Thursday, 21 August 2014

Scotland's Vote 13: Arrival of the FoES


The 2014 Future of England Survey (FoES) is an opinion study conducted by Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities, surveying English attitudes towards Scottish devolution and independence. The report published yesterday by Cardiff University is well worth reading.



On the whole, the FoES supports my prediction that English public opinion would not be generous towards an independent Scotland. I'm not saying I approve of this hardline attitude or it is necessarily in England's best interest, but we can be sure it will influence English politicians who want to win the next election.

There is a lot of fascinating material in the report, but there are three particular findings I want to highlight.


Currency Union


English voters oppose letting an independent Scotland use the pound by a margin of more than two to one. 70% of those who express an opinion say they do not want to share a currency.

To be clear, if Scotland wants to use the pound as its only currency in the same way as Panama uses the US dollar, or set up its own currency and peg it to sterling as Denmark does with the euro, there is nothing the rest of the UK (rUK) can do about it. For that matter, it is hard to see why rUK would object.

The SNP is demanding more; it wants a full currency union with shared control of a central bank. This would require the consent of the Westminster parliament, in the form of legislation for the governance of the Bank of England. The UK political parties have made it very clear they do not wish to consent, and they have overwhelming support from English public opinion.

The SNP's insistence on a currency union is increasingly difficult to sustain. More and more, it puts the SNP in the position of saying democracy and self-determination are necessities for Scotland but optional extras for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Spending in Scotland


In the event of a No vote, an overwhelming majority agree with the statement, "Levels of public spending in Scotland should be reduced to the levels in the rest of the UK". Excluding "don't knows", 72% of respondents agreed.

On the face of it, this is bad news for Scotland. Scotland has 8% of the UK population, but at the moment receives about 10% of total spending under the Barnett Formula.

However, this result is in conflict with another one. There is very strong support for the Scottish Parliament to have more control over revenue raised in Scotland. By a margin of two to one, respondents agree "the Scottish Parliament should be given control over the majority of taxes raised in Scotland". Scotland contributes about 10% of UK revenue, so with full control of its own taxes it would also have about 10% of UK spending.

My interpretation is that English voters do not want punishment of Scotland per se, only what they believe to be a fair deal. If asked whether Scotland should subsidise England, I expect they would say no. So it is likely this could be resolved without seriously offending English public opinion.

The West Lothian Question


An overwhelming majority agree with the statement, "Scottish MPs should be prevented on voting on laws that apply only in England". Excluding the undecided, 81% say they agree.

This raises the well-known West Lothian Question: If a policy area is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, English MPs cannot vote on how it is run in Scotland; so why should Scottish MPs have a say on how it is run in England?

This is far from a theoretical issue. In 2004, the Labour government introduced university tuition fees. It had a huge majority of seats in the House of Commons, but so many English MPs rebelled that the law would not have passed without support from Scottish MPs. Meanwhile, university tuition fees are devolved to Holyrood which chose not to impose them in Scotland.

We are likely to be here again; the Labour party won 41 out of 57 Scottish seats in 2010, and will probably have a similar result in 2015. Based on current opinion polls, we may well see a narrow win by Labour, with a government dependent on Scottish MPs for its majority in the House of Commons.

The key problem is the lack of reciprocity. Newark-upon-Trent does not have a university, but it is fine for Newark's MP to vote on university policy; this is a matter of national concern which affects the people of Newark as well. It is a different story when Scottish MPs can legislate for Oxford University, but English MPs have no corresponding say over Edinburgh University.

As things stand, the conventional answer is that power is devolved, not surrendered, from Westminster to Holyrood. Westminster retains the authority to pass laws for Scotland. Indeed it routinely does so, using Legislative Consent Motions (LCMs, formerly known as Sewell motions) to apply UK laws to areas within the responsibility of Holyrood. This is unsatisfactory, for two reasons.

First, it does not address the real issue of legitimacy. In practice, LCMs can only be used for uncontroversial matters, while the votes of Scottish MPs have imposed highly controversial policies on England.

The UK Parliament theoretically could step in to impose tuition fees, compulsory Morris dancing, or anything else it liked on Scotland. In reality, it will do no such thing. If it tried then Scots would be furious and it would be a gift to independence campaigners.

Second, a democracy ought to have clear lines of accountability. It should not require a degree in constitutional law to understand who is responsible for which government policy.

Various solutions to the West Lothian Question have been suggested, and adopting one of them might go some way towards assuaging English public opinion.

Conclusion


The message from the FoES is that England sees Scotland as a distinct country. English voters do not feel anywhere near the same kinship with Glasgow or Orkney that they might with Manchester or the Isle of Wight. It appears they are in favour of Scotland standing on its own two feet, for good or ill; any cooperation must be clearly beneficial to England as well as Scotland.

If there is a Yes vote, we have the unsurprising conclusion that English voters would put their own interests first. An independent Scotland could not expect special favours; London would deal with Edinburgh in the same way as with Dublin, Paris or Amsterdam.

In the event of a No vote, it seems Scotland and rUK would move towards a more businesslike relationship. Sentimental notions of one Great British family, who will stand together come what may, now have little force. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it leaves the door open to a partnership based on mutual respect.

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