To save U.K., England must be more like Scotland

by Tina Burrett

The battle over Scotland’s future as part of the United Kingdom has begun. Last week, politicians on both sides of the border set out passionate arguments for and against Scottish independence. All three of Britain’s main political parties are committed to preserving the union. In a speech in Edinburgh on Feb. 15, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, said he would “fight with everything I have to keep our United Kingdom.”

A referendum on independence was promised by the Scottish Nationalist Party, which won a landslide in elections to the Scottish parliament last May. After much wrangling, Cameron agreed to a referendum, but on his own terms. Scotland’s first minister, SNP leader Alex Salmond, suggested a referendum might put more than one question to voters, not just offering independence, but also greater autonomy for Scotland, including greater tax raising powers. Under this watered-down version of independence, commonly known as “devo max,” Scotland would remain part of the U.K., with a single currency and defense force, but Edinburgh would control Scotland’s domestic policy and economy. A YouGov poll in January found that Scottish voters were almost 60/40 in favor of devo max, but on full independence, the figures were reversed, with 39 percent for and 61 percent against.

Cameron will only accept a straight yes-no referendum on independence. In a ploy to encourage a “no” vote, however, the prime minister has hinted that he would be willing to consider a version of devo max, but only after a referendum on independence has been lost.

Past disappointments at hollow promises from Tory prime ministers have left many Scots loath to trust Cameron’s talk of greater powers for Scotland after a no vote. Former Tory Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home broke his promise to offer Scots a better devolution bill if they voted no in the 1979 referendum. The Thatcher government elected that same year destroyed most of Scotland’s industrial base. The introduction of a poll tax in Scotland in 1989 precipitated Margaret Thatcher’s downfall and all but destroyed the Scottish Tories. In the last 20 years, the Tories have had just one MP elected in Scotland.

The toxic image of the Tories, who dominate Britain’s current coalition government, may drive up Scottish support for independence. Scots increasingly see themselves as holding different political values and priorities from English voters. Nowhere is the difference more pronounced than in the sphere of public services. Scottish public services are based on the principle of equity and have resisted the encroachment of the market elements seen in the English health and education systems.

Furthermore, while the Cameron government insists that the only cure for Britain’s current economic ills is £18 billion of public-spending cuts, in Scotland, the SNP continues to subsidize student fees, provide free prescriptions and maintain spending on capital works.

To his critics who claim that Scotland’s comparatively generous welfare system depends on £8 billion in annual subsidy from England, Salmond counters that Scotland finances the rest of the U.K. with revenues from North Sea oil and gas. Approximately three-quarters of British fossil fuel reserves lie off the Scottish coast.

It was a Scot, Adam Smith, who wrote that economic progress must be accompanied by social progress. But England, too, has a progressive tradition and the majority south of the border would like to see Scotland’s more egalitarian welfare system extended to them. As Labour Party leader Ed Milliband has said, “the real divide” in Britain is not between Scotland and the rest of the U.K., but between “the haves and the have-nots.”

It is a common misconception that if Scotland was to become independent, the rest of the U.K. would be left with perpetual Tory governments. This is a misreading of British electoral history. In postwar elections, the Tories have only won a majority of the English vote once, in 1955. It is owing to the vagaries of the British electoral system that a 36 percent share of the vote in the 2010 general election rewarded the Tories with a 47 percent share of seats in the House of Commons. In 2010, as in most post-war elections, the majority of English voters, as well as those in Scotland and Wales, voted for parties from the progressive end of the political spectrum (the Tories received just 39.6 percent of the vote in England in 2010).

Scotland’s referendum on independence presents U.K. voters with an opportunity for a proper debate on the future of British democracy. The progressive majority who despair at the growing gap between rich and poor, the marketization of public services and the capture of the state by corporate interests must form alliances based on new models of political participation, which in turn deliver a sustainable and equitable economy. Only then will the U.K. be saved, in more ways than one.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of International Relations at Temple University, Japan.