England, stop whingeing about a Scottish parliament

Failure is always possible. But what we need in Britain, surely, is more diversity and experiment - not less
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The Independent Online
My English political friends: listen to yourselves - not to your words about a Scottish parliament, but to how you say them!

Yes, devolution would create constitutional anomalies and risks. Yes, these should be pointed at and argued about. But in the reaction from Tory politicians, newspapers and commentators to Opposition plans for an Edinburgh legislature, there is more than proper scepticism. There is an edge, and it is an angry, cutting one.

Suddenly, like livid fungi, ugly old stereotypes are swelling. The Scots are ``whingeing''. They are greedy; idle; taking kind-hearted old England for a ride. They are ``feather-bedded''. They must be made to pay - cut, suffer - for having their parliament.

In fact, when the southern commuter leaves his mortgage-subsidised suburban home to travel by subsidised London public transport to a job in a taxpayer- funded government office, passing electronics and defence factories whose wealth comes from state contracts, and, sitting there, smoulders with anger at the thought of those kilted con artists living so high on the hog in Govan or Graithnock, he is carrying on a long English tradition.

It goes back at least to 1603, and the arrival of King James VI and I in London with his retinue of Edinburgh hangers-on. It grew in heat during the Civil War, blazed brightly after the Act of Union, and still crackled happily in Georgian England.

The self-confidence of the British Empire, a joint project, followed by world wars, subdued English resentment of uppity Scots and helped to cement Britishness. But it remains an uneasy union. The devolution debate has already begun to fan anti-Scottish sentiments at Westminster which are as clear, though thankfully not quite as anatomically precise, as those I and my son endured recently at Twickenham (or Flodden-by-Thames, as we call it now).

I am never quite sure whether English Tory critics of Scottish Home Rule are warning that it might break up the Union, or half-hoping that it will. There should be, at any rate, a proper accounting. If Scottish public spending is higher, because of urban deprivation and rural emptiness, then what about Scotland's contribution to the UK's finances and standing?

What about not only oil and gas, but also Britain's defence posture, with the Trident berths, and her weighted voting in the EU and her seat on the Security Council? This is not to make a petty political-accountant's point, but to remind English readers that there is a deal, an agreement which benefits both sides - yes, you as well.

Would that be terminally jeopardised, as John Major suggests, by Scotland's ability to choose her own way more clearly in education policy, transport strategy and health? If both sides wanted a divorce it could certainly be used as an excuse. But there is no sign that they do. Far from provoking a constitutional crisis, I'd have thought most English voters would barely notice.

What matters is not the West Lothian question (which can have the fizz taken out of it by the removal of some Scottish MPs from Westminster) but the much harder question of whether or not a Scottish parliament can make itself useful. This is the real and so far unanswered challenge for Scottish politics, but it is one with relevance for other democracies, too.

Who needs another pile of bloody politicians, sticking their oar in, when we already pay enough? That is the big question, what we might call the West European question, which should resonate everywhere. Scottish voters, like other voters, are unlikely to call for much higher taxes on themselves. Given that, what real difference could an Edinburgh parliament make?

Intellectually disabled by chronic optimism, I still think the answer, for creative and ambitious politicians, is - a lot. It could show how a modern legislature might free itself of Westminster's Gothick self-importance, and reconnect with sceptical citizens. It could help to rebuild the striking Scottishness of Scottish education, a hard-headed, philosophical style of learning that has been almost, but not quite, forgotten. This would be done not by barring English students, but by reforming the curriculum, and management of schools and universities.

It could finally tackle Highland land reform. It might, perhaps, go further towards environmental politics than the south is ready to. It could create a proper lobby for Scottish interests in Brussels. It could ...

Enough. You get the picture. It is, of course, possible that, instead, a Scottish parliament will consist of beer-slobbering, expense-fiddling third-raters who begin by losing the public's attention, and then throw away its support. But failure is possible for all parliaments everywhere. The interesting question isn't the old, nationalist one of which tribe or territory is covered by which boxful of politicians, but, rather, whether they have the wit and programme to make a difference.

And what we need in Britain, surely, is more diversity and experiment, not less. Scottish charities and public bodies, advocates and educationists, investment houses and ministers are all subtly different in their attitudes and instincts from their rivals in London. Who would wish it otherwise? And we need comparison and competition in political attitudes and political processes as well as in commerce.

We are alive in a multi-ethnic, interwoven country afloat in a similar sort of world. The London-based Independent is part-owned by Irishmen and Spaniards, and edited by a Scot, while The Scotsman is owned, and now edited, by the English.

Chippiness should be kept for the sports arenas and the back bar. What matters is what is done, and how well - not, any longer, who does it. If a Scottish parliament works, it will be a source of inspiration and enlightenment for English democrats. If it doesn't, it will be an equally useful and relatively painless lesson for them.

So, my English friends, democrats all - please relax.