Culloden without the bloodshed

A Scottish parliament could spell disaster unless Labour fights for electoral reform at Westminster; Scotland gets more than her fair share of identifiable spending
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The Independent Online
Things happen in Scotland that change England, too. It was 250 years ago today that at Culloden Moor the Jacobite challenge to Hanoverian Britain was finally crushed. The slaughter of Prince Charles's army began the destruction of Gaelic Scotland. But had things gone the other way - had the clans charged earlier, had the wind been in another direction, had Butcher Cumberland's infantry been worse trained - Britain today would have been a different country.

How different? That's an exercise in anti-history, a game for clever, idling minds. Yet our ruling institutions, our political parties, our established churches would surely all have been affected. There would have been other disasters and unknown triumphs - a world in which Trafalgar didn't happen but Queen Veronica the Wicked did. Perhaps we would have been not one different country, but several. At any rate, a quarter-millennium on, Scottish affairs are again likely to loom large for the English future.

The reasons are less violent, but quietly dramatic enough in their way. The resurgence of nationalist sentiment in Scotland and the likelihood of a Labour-sponsored Edinburgh Parliament, which may be up and running by 1999, raise serious questions for the future of the British Union.

In a timely book published today, The State and the Nations, the Labour- leaning think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), addresses many of those questions. Though it deals with Wales and English regional government too, the book focuses clearly on Scotland. And rightly so; for on the answers given to the Scottish questions, much depends - a new decade of nationalist breakup, or a political reform more dramatic than London yet realises.

The best-known of these questions remains Tam Dalyell's "West Lothian Question" - why should Scottish MPs at Westminster be able to vote on English education, health and so on, when English MPs have lost their powers to vote on similar Scottish questions? But Old Tam travels with two companions. Per capita, public spending in Scotland is higher than in England, and Scotland is also over-represented in MPs by about 20 per cent; and English Conservatives are angry about both.

Could all three aspects of Scotland's treatment under the current Union be sustained after the establishment of a Scottish Parliament? Increasingly nationalist English Tory MPs insist not; Labour doggedly says they can.

Here are the makings of an almighty bust-up. Short of turning the UK into a federation, the West Lothian question is unsolvable. The only half- way-house answer would be to take away Scottish MPs' right to vote on England-only legislation.

But that would remove the notion of a Commons government majority. You could have a Labour Prime Minister able, with Scottish MPs, to command secure majorities on, say, foreign affairs, defence and UK taxation, but impotent on English legislation. As the IPPR authors point out: "The prospect of a Blair government in charge of taxation and public spending and a Portillo-led Conservative Opposition gaining control of the NHS and education budgets in England could not possibly be a recipe for stable government."

What, then, of the over-representation of Scottish MPs? Labour is loath to even discuss this because it expects to depend for any future Westminster majority on Scots. Strict proportionality would require cutting the present 72 Scottish seats to 58; 10 of the 14 seats lost would be Labour ones. This might damage the Union as well as Labour, but there are senior English Labour politicians who privately think it just and inevitable.

Then there is the trickiest matter of all - finance. Ministers have been attacking the Scottish Parliament's proposed right to vary income tax by up to 3p in the pound as "Labour's tartan tax". But under the current formula, agreed in 1978, Scotland gets more than her share of clearly identifiable spending; the IPPR suggests that whatever happens to Scottish Home Rule, this is bound to be revisited and "Scotland is likely to face a period of tight spending constraints".

Here is another issue that has the potential for driving the two countries apart. But fully reopening the so-called "needs assessment" would now require the investigation of other public spending ignored in the Seventies, and would inevitably raise question-marks about the huge defence and administrative subsidies to the English south-east and to Northern Ireland. That has been enough to make Tories under Thatcher and Major back off.

How, finally, would the inevitable arguments between Edinburgh and Westminster about their relative roles be dealt with? Through a Scottish Secretary in the Cabinet? Wouldn't that be a recipe for torn loyalties and vicious competition with the new Scottish Prime Minister. More thought is needed, and Labour is finalising plans for the judicial committee of the Privy Council to take on what will be, in effect, a sort of Supreme Court role for Anglo-Scottish disputes.

That sounds fair enough. But if the other answers were all as given above - no change at Westminster, nor in the distribution of seats, nor of money - it is not hard to see how competing Scottish and English nationalisms could emerge in the last years of the century. English Tories would be outraged, and would have found a cause to unite them. Scottish Nationalists, fighting their first Edinburgh election in a Labour government's mid-term year, would be well-placed for ferocious defiance.

But there is another way. Labour is already committed to a voting system for the Scottish parliament which, being proportional, gives the Scottish Tories their best hope of revival north of the Border. If Blair threw his leadership behind voting reform for Westminster, too, then some interesting consequences would follow for the Union.

First, as the IPPR notes, the disparity between Scottish and English representation would be cancelled at a stroke. Second, Scottish Tories, fairly represented in a tax-raising legislature in Edinburgh, would be balanced by a revival of Labour in the English south. This would take a lot of the sting out of the West Lothian question, since it would less likely that Scottish MPs at Westminster would tilt English politics; their party-political mix would be nearer the national one.

And third, the first-past-the-post caricature of Britain which makes Scotland and the north red and the south blue, would be smeared away. The image of Scotland as composed of solid masses of barrack-like housing full of unemployed but inspirational socialists, and of the English south as a vast traffic-jam of headscarf-swathed Tory ladies in Range Rovers would vanish.

So Scotland would look more plural, and England less Conservative; and that would do a lot to take the sting away. Getting there requires a leap of Labour imagination. But not leaping may well mean that Labour, as a Unionist party, eventually breaks up the Union.

Political reform doesn't happen by blueprints or grand plans. It happens because one specific reform, demanded by hard political pressures, provokes the urgent need for another. In this case the electoral pressures on Labour for an Edinburgh parliament may yet provoke electoral reform throughout Britain. That's quite a thought. It would make Scottish Home Rule almost as dramatic a political event in English politics as Culloden was. And a much less bloody one.