Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Glimpse Of The Future?

It was the afternoon of Friday 7 May 2010. Following some nail-biting recounts, the final results of the UK General Election were in. After months of polls showing a Conservative lead, a collapse in the Lib Dem vote allied to a last minute swing to Labour had resulted in the first hung parliament at Westminster since 1974.

The Tories had a majority of votes and seats in England. Labour, despite suffering heavy losses at the hands of the SNP, still returned 25 MPs from Scotland. There were bitter scenes at election counts, as Labour candidates, victorious and vanquished, vented splenetic attacks on the ‘nats’ and the ‘numpties’ in the Holyrood Labour group, whom they blamed for their predicament. Despite this, those 25 seats were enough to keep alive the hope that they could remain in office.

The Lib Dems, smarting from a halving of their representation, repeated their demands for PR. However, there was no appetite amongst either Labour or Conservative to comply and after what was being seen as a disastrous result, a consensus developed quickly that the Lib Dems were in no position to play for such stakes. As in the aftermath of the Scottish elections, a feeling began to emerge that the Lib Dems weren’t really serious and would rather slink away to lick their wounds.

All manner of previously unthinkable permutations began to be mooted in a bid to break the deadlock. Slowly, attention turned to the sizeable group of SNP MPs. Unthinkably, the arithmetic had fallen in such a way that the SNP could either return Labour to power, or stand aside to allow the Conservatives to form a minority administration, from whom they could then pull the rug at any time.

Days passed. After copious quantities of caffeine and nicotine, rumours began to circulate of a breakthrough. With Labour emissary Douglas Alexander insisting that the SNP take the Labour whip on English-only matters as the price of any deal, and offering only a Commission without timescale on funding arrangements for Holyrood, SNP negotiators found it easier than expected to walk away and let events run their course.

Correspondents filed excited reports from College Green. Gordon Brown, nails bitten down to the quick, was urged by the loyalists in the last ditch to try and form a ‘national’ government. Receiving bad advice from a fatigued inner circle and with willingness to accept Realpolitik in short supply, it fell in the end to Jack Straw and the Cabinet Secretary to break it to the Prime Minister that his time was up.

Things began to move quickly. The Government Jaguar and Special Branch Range Rover whisked David Cameron to Buckingham Palace. As ever, the honeyed tones of a Dimbleby captured the moment for the benefit of an expectant nation. And there, blinking in the sunlight, Britain had its first Conservative Prime Minister in 13 years, albeit one leading a minority administration.

First Minister Salmond was amongst the first to offer his congratulations, even extending an invitation to meet at an early date at Bute House in Edinburgh. Later that afternoon, a grinning Angus Robertson was spotted walking along Downing Street to hold preliminary talks with Cameron, his Chancellor George Osbourne and the new Scottish Secretary.

Despite feverish speculation, in the end it turned out that no deal had been struck. Without the interference of the SNP, the Conservatives were – just - able to legislate in England. However, the SNP presence was enough to secure early concessions on Council Tax benefit, allowing their Local Income Tax policy to be introduced before the 2011 Holyrood elections. Attendance allowance, withheld in a fit of pique after the introduction of Free Personal Care in Scotland, was also subject to a swift rethink.

It couldn’t last, though. English commentators on both left and right began to fulminate about this ‘Scotsgelt’ and demands to scrap the Barnett formula reached a crescendo. The SNP response was simple – their MPs would vote to end Barnett, but only in exchange for greater financial powers at Holyrood. Faced with the prospect of a new election, Tory backbenchers fell swiftly into line with a policy which many of their senior figures had secretly been favourable towards for quite some time.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government, still riding high in the polls, was looking forward to the 2011 election. Having won fiscal freedom from Westminster, the so-called ‘Wendy Commission’ had been completely outflanked and had collapsed in recrimination. Holyrood’s unionist majority had still voted down the referendum bill, but despite protestations to the contrary, no-one seriously believed that was the end of the matter. For one thing, even if no referendum deal was possible in Edinburgh post 2011, there was now an avenue which could be used to deliver at Westminster.

David Cameron really hadn’t wanted to go down in history as the PM who ‘lost’ Scotland, but eventually, it just seemed like the best option for everyone. With a popular SNP administration in Edinburgh and the party holding the balance of power in London, public opinion had swung against the union on both sides of the border. There seemed little point in delaying the inevitable and by getting rid of Scotland’s MPs, he could get the Westminster majority he craved. In any case, the Tories had opposed devolution all along, and could hardly be blamed for what they had long said would be the inevitable outcome of John Smith’s ‘unfinished business’.

Countries come and countries go, he reasoned through the bottom of a glass of Jura. As it burned on its way down, he reflected that maybe Alex Salmond had been right all along - the Scots would make better neighbours than they had lodgers.


Anonymous said...

Your exercise in speculation is redolent with the confusion of so many who assume , wrongly, that the parliament in Westminster is in some way an English pariament. It is not . It is a British parliament .
There should be fiscal independence for England and Scotland and a divi up of legal responsibility for atributable shares of the British national debt , with an English negotiating committee appointed by an English government to determine the English share .
The English are under no obligation to adhere to any agreement not arrived at by a democratically appointed ENGLISH (not British) committee and reserve the right to repudiate the outcome of any negotiations taken without their specific and legal approval .

Richard Thomson said...

Your exercise in speculation is redolent with the confusion of so many who assume , wrongly, that the parliament in Westminster is in some way an English pariament.

Redolent with confusion? I think not, but look forward to your explanation of this charge nevertheless :-)

You sound like what you really want is English independence rather than the British parliament we have currently. If so, then more power to you as far as I'm concerned.

Anonymous said...

That's the thing isn't it, it would take some weird fluke to give the SNP such power, not a majority of the electorate.

Nevertheless Holyrood should have tax raising powers, it was simply idiotic that it didn't have them from day one. Without that power, or that responsibility, you cannot have responsible government. If the SNP gained votes because enough Scots were thick enough to believe in La La land where everything (such as higher education and student debt) is free, then the financial powers of the parliament (or lack of them) have allowed then to indulge in this type of nonsense and Labour have only themselves to blame.

The sooner this anomaly is rectified the better.

"David Cameron really hadn’t wanted to go down in history as the PM who ‘lost’ Scotland, but eventually, it just seemed like the best option for everyone."

In the scheme of things it would be largely irrelevant, only a few face painting banjo strummers north of the border believe that Scotland is important to England, the vast majority of English couldn’t give a toss and would certainly not hold it against Cameron, indeed they wouldn't even notice.

Going southwards interest in Scotland declines sharply once you are past Carlisle, and long before you reach Leeds you find people only have a vague awareness that there is somewhere further north.

Richard Thomson said...

That's the thing isn't it, it would take some weird fluke to give the SNP such power, not a majority of the electorate.

Such are the vagaries of First Past The Post, Anon #2. Still, I bet it's been a while since any Westminster government was elected with a majority of votes, rather than just getting most of the total votes cast.

You're right about the financial powers needing to have been there from the start. Still, a recent study by Oxford Economics estimated Scotland raising about £48bn in taxes and spending about the same (inc. share of defence, etc).

Given the UK deficit of £42bn this year, that would be a healthy situation in which to be if Scotland were independent. The link that there should be between government and those being taxed isn't nearly as strong in Scotland as it should be - introducing it could only be a good thing for accountability.

I think there's a fair bit of truth in what you say about attitudes, or even the lack of them, towards Scotland amongst some folk in England. In my view that's neither particularly good nor bad - it's just the way it is. Hopefully, independence would see a relationship based on a bit more mutual respect from both sides of the border.



Tommy said...

So would Sir Thomas Sean Connery be returning home with a tan now?
Great post by the way.

Richard Thomson said...

Thanks for your kind words, Tommy, though when it comes to your question, you may have noticed I've been dealing in the generalities rather than the specifics with this post :-)

3 posts from English nats and none from Scots - I'd no idea I'd such a following south of the border..

Normal Mouth said...

Not merely from the south. I also enjoyed it.

Richard Thomson said...

Thanks for the plug, NM.

Penddu said...

Nice scenario - but I prefer England to become independent rather than Scotland - because it would also deliver Welsh independence!

Anonymous said...

Whatever the thoughts anyone may have on this matter it seems to
me that the only fair way to deal with the issue is for full decentralisation of the U.K.
In common with Scotland, Wales should be given its own elected parliament so also should England.
The House of Commons with its 659 M P's should be dissolved and the building used to accomodate the English parliament with a realistic representation.
The House of Lords shuld also be dissolved and used to accomodate the M E P's who would form a Federal government attending to their existing role together with Defence and Foreign affairs for the whole of the U.K.
This would give autonomy to all three countries together with a Federal unit where there is common ground.
The Irish people once freed from the legacy of a colonial past are perfectly cabable of governing themselves as a member of the E.U.

Anonymous said...

get ready for hung parliament!