The future of the left since 1884

Why the union matters

The phoney war over Scotland’s constitutional future has finally ended. We now know that Scots will be asked to vote in 2014 on a straight ‘yes or no’ question about whether Scotland should become an independent country. As the real...


The phoney war over Scotland’s constitutional future has finally ended. We now know that Scots will be asked to vote in 2014 on a straight ‘yes or no’ question about whether Scotland should become an independent country. As the real battle for Britain moves centre-stage, how should unionists respond?

Firstly, pro-union forces need to articulate a positive argument for why Scotland is better off in than out. This is so obvious it shouldn’t need saying but so often those who wish to assert the case for keeping Britain together do so by pushing the politics of fear; or worse insinuating that Scotland is not up to going it alone.

Part of the challenge here is that while concerted efforts have been made to champion Scottish devolution, comparatively little effort has been made in recent years to promote a compelling case for the union itself. Paradoxically, the historic pattern of periodically remaking the case for union appears to have fallen into abeyance, right at the moment when the union is under most threat from the forces of nationalism. If the purpose of union in the 18th century was peace and security, the 19th century economic expansion through empire, the 20th century defeating Hitler and building a welfare state – what is its raison d’etre in the 21st?

Oddly part of the answer can be found in the speeches of Alex Salmond. The SNP leader has very shrewdly made a big pitch for what he calls the ‘social union’. For Salmond, the language of social union is a reassurance mechanism: he wants to make clear that under independence the deep social and cultural ties that exist between Scotland and England would continue to flourish. For similar reasons the SNP insist that an independent Scotland would retain a common head of state and a common currency.

But as the historian Colin Kidd argues, the pro-union sides – and Labour in particular – need to reclaim the idea of the social union for themselves, since there is a much stronger and attractive variant of it than can only be sustained through political union.

For a social union to be really meaningful, the people and nations of the UK need to be able to pool financial resources and risks across a larger and more resilient political community than that provided by the constituent nations alone. We know that economic shocks tend to be asymmetric, affecting individuals and regions in different ways and at different times. We also know that different parts of the country vary demographically, with some parts ageing more quickly than others, creating different pressures over time for public services. The alluring idea of union then is that if one part of the UK endures a period of economic or social hardship, it can be supported both by itself and by the other parts.

This can be seen, operating in both directions, in Scotland’s history. Scotland has in recent decades benefited from relatively high levels of welfare spending from the UK pool. But, similarly, oil revenues from what would be Scottish waters contributed very substantially to that UK pool during the 1980s. In a world defined by growing economic insecurity, it this version of the social union – one that shares a common political and fiscal platform – which gives the people and nations of the UK the best chance to prosper.

Such an account of social union is perfectly compatible with further devolution – which brings in the second part of the unionist response.

In the run-up to 2014, unionists must be able to offer a package of enhanced powers for Scotland that provides voters with a clear alternative to independence. Why? This has nothing to do with making concessions to the SNP (as some mistakenly see it) and everything to do with getting on the right side of Scottish public opinion, where a majority support strengthening the powers of their parliament. If unionism is to recapture the political initiative in Scotland it needs to once again champion the devolutionary agenda (a point recognised by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont with her decision to set up a commission to consider new powers).

Underpinning any moves on further powers should be a very simply test: how can we meet the aspirations of the Scottish people and preserve the integrity of the UK? With this in mind it is possible to make a case for boosting Scotland’s income tax powers but it probably precludes devolving corporation tax, since this could lead to harmful beggar-my-neighbour tax competition between England and Scotland. Like-wise it might be sensible to devolve certain parts of the social security system but retain pensions as a UK-wide benefit, on the grounds that pensions are a sacrosanct manifestation of what it means to be a citizen of the UK.

Importantly, any reform package needs to consider the knock-on effects across the rest of the UK, and in particular the implications for England. There is convincing evidence that the English believe they are getting something of a raw deal from a union that they perceive is privileging the interests of the other nations. This suggests the need to reform the way public money is distributed across the UK so that it accords to a principle of need, and to tackle the perennially thorny West Lothian question. If English concerns are not addressed then the social union is diminished, and with it the fundamental case for a 21st century union.

This article first appeared in the Winter Fabian Review.

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