16 September 2014

Why we're not better together

Thursday's Scottish referendum looks set to go to the wire and despite the best efforts of the Westminster establishment the last days of scaremongering looks like it has only halted YES's momentum - but has clearly not turned it into any movement for the NO campaign.  So its likely effect is to reduce participation and drive turnout down - particularly from those who don't usually participate in the democratic process.

The pitch of the NO campaign is basically that it is too risky and uncertain for Scotland to take any decisions other than those Westminster, Whitehall and the City of London are happy to give away to the Scots.  The upsurge in YES voting intention didn't change this essential power relationship it only made the list of things the establishment were prepared to give to the Scottish Parliament to determine a bit longer (assuming the Westminster parties can agree an any of it).

The UK remains one of the world's most centralised states - with more than 95% of all public revenues and spending being the responsibility of the Treasury - just 4.4% is raised and accountable to local authorities through the Council Tax.   This bureacratic over centralisation drives out local initiative - in England as much as elsewhere - and contributes to the disconnect between the government and the governed - particularly the further you go from the south east of England.

Now this isn't news and liberals have had a long held belief in political and constitutional reform - and particularly decentralising power to local communities.

So it wasn't surprising that many in the party were confident post 2010 with the Liberal Democrats part of the coalition and with Nick Clegg having responsibility for constitutional reform that progress would have been made in recasting the UK into a more modern decentralised and pluralistic democracy.  Sadly reform of the House of Lords and the voting system have been an abject failure, localism proved nothing more than spin and with MPs snouts in the expenses trough like never before Clegg and the Coalition have failed to make any meaningful progress.

So all that's left of the constitutional reform agenda is the Scottish independence referendum courtesy of the SNP government in Edinburgh.

The break up of the failed centralised UK state and the opportunity to decentralise power - not just to Scotland - but to the parts of England that are being squeezed by the sucking of power and wealth into the south east ought to have been a no-brainer for the Liberal Democrats.  But sadly the current leadership of the party north and south of the border have rejected a 100+ year history of campaigning for Home Rule and turned the Scottish party into an empty vessel of the Labour dominated and Tory funded unionist NO campaign.

When I was a member of the party in Scotland I never counted myself as a unionist and rejected the label vehemently - but that is sadly what they have now turned into - consigning the party to the margins in the post referendum landscape (whatever the result). A more sensible positioning as Scotland's honest broker between the unionists and nationalists would have given the party a role and relevance and made it the fulcrum of bringing both sides together after the vote.

But it is all too clear a NO vote on Thursday will send the message to the Westminster establishment - now sadly including the Liberal Democrats that they can carry on - with a few more tax trinkets thrown to Scotland and a new gimmick or two - such as more executive Mayors - to England's northern conurbations.  The essential power relationship of the UK's unitary state will be unaffected and London and the south east will continue to suck in more and more people and resource.  And that will only encourage the Poujadists of UKIP and promote a narrow and insular  English nationalism that won't be good for any part of the current UK in the long run.

That's why I'm hoping Scots vote YES on Thursday - it's the last remaining hope to bust the system that is so clearly broken.  Voting to stay together is a vote for more of the same.  And that's not in anyone's best interest.


  1. Very interesting Dan--I did not know that 95% tax statistic. Do you have comparable figures for other countries? e.g. compaing French regions with Paris, or US states with federal expenditure? It does on the face of it seem extremely concentrated.
    The natural experiments that occur when regional variation occurs seems to me to be a sufficient scientific basis for devolution alone.
    Here's hoping for the reunification of Brittany! 44=BZH, ya bass!

  2. Hi Dougie - sorry don't know off the top of my head any international comparisons - but any state with a federal system is going to by definition have significant local tax raising ability - and I'd suspect your average Mayor of a French commune has more tax (or should I say revenue!) raising ability than a UK council.