Two Fantasies and a Fact
It is worth remembering what Gordon Brown actually said in his first intervention under the Better Together banner (22nd April, and already almost forgotten), which was seen by most commentators last week as principally about pensions; but which produced a notable summation of Brown’s Unionist ideology, discovered in this heartfelt remark: “the patriotic vision I share of a Scottish Parliament …. …. is part of a system of pooling and sharing risks and resources across the UK”. The mechanics of scale is at the core of Better Together’s whole appeal: 60m people are (fairly obviously) more than 5m. The dazzling power of numbers, of quantification, of reductionism seems to work as an argument, at least at a first-glance, a naive presumption, or a simple-minded level; until you ask two simple questions. First, whose resources are being pooled; second, whose risks are being shared?
North Sea Oil has certainly been a pooled UK resource from the 1970s; but while the Shetlands, with commendable spirit, managed to ensure there was a fund established to allow it to invest some modest share in its own long-term future, neither Scotland nor even the UK received a prudent, husbanded share of the rewards; instead the UK taxation of oil resources raised historically exceptional revenues that were squandered by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to further her political ideology, including the cold dismantling of Scotland’s economy. Whatever benefits accrued to London or more vaguely the UK; both in reality and perception Scotland did not thrive at the cutting-edge of 1980s material success; much of it generated by the North Sea. At the same time Scottish regiments (most now in turn dismantled) have been ‘pooled’ to fight in the Falklands, Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan.
Scotland’s great banking system was first ‘pooled’ in 1986 with the implementation of Big Bang. The leading Scottish retail banks, RBS and the Bank of Scotland (BoS), hitherto an integral part of the elaborate, complex and delicately balanced ‘Union’ of Scotland and England that had long allowed the traditions of Scottish banking to develop with considerable freedom and autonomy from London; had indeed ensured that a different, distinctive and more cautious culture of banking had developed and thrived in Scotland within the Union; which incidentally, had produced a Scottish banking sector with a negligible presence in investment or merchant banking as that risky and aggressive area had grown in the increasingly loosely regulated environments of either Wall Street or the City of London. All this changed with Big Bang; Scottish banking lost its distinctive character, its independence from London. Scottish banking was driven into the City financial conglomeration mania for vertically integrated banking (ironically at the very time in the late 1980s and 1990s that conglomeration was being abandoned in virtually every other business sector, as a redundant model following the globalisation of industry, trade and markets). At the same time the City of London drastically deregulated itself under the (risible) Thatcher theme of ‘light-touch regulation’; which we can now see, without any surprise, proved to be the application of no effective regulation at all; ending with the seduction even of New Labour by the City and a new, nugatory regulatory regime.
Perhaps most critically of all, however Scotland lost its hard-earned, long valued and distinctive banking culture: a calamity that was scarcely noticed at the time. The combination of Scotland losing its banking culture, with City deregulation proved, in retrospect, to have been catastrophic for the major banks in Scotland. It may be said of the demise of so much of the traditions of Scottish life and business in the 1980s, that few in Scotland embraced Thatcherism so warmly as the accountants or other non-banking parvenus first entering Scottish banking from this time, and who rose to pre-eminence in the post-Big Bang banking world. This radical transformation of Scottish banking was done in the name of Britain – of the Union; and it serves as a timely reminder that Unionism has not conserved the Union, as Better Together so often and blindly claims; but has actually slowly undermined the Union.
Following ‘Big Bang’, RBS and BoS were faced with the prospect of being taken over by far larger, aggressive, integrated, City of London financial predators; or becoming City of London predators themselves. The rest, as they say, is history; although while RBS used BoS’s move for NatWest (1999) to snatch the prize, it is now conveniently forgotten that BoS in consequence immediately became identified as vulnerable prey; ripe for takeover, in the event by Halifax (called in the political euphemism of the time, a ‘merger’). Scottish banking as developed by the Union was effectively being extinguished by the imposition of Big Bang in 1986, and what we had in consequence is that all UK banking was relentlessly incorporated into the City of London, a surreptitious union within a Union: the triumph of a City State over an old Union.
The City of London marched to the beat of a different drum, stridently marching into the Credit Crunch abyss, to the tune of the Financial Instability Hypothesis; with all the appalling consequences we have seen in the Credit Crunch: consequences still incongruously (inexplicably) being played out in further losses made or provisions revealed, if not in fines and penalties in the US (large) or UK (derisory) by the authorities, no less than seven years after the Crash; with the final, grim account still being quantified. When it is stated that on Independence, all that will happen to RBS is that a brass plate will shift to London, this is nothing more than recognition of longstanding reality: the Death Warrant of Unionist Scottish Banking had been signed not in the Credit Crunch or the bail-out, but in October, 1986 with Big Bang.
This is what Gordon Brown and Better Together actually mean by ‘pooling resources and risks’. The City of London takes the risks; and in the UK (including Scotland) we all pool our resources in order to stand behind the risks by London for returns nobody sees and on which little or no tax is paid (since it will be set off first against astronomical losses), or we all invest in London’s infrastructure; in either case everyone finances London’s future no matter the return it provides, which we are supposed vicariously to admire – as sufficient reward; alternatively, we can all move to London – but if you wish actually to have a home, prices may drive you to live as far away as Southampton, and commute.
Such is the nature of the Union today. It is not only Welfare or the NHS (in England) which are being dismantled by Westminster Governments (past and present), but the Union itself; and we may advisedly ask, for what – the hegemony of London?