continuing to participate in the Union and its parliament would be eroded still more and Scotland would be one step further down the road to independence. Meanwhile, the position of GB and his government would be further compromised: as a Scottish MP, what right would GB have to formulate policies and dictate expenditure for England? His government would be, and would be revealed as being, in even more respects an England-only government; and how can that be led by someone not even elected in England?
So why does GB appear to be accepting the possibility that the Scottish Parliament should have greater tax-raising powers? In fact, this is a ploy, and he doesn’t want to do this. Actually, GB is implicitly threatening the Scottish Parliament and the SNP with having to increase taxation in Scotland in order to finance their programme. In other words, it’s more a question of Scotland having the power (i.e. no other choice than) to raise more taxes, rather than having more tax-raising powers. In this context, it is significant that two of the other references to ‘England’, towards the end of the interview, arise in connection with a possible re-evaluation of the Barnett Formula: again, the critical ‘financial accountability relationships’, in GB’s words, between Scotland and England. Here, however, as in the rest of the interview, GB’s explicit reference is to the UK-wide impact of any changes to the devolution settlement, rather than to bilateral Scotland-England relationships – although these are clearly implicated. The PM states that the Barnett Formula doesn’t just affect Scotland or England but the whole of the UK and all its constituent parts. Then, in a response to the interviewer’s question about comparisons between public expenditure in Scotland and some of the English ‘regions’, GB makes passing reference to the existence of statistics setting out the level of expenditure in the regions of England – without acknowledging that these reveal that Scotland is getting a better deal than any of them, with the possible exception of London.
By referring to the Barnett Formula in this way towards the end of the interview, GB is clearly expressing a reluctance to abolish it altogether, simply because of pressure from the Scottish Parliament to have more responsibility for raising its revenues. He’s effectively reminding his Scottish audience that it’s the Barnett Formula that guarantees Scotland a higher level of public expenditure per head than the Scottish people could possibly afford if they lacked the subsidies provided by the central UK government. This is part of a benign appeal by GB, throughout the interview, to the benefits Scotland receives from being part of the Union. Another example of such benefits is in the area of security. In relation to terrorism, GB said there could be “no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only solution [the fourth reference to ‘England’]”. In other words, Scotland benefits not only from the financial patronage of a benevolent UK state but also from its power as a force for protection from external threats. However, this reference to security is in fact given in response to the questioner’s somewhat half-hearted attempts to tease out of GB what he meant by saying that devolution was not a “one-way street”, i.e. that some powers could be taken back by the Westminster government, such as in the area of justice and security.
The fact that policing and the legal system in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Government does of course have implications for the national security of the UK, as was evidenced two weeks ago by the decision in principle to admit phone-tapping evidence in terrorist cases in England and Wales, which, as it stands, cannot be implemented in Scotland. But this is not the point here: GB is effectively threatening the Scottish Parliament and the SNP that if it presses the point about having greater powers in some areas (e.g. raising taxes), it may be necessary to remove some of its powers in other areas (e.g. justice), ostensibly in the interests of the whole of the UK, and of Scotland as part of the UK. The use of anti-terrorism as an example is calculated to appear more reasonable and benign than if other perhaps more expensive areas of Scottish governance had been singled out, such as the heavily subsidised healthcare and education systems. But the underlying implication is that, basically, anything could be up for grabs and no area of Scottish self-rule is sacrosanct; after all, it’s devolution not definitive separation, which means that the Westminster government’s prerogative to take back any powers at any time remains in place.
The message to Scotland is, if you want to raise more of your taxes, you might have to raise more taxes; and if you want to offset some of the increased tax burden on Scotland this would involve, you might have to cede certain areas of government back to Westminster. Such an outcome would mean:
- more accountability on the part of the Scottish parliament to its electorate for the portion of public expenditure for which it was directly responsible
- a reduction of the scope, and hence the amount, of this expenditure through a reduction of the powers of the Scottish government
- an increase in the proportion of public expenditure in Scotland for which the Westminster parliament was directly responsible, with the consequence that Scottish Westminster MPs were more relevant again, in that they had more input into policy and expenditure for Scotland
- a reduction in the English sense of injustice about the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian anomaly, even while these inequalities remained in effect. This would be because more of the decision making about Scottish public expenditure would be rolled up into the decisions and voting about expenditure for the UK as a whole, from which it would not be so clearly differentiated. And if Scottish MPs were not voting so obviously on England-only matters but on UK-wide matters (even if these involved continuing to favour Scotland and Wales over England in the distribution of the public purse), this would be seen as more democratically legitimate and accountable than the present state of affairs.
I’m sure that GB would like to move in this direction, in that essentially his whole model of governance is one of a central UK government making decisions for the whole of Britain in the name of the ‘British people’, of which the Scottish people in his view are an integral and (merely) devolved part. Towards the end of the interview, GB refers several times to “the people”, the “British people” and the “Scottish people” – but never once to the “English people”. Of course, he doesn’t: he’s not governing in their name, after all. In his concluding rhetorical flourish, GB makes great play of how important and integral to him are Scotland and the Scottish people, and their continuing place in the UK for which he effectively positions himself as the guarantor.
But what of England and the English people? The interview makes it clear that the devolution review is going to be run from Westminster, even though it involves (no more than) the participation of representatives from the Scottish parliament – and despite the fact that GB makes great play of the fact that it was the Scottish Parliament that voted for it. And it’s a review for Scotland, parallel to the review concerning a possible extension of the powers of the Welsh Assembly, as GB himself points out. But there’s to be no such review or discussion about devolution for England.
So Scotland is being told that if it pushes too hard for more tax-raising powers, it may need to lose some of its political powers – and do so, perhaps, simply to remain viable. GB is saying, ‘if you want to raise proportionally more of your own budget, the UK government will withdraw some of its subsidies unless you cede control of more items within your current budget back to the UK government – otherwise, the political and financial cost to the rest of the UK (and of “England”, under the breath) of the present devolution settlement will be unsustainable’. Perhaps best, then, not to rock the boat too much and continue with the cosy arrangements of the Barnett Formula, which in its fundamentals the government is not calling into question.
Either way, the English people won’t need to be consulted. After all, accountability to England for the government’s actions taken on behalf of ‘Britain’ and of ‘Scotland’ is the last thing anyone wants – least of all, the MP for Kirkcaldy.