Let the English voice be heard

He who pays the piper should call the tune. England subsidises the Celtic Fringes, says Neil Lyndon, so its citizens should also have a vote on devolution for its neighbours
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Alex Salmond is not readily discomposed. Master of his facts, sure of his arguments, the Convenor of the Scottish National Party - formerly an economist in the oil industry and then with the Bank of Scotland - usually emits a constant air of confidence. When, however, a particular question is voiced, his cheeks seem to whiten a shade and his dark eyes flicker with alarm.

The question is this:

Why are political and economic relations between the constituent countries of the United Kingdom to be determined solely by the wishes of the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? If the people of England are the majority in the United Kingdom and if those other peoples depend upon England as the principal source of government wealth in the UK, shouldn't the people of England have a voice in the shaping of their relations with their neighbours?

Salmond's discomposure is momentary. He whips back an answer. "There is a case for a referendum on devolution for the whole of the United Kingdom," he says. Then he adds a rider which characterises the peculiarly inverted logic with which debate about the future of the UK is often infected: "But if the UK voted against," he says, "then Scotland would have to have its own referendum on independence."

Salmond explains that a referendum in the UK might replicate the grotesqueries of the last days of the Soviet empire, when the Baltic states were pressing for independence and the question was referred to a referendum of the entire Soviet electorate. The result was that the Russian majority determined that the Baltic minorities should stay in their subservient place. This could not be allowed in the UK, said Salmond. If the English majority voted to retain Scotland under the powers of Westminster, the Scottish people could not be bound by that vote but must be given the right to determine their own sovereign rights in their own exclusive referendum.

Thus, as often happens in this debate, a blind hare of argument is set running in circles of paranoia. On the face of it, Salmond's point seems fair; but the analogy upon which it rests is false. Scotland does not exist in political and economic relations to England that are comparable with those of the Soviet Union and Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. So far as anybody can tell, the majority of the people of England have no interest in enforcing political authority over Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland). So far as it is possible to see, the people of England are actively in favour of Scottish devolution. A proportion of them couldn't care less whether Scotland remains part of the UK or becomes an independent self- governing nation.

Very little evidence has been gathered to tell us what the English think about the future of the UK. During the past 30 years - since the revival of nationalist movements in Northern Ireland, the discovery of North Sea oil which re-ignited demands for Scottish independence and the rebirth of Plaid Cymru - argument about the government of the peoples of the British Isles has been dominated by the voices of minorities in the Celtic Fringes.

In September 1995, MORI presented a paper to a conference at London's Guildhall University with the title "The Scots Want Devolution, but do the British?". Based upon surveys of representative samples of people in England, Scotland and Wales, this document remains one of the only authoritative guides to opinion on the mainland, as a whole, of the British Isles.

Participants were asked the question "If a majority in Scotland voted in a referendum in favour of setting up a separate Scottish assembly, with some taxation and spending powers, do you think they should be allowed one, or not?" Sixty-eight per cent of English respondents replied "Yes, they should be allowed." Fifteen per cent did not know. Seventeen per cent said "No, they should not be allowed."

MORI's poll asked a further question which produced striking results. Asked which form of government for Scotland they, themselves, would most like to see (as opposed to the form which might emerge from a referendum of Scots alone), 51 per cent of English respondents said they would like to see Scotland remaining part of the UK, but having its own devolved assembly with some tax and spending powers. The percentage of Scots who would favour that arrangement was 52 per cent, only one per cent more than the English. Nine per cent of the English even favoured the prospect of Scotland clearing out of the UK altogether and becoming a separate nation, an independent part of the European Union. Only 20 per cent of Scots favoured this option.

The English taxpayer's feelings about Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Irish) devolution or independence might be even more definite and ardent if he or she had a clear idea of the present costs and benefits to the UK Treasury of the Celtic Fringe peoples. Everybody's views might be more clearly focused if we knew the answers to questions such as "What does Scotland cost or contribute to the UK Treasury? Is Scotland in surplus or in deficit to the rest of the UK, especially England? These questions touch on the most fundamental principles of democracy in these islands. The watchwords here are those of Lord Camden in a debate on the American Colonies in the House of Lords, 10 February 1766: "Taxation and representation are inseparable

If Scotland produces more wealth for the UK than it consumes, then the case for Scotland to determine its own relations with the UK, for itself, is incontestable. Why should the rest of us have any voice in deciding whether or not another people should continue to subsidise us?

If, however, the true position is that England subsidises Scotland, if it is true that every English taxpayer is providing benefits to Scottish citizens, then the question is reversed. Why should the Scots, as dependent beneficiaries, have the sole voice in determining whether or not they should continue to be subsidised? Should not the English taxpayer have a say?

"I love this debate," says Alex Salmond. "It's what I came into politics to pursue. There is no argument about the true position. Treasury figures this year confirm that the UK is in deficit to Scotland. Between 1979- 1995, Scotland recorded a pounds 27bn absolute surplus of revenue over expenditure to the London Treasury." This figure depends upon an assumption of Scottish ownership of 90 per cent of North Sea oil revenues. Even so, he says, it is not the full sum of Scotland's subsidy to the rest of the UK, which needs to take account of Scotland's inequitable share of GDP borrowing.

But far from there being "no argument" about the true state of fiscal relations between Scotland and the UK Treasury, there is, in fact, nothing but argument. The document everyone falls out about is the mildly titled Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland 1994-5, published in October 1996 by the Economics Advice and Statistics Division of the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, in Glasgow. If the findings in that report are true, Mr Salmond and the SNP haven't got a fiscal leg to stand upon. The overall picture it draws is that, per head of population, Scotland provides its fair share of tax revenues to the UK Treasury but takes far more.

In 1994-5, for instance, government expenditure specifically incurred on behalf of the residents of Scotland was pounds 23.1bn or 10.5 per cent of the corresponding UK total. Scotland's population share in 1994 was 8.8 per cent. This works out at general government expenditure per head of population of pounds 3,614 in England compared with pounds 4,505 per head in Scotland. If you say that general government expenditure in England is 100, in Scotland it was 203 for trade, industry, energy and employment; 197 for housing; 131 for education; and 111 for law, order and protective services. In no department of government spending was expenditure in Scotland lower than in England.

In 1994-5, the fiscal deficit - the extent to which total government expenditure in Scotland exceeds tax revenues raised in Scotland - is estimated to have been pounds 8.2bn, excluding North Sea Revenues and privatisation proceeds. Even if all North Sea oil revenue and output are attributed to Scotland, the 1994-5 fiscal deficit was still pounds 6bn.

The SNP has denounced these findings as being politically motivated, saying "the results ... were presented by ministers as evidence that Scotland was subsidised by London." In turn, the SNP has been derided by Jim Stevens of the Scottish Labour Party and the University of Strathclyde for making "a puerile slur on the professional integrity of government economists".

Taxing as it is to prove the true position regarding Scotland, there is, truly, "no argument" about Northern Ireland. Even Alex Salmond agrees that Northern Ireland stands in fiscal deficit to the UK Treasury. Given that deficit, ought not the people of Britain to be asked whether or not they wish to continue to subsidise Northern Ireland, containing as it does a substantial proportion of the population who detest the United Kingdom and, especially, its English majority?

Alex Salmond blanches at this question. "It would not be an edifying spectacle," he says, "to see Britain renege upon its historical obligations and hang Northern Ireland out to dry. They (the peoples of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) should be able to choose whether to be part of the UK, choosing their own destiny."

But why should they be given sole and sovereign right to exert that choice without an equal and reciprocal right being extended to the people of England to say whether or not they wish to continue paying for the peoples of the Celtic Fringe? What are these historical obligations Alex Salmond sees as being binding? Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Glencoe? Cromwell, the Battle of the Boyne and the martyrs of the Easter Uprising? It would, indeed, be most revealing if the people of England were to be asked to say what degree of interest, let alone of personal obligation and responsibility they felt for those historical events.

In his recent book On History, Eric Hobsbawm has written "history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction." Perhaps the debate about the future of the United Kingdom could be considered too important to be poisoned in the quagmire of history and "historical obligations". If Britain's constitutional arrangements are to be effectively modernised according to democratic principles, the question of fiscal relations between the neighbouring peoples of these islands offers more than enough for them to argue about. One of those peoples is the English. They ought to have a voice.