The nations of the UK: from resentment to respect

It’s widely argued (by people like me) that being in the United Kingdom is harmful to Scotland’s interests. However, it’s a lesser-voiced, though no less valid, argument that Scotland being in the UK is actually harmful to the other nations of the UK as well.

One of the more obvious examples of this is how England (outside London) is often neglected in the political and economic decisions at UK level, with the lack of significant autonomy within England allowing the economic and political might of the private sector-obsessed London to dictate the show. Of course, the first moves towards regional assemblies in England were defeated, but I am sure that many in England would argue that the issue is worth revisiting these years later; if not in the same form then some other, perhaps involving stronger local government.

Another argument – perhaps less well-founded factually, but still often heard – is that of the UK’s supposed subsidy of Scotland. Why, some in England argue, should we continue to subsidise Scotland’s high public spending?  Surely, they continue, Scotland cannot keep going down the road of having its cake and eating it? Now, this argument is flawed because of course Scotland more than pays its way in the UK and therefore instead the subsidy flows the other direction. But the assumption is clear for many who do not accept that fact. And so they ask why England should suffer because of Scotland’s place within the UK.

Two further examples of how Scotland harms the other parts of the UK emerged in recent weeks, and politically they are more real and more damaging than the ones I cited above.

Corporation tax in Northern Ireland

The first is the reluctance of the UK Government to give Northern Ireland the corporation tax powers it has long demanded. This issue strikes me as remarkable because it is one of the few areas that has widespread endorsement across Northern Ireland’s fractured political landscape, and is an example of how devolution can be a success in creating “normal” political discourse.

Neighbouring the Republic of Ireland as they do, Northern Irish politicians and businessmen see the effect of lower corporation tax across the border, with business being more attracted to the Republic than to the North. If only we could have corporation tax powers devolved to the Northern Irish administration, advocates argue, we could level the playing field and start taking more responsibility for attracting business.

No, says the UK Government. Not for any cogent economic arguments, but for reasons of brazen political desperation. Read this recent article in the Belfast Telegraph. It describes a debate about the Northern Irish economy at the recent Conservative Party conference, and contains an interview with Mike Penning, a UK Government minister in the Northern Ireland Office. He says:

“This is not just about Northern Ireland, it’s about the Union, and the tax system inside the UK.”

He added:

“Scotland is going for a referendum on the break-up of the Union.

“As a unionist, I will do everything in my power to make sure we do not just win the referendum, we smash it for the next generation of people.

“I fully accept that corporation tax is of massive importance to the people of Northern Ireland, but it’s not a silver bullet. There are myriad ways in which Alex Salmond would be able to utilise the argument. What we do not want to do is to help give momentum.”

It’s a surprisingly honest and frank appraisal of the role that cynical politics is playing in the work of the UK Government. In effect, the minister is saying “you can’t have this power, because it could fuel the independence lobby in Scotland.”

To put it even more simply, Northern Ireland’s economic development should be sacrificed in the fight to beat Scotland’s independence movement.

English regiments

The second example of Scotland harming the other nations is on the issue of defence cuts. Scotland has had more than its fair share of defence cuts under the UK Government, with wave after wave of cuts to its regiments, air bases and so on. There has been widespread condemnation of these moves, and there is a perception that such cuts are seriously undermining the argument that an independent Scotland could not defend itself, or that Scotland benefits from UK defence expenditure.

However, there are cuts in England too, and according to this BBC News article it is causing resentment. The article refers to plans to abolish the Second Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF) – an English regiment. The article says that 57 MPs backed a motion (fruitlessly) to stop it happening. The article reports:

MPs accused the government of cutting 2RRF, an English battalion, as a “political fix” to avoid scrapping Scottish battalions ahead of the Scottish referendum.

Conservative MP John Baron, who served in the regiment and who proposed the motion, is quoted as saying

“The government is wrong. Military logic and not political calculation should determine Army cuts.

“I’m a firm believer in the Union but this is not the way to achieve it. In my view, the government’s culpability is demonstrated by its reluctance to justify its decision.”

And he had apparently earlier said

“Government interference to save poorly recruited Scottish battalions smacks of a political fix in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum.”

Now, I’ve no idea about the facts of this, and whether this English regiment really is better recruited than Scottish ones, or whether it is better militarily to cut a Scottish or an English regiment.

Either way, though, John Baron is right in principle to say that “military logic and not political calculation should determine Army cuts”. The problem is, however, that Scotland being a part of the UK makes the political calculation unavoidable for the UK Government. Why cut a Scottish regiment if it fuels the argument that Scotland’s defence needs are poorly served by being in the UK? Surely it’s better to upset England, which is securely within the Union, than another part which is considering leaving?

The dilemma

The UK Government’s view, then, is clear. English army regiments and Northern Irish business growth are both to be sacrificed in an attempt to stop Scotland becoming independent.

Are English soldiers and Northern Irish businesses really more important than Scotland’s place in the Union?

Well, that’s probably an unfair question to have to answer, and that’s precisely my point. Scotland being in the Union is creating unfair and impossible dilemmas, where the risk of staying in is not just felt by Scotland but also extends to other parts of the UK.

Why shouldn’t English regiments be kept if there is military logic behind it, and why shouldn’t Northern Irish businesses be given a competitive edge if that’s what they and their politicians want?

Why should the aggrieved parties in both examples be forced to be pawns in wider political considerations that are not their concern?

It’s a potentially ugly scenario that the nations of the UK could be set against each other like ferrets in a sack. So why, in short, can’t Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and of course Wales not each make reasonable decisions locally without being held back by the others?

The choice

This is the difference between a claustrophobic and imbalanced United Kingdom, and a community of independent nations cooperating with each other as equals. With the former, each administration within the UK is constrained politically or constitutionally by external factors that are none of its business. With the latter, Northern Ireland could raise or lower its corporation taxes to its heart’s content, facing up to the consequences of that power and responsibility, while England could cut or create army regiments according to its own military needs and make judgements on this without recourse to other powers.

These are just the normal powers of normal independent countries. This is not to say, of  course, that independence means a blatant disregard for the well-being of neighbouring countries, and that defence or tax levels should not be changed without an awareness of regional and global repercussions. But that’s precisely where friendly partnership and cooperation comes in. Why can’t the independent nations of the former UK work together where they choose to rather than where a unifying authority dictates they must?

The longer Scotland stays in the UK, the more often these problems will arise. The UK’s claustrophobic constitutional arrangements has created constraints. These constraints in turn lead to competition, resentment and hostility.

If it’s a choice between the nations of the UK being in competition or partnership, and between them resenting each other or respecting each other, then the answer should be clear for all four nations.

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