Sunday, May 29, 2011

The pernicious myth that progressives can't hope to win power at Westminster if Scotland becomes independent

It's beginning to dawn on me that if by any chance we do achieve a positive outcome in the independence referendum, Gerry Hassan will be one of the top ten or twenty people we need to thank - the quality and quantity of his output since May 5th has been a sight to behold. I think he hits the nail on the head on a couple of scores in his latest Scotsman piece - firstly, in identifying what lies behind the intemperate words that have been directed towards Scotland by certain London commentators in recent weeks...

"The polemic and rhetoric of Lott and Letts is almost worthy of an English equivalent of that Trainspotting outburst, of satire and sending up. Sadly, it is more serious than that: they are hurting, angry and want to lash out."

The best example of the lack of self-awareness at play here came from Simon Hoggart. In a recent column he claimed to have previously argued the case for Scottish independence on the grounds that the English don't particularly care one way or the other, but had then received complaints along the lines of "we would quite happily be independent, but we can't bear the thought that you don't mind". Curiously, though, when I checked back to see what it was he'd actually said that raised the hackles, it turned out to be this :

1) That Scotland is "subsidised" by the English to the tune of £8 billion a year.

2) That independence would mean we'd have to pay for our own policies of free prescriptions, higher education and care for the elderly (as opposed to having it bankrolled for us by the fabled "hard-pressed English taxpayer", presumably).

3) That the debts of RBS and HBOS could be "repatriated" to Scotland.

4) That the English would no longer have to tolerate coverage of Scottish football matches they don't give a monkey's about. (What coverage?)

5) That the English would no longer have their licence fee money spent on "unwatched" documentaries about "standing stones near Stornoway".

Now, this list of bitter and largely nonsensical grievances can be summed up in many ways, but not as the mark of a man who "doesn't really care".

Secondly, Gerry homes in on the underlying reason why many left-leaning commentators in particular are so fretful about the prospect of Scottish independence -

"There is an English lament for a progressive Britain that has been fading for decades. Some of these ask the age-old question: when will Labour ever be able to govern the UK without Scotland? This seems to be what Scotland is reduced to: a once-reliable voting block that helps save the English from themselves!"

If that really is the sole factor driving some left-of-centre English intellectuals to man the barricades in defence of the union, there ought to be a simple enough remedy. As someone once said, the antidote to fear is knowledge, and as it happens, the notion that Labour can only form governments at Westminster with the assistance of Scottish voters is an out-and-out myth. To demonstrate the point, here are the results of post-war UK general elections if you take away Scottish constituencies...

1945 - Labour majority
1950 - Labour majority
1951 - Conservative majority
1955 - Conservative majority
1959 - Conservative majority
1964 - Labour largest party in hung parliament
1966 - Labour majority
1970 - Conservative majority
Feb 1974 - Conservatives largest party in hung parliament
Oct 1974 - Labour largest party in hung parliament
1979 - Conservative majority
1983 - Conservative majority
1987 - Conservative majority
1992 - Conservative majority
1997 - Labour majority
2001 - Labour majority
2005 - Labour majority
2010 - Conservative majority

So the only clear-cut example of a different 'winner' is February 1974, when there would have been a Tory as opposed to a Labour minority government. Labour would also have had to make do with minority rule in 1964 and October 1974, but in both cases they only had tiny majorities anyway, so it's hard to see that it would have made that much practical difference - perhaps Mrs Thatcher might have made it into power a year or two earlier than she did, but even that's highly speculative. And finally, there would now be a Tory majority government instead of a coalition involving the Lib Dems - but again, would anyone notice the difference?

There is one small caveat - the Tories used to be much stronger in Scotland (they held more than twenty seats as recently as the mid-80s) so on the face of it the chances of Scotland swinging the balance for Labour are somewhat greater now than they once were. But this effect is offset by the 2005 reduction of Scottish seats, and a further reduction relative to the rest of the UK is planned for the next election.

And in any case, all of this assumes that voters in the rest of the UK would behave in exactly the same way if Scotland was no longer around, which is unlikely. One blessing in disguise for Labour in losing the Scottish contingent is that the Tories would relinquish their advantage of looking like the more thoroughly "English" party, which has been such an Achilles heel for the red team since at least the 1980s.

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