One of the most interesting things about the recent Ashcroft polls is the flurry of articles they’ve provoked in the media, as London-based political commentators try to outdo each other in displaying their complete ignorance of Scottish politics.
It’s eerily reminiscent of the sudden surge of activity when the gaps in referendum polls reached margin-of-error levels, and metropolitan journalists suddenly realised that Scotland was taking the referendum far more seriously than they were.
Two of the most revealing have been in the Spectator, with James Forsyth saying the Unionist collaborations in the No campaign “marked a recognition that Great Britain is far bigger, and far more important, than party politics”, and Fraser Nelson becoming Scottish Labour’s most unlikely cheerleader, saying “Finally, a confession. I’d like the Tories to win the next election, but not as much as I want Jim Murphy to do well”.
But amid all the outpourings of grief and befuddlement, it’s startling how little analysis there really is into why the UK is in the situation it currently is. And it’s odd because the answer isn’t the least bit complicated.
Sure, there’s no shortage of hand-wringing about how Labour has taken Scotland for granted for too long, but no one seems willing to recognise the one basic fact that underpins all the confusion surrounding the May election – the union is broken, and broken on a fundamental level.
Whether it’s Scottish voters demanding more powers for Scotland, or English voters demanding English votes for English laws, it all points to the same thing – the union, as it currently stands, is not fit for purpose. But politicians refuse to acknowledge it so the union staggers on like the T-800 in The Terminator, waiting for someone to thrust a metal pole through it to finish it off – a few powers here, a convoluted way of bypassing Scottish MPs there, and so on.
What the likes of James Forsyth and Fraser Nelson are saying is that keeping the various nations of the UK constrained in a political union formed 300 years ago for reasons that no longer apply is of the utmost importance. But what they never tell us is WHY. Those of us who chapped doors during the referendum will have had similar experiences, meeting people who could not explain WHY it was so important that Scotland remained in the union, just knowing that it WAS.
The question is essentially this: “What is it you want from this union, and are you prepared to accommodate what everyone else wants as well in order to keep the union going?” (Okay, arguably that’s two questions.)
Perhaps you’re a Scot who voted No last year because you (wrongly) think Scotland depends on subsidies from England, and you want that to continue. Well that’s great, but what if people in England want Scotland’s budget to be cut?
What if you want Scotland to have more powers, but people in England want Scotland to have less? Perhaps you’re English and you want Britain to continue laughably pretending it’s still a global power. Well, fine, but what if Scotland is fed up being a dumping ground for the UK’s nukes? What if you want Scottish MPs to be silenced in Westminster, but Scotland wants to start sending 40-odd SNP MPs to force the Westminster government to start actually taking notice of what Scots want for once?
Anyone with an IQ higher than a Lanarkshire Labour councillor can see that what the constituent parts of the UK want from the union are not just different, but mutually incompatible. The union cannot possibly accommodate everyone, which is why it has always settled for accommodating the largest part.
Some suggest federalism as the solution – giving Scots the control over their finances they desire, and ending the uneven devolution that rankles people in England – but the reality is this would simply expose the myths of the union even more, showing people on both sides of the border that Scotland doesn’t rely on subsidies after all, and making it plain to people outside London how centralised the UK is.
More importantly to politicians, it would make it impossible to keep concentrating all the power in London, and the UK could no longer be run for the sole benefit of the City. The lucrative post-Westminster directorships, consultancies and lobbying positions would dry up, and that would never do. Federalism will never happen.
(Especially as the one party that claims to believe in it abandoned it at the first sight of a ministerial car, and is about to be consigned to the dustbin of history.)
Scots have been left with one option: to start electing MPs who answer only to Scotland, because nobody will take any notice of us unless we shout very loudly. We’re not sure why everyone’s so surprised, except perhaps that it’s taken so long.