This gentle piece by David Morgan @anotherscotland acts as both another in our Journeys to Yes series and also a superb entry-level History of Home Rule.
What sort of Britain would you like to be a citizen of?
That’s a question that I decided to ask myself a few months ago. It was prompted by the continual assertion, mainly from Labour politicians, that those of us who support the return of Scottish independence are some kind of dyed-in-the-wool fanatics. Born into the cause from day one, brandishing independence as the universal cure for all ills.
That was simply never the case for me (if indeed it is for anyone). My own journey to Yes took the best part of a decade, stretching from the early nineties through to the early 2000s, but eventually I was won over and became absolutely committed to the idea. Or so I though, until these politicians started taking it upon themselves the make sweeping assumptions about who I am and what my views are.
I was getting quite worked up about this kind of presumption, but I was determined not to let them get to me, and so I set myself a challenge. I flipped the issue on its head and asked myself whether there was a potential version of Britain that I would be happy to live in and be a citizen of.
The results were quite startling because not only was I able to come up with just such an alternative version of Britain, but I was able to come up with it pretty quickly as well. It was easy to do because my whole idea for how to reshape Britain rested on two very simple and straightforward changes.
The first of these changes would be to abolish our current electoral system and replace it with elections based on meaningful proportional representation at every level of government.
The second change would be to abolish the Westminster parliament as it currently stands and to replace it with a federal system of government that would grant significant autonomy, not just to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but to each of the English regions as well. Whatever central government remained would be solely responsible for areas such as defence, international relations and monetary policy. Control over almost everything else would rest directly with the regional and national parliaments.
The reason why those two changes are at the heart of my vision for an alternative Britain is because I believe that over time they would inevitably begin to deliver all of the other specific policy changes that I would like to see. From the restructuring of our entire economy away from it’s destructive focus on the City of London, to the abolition of Trident, to the maintenance of health and welfare policies based on need rather than the ability to pay, all manner of changes would start to flow once the electorate was handed the power to have a genuine and meaningful say in which policies should be pursued.
Now perhaps some people might view that as a bit of a novel little fantasy – perhaps a bit pie in the sky. In reality both of those ideas are neither new nor innovative. Indeed the idea of ‘Home Rule all Round’ (involving separate parliaments for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales) emerged as far back as the 1870s, eventually winning over the support of William Gladstone. The truth is that if anything like the kind of change that I would like to see for Britain was ever going to become reality then it would already have happened more than 130 years ago.
The reason why it didn’t is because the entire development of politics in Britain has been built on a long history of fudges and compromises. Ever since the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the ruling classes have only ever surrendered any degree of liberty and control whenever they have felt directly threatened, and each time they have only surrendered the bare minimum that they feel they can get away with.
Just look at the history of the right to vote. In order to achieve a universal franchise for all of those over the age of 18 it took no less than 7 separate acts of parliament spread over the course of 137 years. The passage of most of those acts can be mapped directly alongside the history of radical reform movements around the world. The aftermath of the American and French Revolutions eventually led to the Reform Act of 1832. The Chartist movement and the Europe-wide Revolutions of the 1840s paved the way for the Reform Act of 1867. The Suffragist movement and the sacrifices of the First World War led the Representation of the People Acts of 1918 and 1928.
When it comes to the question of Home Rule for Scotland we can chart a similar timeline. In the 1880s it was the growing calls for Irish Home rule, combined with the pressures of a single parliament having to manage the business of an entire global Empire, that first led to Gladstone’s plans for change. He didn’t succeed, and having failed to introduce the federalist reforms that were so desperately needed Westminster then went on to spend the next 40 years toying and tinkering with proposals for Home Rule.
Eventually, sick of waiting around for Westminster to get its act together, the Irish decided to take matters into their own hands and forge their own way in the world. It is not stretching credibility to suggest that if Gladstone’s reforms had been successful in the 1880s then the Republic of Ireland could have possibly continued on as a part of the UK for much longer, if not right up to the present day.
Between the wars Labour had thrown it’s weight behind Scottish Home Rule. In 1918 Home Rule was listed in 3rd place on the party’s list of manifesto priorities ahead of housing, pensions and education, but by 1929 it had fallen to last place on a list of 63 policies. By the time of the 1945 election that brought Clement Attlee to power the policy no longer even appeared in their manifesto.
Despite all of its manifest achievements in establishing the NHS and the welfare state as we (used) to know it, the idea of devolution ran entirely counter to the Attlee Government’s aims. Centralisation brought with it power, and the government that was responsible for nationalising railways, mining and healthcare was never likely to start handing away that power the moment that they had created it.
But even though the Attlee Government shelved previous commitments to Home Rule ordinary Scots did not give up on the idea. Between 1949 and 1950 the Scottish Covenant movement managed to raise 2 million signatures for a petition calling for the creation of a Scottish Parliament. Bear in mind that this was long before the days of ‘clicktivism’. In order to sign up to that petition people actively had to make the effort to leave their own homes, travel down to their local church or town hall and potentially stand in line waiting to sign their name. But despite the fact that more than half of the entire electorate signed up to this petition their calls still went unheard and were quickly forgotten.
On a personal level one of the things that I find most amazing about the Scottish Covenant is the fact that this happened within the living memory of my own parents. My father was aged 15 when the petition was completed. So why is it that the first time that I properly learned about these events was around 2 years ago, reading about them in a book on Welsh and Scottish Nationalism that was written in the 1950s by an Englishman, and which I came across by pure random chance in a second hand bookshop in Liverpool?
The process of nationalising Britain’s industrial economy helped lock Scotland more tightly into the Union, and as the Scottish Covenant movement faded into obscurity Scots bought into the idea of a society geared towards supporting all. That was fine as long as it lasted, but as Britain entered in the 1970s a series of economic crises, allied with the recent discovery of North Sea oil, meant that support for the SNP was suddenly on the increase. As was ever the case when its authority was challenged Westminster realised that something needed to be done.
Home Rule was once more brought off the shelf and dusted down in the Callaghan governments Scotland Act of 1978. So far, so simple. But as the Bill was receiving its final reading a Scottish backbench Labour MP called George Cunningham (who actually represented Islington South and Finsbury in London), successfully introduced an amendment specifying that in order for the referendum to be successful at least 40% of the entire electorate would have to vote in favour, regardless of how many people actually turned out to vote. It was a spectacular travesty of democracy that famously led to a position where the dead were effectively counted as having voted no.
In the event Scots voted in favour of Home Rule by a margin of 51.6% for and 48.4% against. I imagine that the day after the referendum Cunningham must have felt pretty pleased with himself. I wonder if he would have been quite so satisfied if had known that his actions were about to bring about the collapse of his own government, and that they would lead directly to his entire party spending the next 18 years in the political wilderness.
Whenever anyone attempts to tell me that we have the Labour Party to thank for the creation of the Scottish Parliament I simply reply “No – we have the Labour Party to thank for the fact that it took more than 55 years longer than it ought to have done for us to have a Scottish Parliament”.
And so we come full circle to today and the desperate scramble that is now emerging amongst the Unionist parties to come up with a raft of supposed give-aways that offer the bare minimum that they think they can possibly get away with.
Even is we believe that those offers are sincere and can believed the one thing that no Unionist politician will tell you is that those powers come at a cost. Up until the creation of the Scottish Parliament Scotland returned 72 MPs to Westminster. In 2005 that number was reduced to 59 MPs to reflect the change in the balance of power and responsibilities. If any form of enhanced devolution does come about then that number will be reduced still further – probably to somewhere in the 30s. And that is important, because no matter how much power Westminster devolves they will never give up certain things.
In the space of 20 years Scots will have been reduced to having half as much say over whether or not we are dragged into illegal foreign wars. We will have half as much say over the renewal or abolition of Trident. And yes – we will have half as much say over whether or not a Labour government gets elected in the rest of the UK.
Neither the Tories or Labour have a single thing to say on how they will use constitutional reform to improve the lives of people in England. And the unfortunate truth is that as long as the people of England show no interest in agitating for constitutional reform then my vision for Another Britain will have no chance of ever getting off the starting blocks.
The 2004 referendum on the creation of a regional parliament for the North East of England put paid to any hopes for the establishment of a federal Britain within the foreseeable future. Meanwhile the Faustian pact that the Liberal Democrats signed up to in order to secure a referendum on AV poisoned any trust that the electorate might have had in any policies that they care to bring forward. And for all of this time the West Lothian question still continues to go unanswered – a travesty of democracy that has no place in any parliament worth the name.
A few months ago I was lucky enough to meet someone in my profession who I’ve always greatly admired and respected. We were having dinner together and he started talking about how he refuses to allow clutter into his life. Every year he goes through his wardrobe and gets rid of all the stuff that he no longer uses. He tries to avoid buying books, and those that he does buy he gives away as soon as he has read them. I remember clearly how he put it:
“If you don’t get rid of all the old junk then there is no space for anything else. There’s no room for beautiful new things to come into your life. And you know what – sometimes when you’re having that clear out you come across something beautiful that you forgot that you ever had and you can get the pleasure and joy of discovering it and using it again.”
The UK is like that. A decrepit old wardrobe, crammed to overflowing with all of the stifling constitutional junk that has accumulated over the centuries.
Enough. It’s time for a clearout. It’s time to allow something beautiful and new to enter all of our lives.