Re: Regionalism.. line forms to the Left....

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Wed Sep 05 2001 - 03:23:30 MDT

On Tue, Sep 04, 2001 at 06:46:58PM -0400, Brian Phillips wrote:

> Jeff's responses were as follows and I would like commentary
> from the West Coast, Canadian and British members of the list.
> 1. The Scottish National Party will likely grow from being the
> Official Opposition in the (new) Scottish Parliament to
> making a fair go at Scottish independance.

I can't talk about the other parts with any authority, but as I live
in Scotland here's my take on the situation. Remember to correct for
whatever you perceive as being my ideological bias! Especially bear
in mind that I'm not Scottish -- I'm an incomer, from Yorkshire (with
ancestors who got out of Poland one jump ahead of a pogrom).

Basically, the Scottish situation all depends on how the SNP play their
cards -- and how the government in Wesminster plays _its_ cards.

Scotland used to be socially conservative with a small-c; it still is, to
some extent, especially in the highlands and islands, but 70% of the
population currently lives in a lowland belt running from Glasgow to
Edinburgh (fifty miles apart) via the M8 corridor. This is an urban
and increasingly sophisticated population, albeit with pockets of
horrible social deprivation where rust belt industries shut down. The
M8 corridor, in contrast, is one of the UK's technological hot-spots,
sometimes referred to as "silicon glen".

Up until 1979, the Scottish Nationalist Party was basically a sideshow.
Nicknamed "the tartan tories" they were a rather right-wing minority
party in the highlands. Relevence: zip.

In the 1950's, Scotland mostly voted Conservative; until the Conservatives
began taking the Scots for granted. Big mistake. Labour made slow but
steady progress, until by 1980 or thereabouts it was just about the main
party in Scotland.

Then Margaret Thatcher was elected.

Thatcher made an interesting electoral calculation. Her government
majority was dependant on getting an absolute majority of the MP's elected
to parliament on a regional basis. Her first actions in government were
to cut off a lot of state-run industries at the ankles. Because the
industries she went for were rust-belt smokestack ones, the blow fell
disproportionately on the north of England and on Scotland, where the
heavy engineering was traditionally based.

Thatcher's electoral calculation only became explicit at the 1983
election; basically it could be summed up as "piss on the scots". Scotland
returned about 60 MP's to parliament in those days, of which maybe
20 were Conservative. Thatcher could turn death squads loose north
of the border, and all it could lose her were about 20 MPs. However,
tactics that hurt the industrial infrastructure (of the north) but were
good for the financial services and agriculture sectors (in the south)
would get her up to 150 additional MPs. Ergo, from Thatcher's point of
view, Scotland could piss in a boot: she was going to run the UK strictly
on behalf of the south-east of England.

An example of the disdain with which she treated Scotland; the Poll Tax.
This didn't make much news outside the UK, but it's the tax policy that
ultimately led to Thatcher's down-fall. It was introduced in Scotland a
year ahead of England, explicitly as a pilot project (coincidentally
violating the terms of the 1707 Act of Union between the two nations) and
provoked the biggest tax rebellion in British history.

Even after Thatcher resigned, her successors in the Major governments
followed the same policies towards Scotland: they ran it as a colony
rather than a state, because the same electoral calculation applied. The
issue of North Sea Oil complicated things, too. According to figures
from the Central Office of Information (_very_ quietly leaked just before
the 1997 election) 40 billion more in taxes were raised in Scotland than
were spent there during the 1980's. While the lion's share of this was tax
on fuel, you can imagine the resentment it caused in a country where there
were large and horrendous patches of poverty left over from Thatcher's
early 1980's closure of steel mills, shipyards, and coal mines.

These policies culminated in the conservative's electoral disaster of 1997,
in which they were literally wiped out, north of the border: as in, every
single one of their sitting MP's lost his seat, and they were eliminated
as a parliamentary party in Scotland.

While Thatcher and her successors were committing electoral suicide north
of the border by thinking globally and misbehaving locally, the other
parties were not idle. The SNP went through a major reformist patch in
the 80's, realised that to even *look* conservative would be electoral
suicide, and repositioned themselves to the left. Labour ... as a
libertarian Glaswegian friend of mine puts it, "in Glasgow, you could
put up a plank with a red rosette and it'd be elected". Labour was simply
the natural party of government, with >50% of the votes. The Liberal/SDP
Alliance had some popularity and managed to build on it, especially after
they formerly merged and formed the Liberal Democrat party, but they were
basically competing with the SNP for second place.

Now, fast-forward to the present.

The Blair government was elected with two agendas: a radical agenda and a
conservative agenda. The conservative agenda: to stick to the former
Conservative government's economic plans. In point of fact, former
Conservative chancellor (and current leadership contender) Ken Clarke
has described New Labour as being economically to the right of his wing
of the Conservative party. However, New Labour has a _very_ radical
constitutional agenda. This included, in 1997, abolition of the House
of Lords and its replacement by an elected Senate, introduction of a Bill
of Rights, Freedom of Information Act, and possibly a written Constitution,
devolution (state government) for Scotland and Wales, tighter integration
with the EU, and possible membership of the Euro zone (single currency).

Bits of the constitutional agenda have fallen by the wayside: New Labour
is as addicted to power as the Conservatives used to be -- the conservatives
seem to have lost it in that respect -- and Blair found it more convenient
to have a rump, appointed House of Lords than to replace it with a possibly
fractious and disobedient Senate. But the Devolution vote went through on
the nod in New Labour's first twelve months -- leading to a pro-devolution
referendum and regional government elections in 1999.

Before the New Labour victory of 1997, the Scottish Nationalists were
gaining ground rapidly, up to 30% of the vote; but once New Labour
rammed through devolution plans, the festering boil of resentment against
colonial rule from the south was lanced; most people seem to have decided
to wait and see how their own regional administration works out. The
Scottish assembly has quite a lot of power: it's easier to say what it
doesn't have than what it does have. It doesn't have defense or foreign
relations responsibilities. It can't negotiate treaties, or vary taxes
by more than 4% either way. It's got total control over criminal law with
one exception -- drugs policy was retained by the Home Office down south.
Otherwise, almost all domestic Scottish legislation is now debated and
voted on in Edinburgh. From being run as a colony, Scotland has acquired
a degree of political autonomy comparable to, or greater than, that of
a US state.

The remaining festering constitutional problem is the West Lothian
Question, so named because it was asked by MP Tam Dalyell. The question
is this: If English MPs can no longer vote on Scottish issues, why do
Scottish MPs still sit in the English parliament? So far, it's been
answered by Scottish MP's simply refraining, voluntarily, from voting on
England-only issues. But it's a constitutional mess that needs resolving
-- trouble is, it seems to call for a separate English parliament and
a formal federal system.

Now, as to the future ...

The SNP have about 25% of the vote. The LDP have about 25% of the vote.
(While the LDP is a British party, they're willing to consider Scottish
independence if a majority the people vote for it in a referendum.) New
Labour has about 40% of the vote, and the Conservatives have a rump 10%.

It remains possible for the government in Westminster -- regardless of who
they are -- to shoot themselves in the head north of the border and do
something horrendously unpopular. If that happens, support for the SNP
will probably rocket. Election terms in the UK are not fixed, but the
next Scottish election is due in 2002, and terms are 4-5 years long. If
such an event happens shortly before an election, watch out for an SNP/LDP
coalition and a referendum on independence for Scotland.

In practice, a majority of Scottish voters are currently disinclined to
leave the UK (although a core of 20-30% favour outright independence). But,
as I said, that could be aggravated; at the peak of the Thatcher/Poll Tax
mess, support for independence shot up to over 50%.

It's worth noting that according to figures released by the SNP, Scotland
as a separate economy fits the Maastricht single currency convergence
criteria quite well. The SNP want Scotland to go independent within the
European Union, which contains quite a few other countries with a high
tech industrial base and a population on the order of 5 million.

I expect that if the UK joins the Euro zone, the question will ultimately
become trivial: one of legal jurisdiction within a federal superpower, i.e.
does the UK join as two or three states, or as one.

One point to note: every so often the newspapers go on about insults and
violence directed at incomers from the south (and at asylum seekers). Speaking
as a non-Scot living in Scotland, I haven't seen any of that. But then,
I'm from the North of England.

> ... Is a series of seccessions by
> left-leaning regions Jeff's wishful thinking or a reasonable possibility?

Yes, it's possible. During the Thatcher years it even seemed likely;
currently the government in Westminster is smart enough to realise
this and take measures to defuse the pressure. But the critical point
to note is that it is not nationalism based on hyperpatriotism so much
as nationalism based on rejection of an unwanted external influence.

> I have always thought of regionalism as a "right" leaning conservative
> phenomena...Aztlan and Dixie ...not Alaska, Quebec and Scotland.

For the classic example of nationalism and secession in a left-wing
context, consider Yugoslavia and the late USSR. It's not just a right-
wing phenomenon. I think the real secessionist problem may turn out to
be post-communist China ...

-- Charlie

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