This has been a packed month of intrigue and shifting sands in UK constitutional politics, starting with news that polls show support for Independence stiffening not collapsing in recession – and culminating in this weeks (conspicuously under-reported) visit of the First Minister to the USA , and today’s strange conversion of all political parties around ‘Devolution Max’ or is it ‘Independence Lite’?
The much traduced Calman Commission has been faced with the conundrum of being meaningless or being a thorn in the side of Brown’s attempt to rule Britannia.
Just as the ‘downturn’ – the euphemism we are all still coyly clinging to – has revealed the relations between us and the banks, the ‘regulators’ (sic) and the State, the ongoing constitutional disassemblage is revealing the relationship between Labour, the media and the British Establishment.
Today as Radio 4 reported the meeting between Gordon Brown and the leaders of the devolved nations, here’s how David Thompson reported the scenario: “All sides taking part in today’s meeting say it won’t be about banging tables or banging heads together. But while there may be a desire to reach consensus, significant divisions do exist. Gordon Brown wants the UK Govt to make efficiency savings worth £5 billion pounds. The SNP Govt says that would mean £500 million in Scotlands budget and would be economic madness. The other devolved administrations are also opposed. The Scottish Govt is also talking about greater – and ultimately – full control of Scotland’s finances, a demand rejected by Gordon Brown. Todays meeting in Downing Street will test whether Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish leaders can put party politics to one side and work with the British Govt to protect the UK as a whole from the global economic crisis.”
You’ll note that in BBC Editorial analysis the leaders of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland don’t represent the democratically elected will of their nations but narrow party politics. Britain is the one and only common arena, and to think otherwise is regressive parochialism.
It’s worth transcribing in full because it exposes an extraordinary level of anglocentricity in our notionally ‘national’ media (paid for by us all). The view given by the Today programme is of course jaundiced in the extreme, but is also overtaken by events. How will today’s emerging consenus between all parties in Holyrood square with this mornings report? As the Scotsmans Political Editor Hamish McDonell wrote: “Radical changes to the Scottish Parliament – including the addition of sweeping new financial powers – appeared inevitable last night, after both Labour and the SNP announced major reviews of their approach to the devolution settlement.”
The SNP are clearly thinking fiscal autonomy will be further stepping stones to independence, while the Liberals and the Labour are presumably assuring themselves it will assuage nationalist fervour. What does Gordon Brown think, and how will this play with his ongoing if incoherent Britishness project?
Death of the Scottish Press
The role of the media in all of this is crucial, and not just the haplessly English Radios 1 through 6 and Televisions equivalent. This week the Scottish Press, a bastion of Unionism, announced to anyone who was still interested that it was folding like a discarded Sunday Post. As Christopher Harvie wrote presciently in the Guardian not so long ago, “High time to assist the slump in taking a meat-cleaver to the established media and its daft cults of celebrity…With any luck, the present downturn will last long enough to wreck the economics of the conventional press and its ganglions.” Too true.
Things may get worse not better, as Kevin Williamson points out at The Scottish Patient looking at the new editor of the Scotsman.
This week the Sunday Mail and Daily Record reported job cuts of 70, just after the unthinkable – the merger of the Scotsman and the Herald was seriously suggested by a former editor of the Edinburgh paper. The Scottish Press may be suffering the same crisis of the digital age but it suffers too from having no owner or publisher willing to back the independence line suported by – at last showing a growing 44% of the nation.
The Times – to its credit – ran a story last week that exposed one of the greatest myths of British Politics, that the Labour Party ‘gave’ Scotland devolution. This is a nonsense. The Labour Party and the British State opposed it since the early 1970s and were forced to concede devolution by a realist faction within the party and an overwhelming civic society movement. The story, ‘Secret plan to deprive independent Scotland of North Sea oil fields’ written by Magnus Linklater and George Rosie exposes documents detailing secret government plans in the 1970s to prevent Scotland laying claim to North Sea oil.
The lengths to which the British State and the Labour Government were to go to prevent the will of the Scottish people being expressed makes extraordinary reading, for anyone not familiar with this history. One Treasury official even proposed that a local campaign for independence in Orkney and Shetland should be encouraged so that Scotland would be denied access to more than half the North Sea oil.
In a neat contemporary twist, among those advising Labour ministers was Sir David Walker, who is investigating the banking crisis for the present Government. As assistant secretary at the Treasury, he wrote in May 1975 that “progress toward devolution should be delayed for as long as possible”.
The Times story about the UK Governments plot to derail the SNP’s “It’s Scotland’s Oil” campaign during the 1970s – actually appeared first on BBC Alba. ‘Dìomhair’ (Secret), produced by independent TV production company, Caledonia TV, was written by George Rosie. Dìomhair revealed how, for more than half a century, successive Conservative and Labour Governments set aside their antipathy to share a common agenda: stopping the march to independence.
As one nationalist commentator wrote: “If you missed it first time around, you can see it again on BBC Alba, (if you can receive it) on March 6th at 9PM. What chance Newsnight Scotland doing their own special investigation, like the one they did recently about the rise of Anti Englishness? Don’t hold your breath.” The point he is making is that BBC Alba, Scotland’s Gaelic channel, isn’t available on Freeview, unlike such cultural necessities as Smile TV, Heat and QVC.
Plus ca change. Dirty Tricks are more subtle these days.