The big idea which has driven Scottish politics for the last four decades or so isn’t, it turns out, very big, nor all that much of an idea. It’s the notion that Scotland is different from England. True in some very obvious senses – different landscape and history, distinct culture, in language, literature, music and art, and unique Scottish institutions. All things to be enjoyed, indeed treasured. But in politics how different are we? Perhaps not so much as we think.
Certainly if you ask people in England and Scotland what they want from politics and government, and what their priorities are, you get pretty much the same answer. It changes over time, but not all that much from place to place. Just at the moment, for example, the cost of living and the health service dominate public concerns everywhere. Educating the young and looking after the elderly typically feature as well, as do green issues. Not surprising: nowadays, these are core functions of modern government.
At Our Scottish Future we’ve been digging deeper into public opinion across Britain. The results are illuminating. We asked people in Scotland not how they felt about England, but about their attitude to different parts of England. They felt common cause with people from Manchester, from the Northeast and so on, and indeed with people from Wales as well. What was the exception? London. This is a bit paradoxical. In some ways London more resembles how Scotland likes to think of itself than much of England does. London is anti-Brexit, pro immigration, and increasingly electing left of centre politicians.
In fact it seems pretty likely that ‘London’ is a proxy in Scottish opinion for the elite which is seen as running Britain’s highly centralised state – in a crude caricature, posh, plummy Home Counties conservative types holding the reins of economic and political power in the City of London and in Westminster.
And here we get the second paradox. England absolutely agrees with Scotland on this. The two thirds of England that is not London and the South East resents the centre’s economic and political dominance just as much as Scotland does, and with even more reason. The fact is that Britain is the most politically centralised and economically unbalanced large country in the developed world.
This affects England even more than Scotland. Over recent decades almost every governmental decision affecting England, from the national to the local, has been drawn in and taken by Ministers or officials in Whitehall. Scotland at least has devolution to Holyrood, though it too is badly infected by the centralising virus. All of England’s regions outside the Southern and Eastern corner are actually less well off than Scotland, as indeed are Wales and Northern Ireland.
There are two possible political reactions to this deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. The first is the appeal to national sentiment, linking people’s resentment to their proper feelings of patriotism and national identity. We’ve seen that in both England and Scotland. In England it hasn’t ended well. English nationalism was cynically managed to focus not on London, which was the root of England’s problems of centralisation and economic imbalance, but on Europe, which wasn’t. The result was Brexit, which an increasing majority of the population now realise was a bad mistake.
Looking at England from the Scottish end of the telescope, it is easy to see how simplistic nationalist prescriptions made the problems they claimed to solve worse, not better. In essence, that is because different tasks of government need to be done at different geographical levels, because that’s where they work best. Some European, some national, some regional or local. But nationalism thinks everything must be done nationally. The lesson for Scotland is obvious, and there are now a few in the Scottish nationalist community trying to re-imagine independence taking this reality into account.
Which take us to another approach: to do something about the UK’s hypercentralised and imbalanced political and economic system. For Scotland, that must mean making common cause with the two thirds of England which shares its priorities and concerns. If we are to make Britain work better for Scotland, we have to change it so that it works better for Manchester, or Leeds, and Wales too.
That means linked change in both Britain’s economic and its political system. Economically, we can no longer rely on a system which turbocharges the commercial economy of London and the southeast, hoping that the benefits trickle down, somehow, to the other nations and regions. That means a new economic development approach which builds on local strengths and opportunities, and is locally led, rather than the uniform Whitehall-led approach, which has not worked. So for the regions and cities of England, it means real new political and economic power, rolling back decades of centralisation.
Some of this is beginning, just, to happen, but it needs to be much deeper and more thoroughgoing, including profound reforms to the central institutions of the UK state to rebuild the structures which embed Britain’s over-centralisation. That is certainly far more than the present UK government will ever contemplate, but is on the agenda of a potential Labour administration in future.
So too is the scope to build common cause between the nations and regions. This week, in Edinburgh, Our Scottish Future is bringing together elected leaders from Manchester, West Yorkshire, Wales and elsewhere to talk about how we can make Britain work for Scotland, but also for those cities and regions. Looking further ahead, the political clout of elected leaders representing tens of millions of citizens is something no central government will be able to ignore. Perhaps this is a bigger idea to drive our politics for the next decade.
A shorter version of this article was featured in the Times Scotland.