Breaking point

November 16, 2007

With political and economic imbalances between the different parts of the UK again in the spotlight, Richard Rose addresses the asymmetries that underpin the question of Scottish independence while Terry Brotherstone (right) offers a view on the future funding of Scottish higher education. The UK is a multinational state, but the relations between its constituent parts have been asymmetrical. Scots, Welsh and Ulster unionists have combined their national identities with being proudly British. However, the old Scots' identification as North British was never paralleled by a pride in "South Britishness". Most in that category have trouble telling the difference between being English and being British. For example, the Cockney-born journalist Louis Heren titled a book Alas for England: What Went Wrong for Britain .

Historically, getting ahead in British politics meant the Scots, Welsh and Irish adapting to politics in England, and particularly to what was happening in central London. From James Boswell to Gordon Brown, many a Scot went there to seek the glittering prizes. Aneurin Bevan proclaimed that there was no point in being a politician in Wales when all the big decisions that affected it were taken in London. But in a world with many powers and attractions, the UK no longer appears so powerful. In the blunt words of a Belgian Prime Minister: "There are two kinds of countries in the world today: those that are small and know it, and those that are small and don't."

Today, devolution requires English politicians to pay attention to the asymmetries of Britishness. The Times , competing for the title of being Scotland's largest circulation quality newspaper, is doing so by investing £60 million in a new printing plant in the country to help strengthen its ability to headline stories about Scotland's First Minister rather than Britain's Prime Minister. Meanwhile, London-based papers can ignore what devolved assemblies do or feature stories about the iniquities of allocating tax revenue to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in greater proportion than their share of the UK population or letting Scottish MPs vote on measures affecting England but not Scotland.

Different electoral systems are the foundation of asymmetry. Proportional representation is for assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, but it is deemed "impossible" for England. The power-sharing Northern Ireland settlement requires the representation of all political groups, whatever their origins. There is no suggestion of a statutory requirement to share power between majorities and minorities in Birmingham, Bradford or Blackburn.

The fiasco of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's regional initiative has maintained asymmetry: the English five sixths of Britain do not have regional assemblies. Sir Malcolm Rifkind's recent proposal for an English Grand Committee to vote on English laws is a non-starter because very few laws refer to England only. At a minimum, legislation covers Wales and many laws cover Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales) or the UK as a whole (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Until the devolved elections last May, party ties meant devolved institutions operated without disturbing politics in England. Labour leaders in Edinburgh and Cardiff had no wish to quarrel with a Labour Prime Minister in London. Now, however, the Scottish National Party is in charge in Edinburgh, and Labour has been forced to recognise the acceptability of the Welsh Nationalists by forming a coalition in Cardiff. Only in Northern Ireland is there, at least for the present, a government consistent with what Westminster wants.

The ultimate asymmetry is that it is Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians in Scotland who are talking about a referendum on independence rather than the First Minister, Alex Salmond. The reason is simple: opinion polls indicate that a majority of Scots would today vote against independence. But the polls also show that a far bigger majority is against the status quo.

English MPs are beginning to question the status quo, too, since decisions that affect their constituencies are made by ministers whose constituencies are not affected. Yet a federal solution, with a separately elected English parliament, would create a much bigger asymmetry. An English parliament would represent a population greater than all but three countries in the European Union, and its resources would greatly overshadow the "tiddler" parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, the SNP Government has launched a national conversation with a green paper, Choosing Scotland's Future . This offers two options: independence or increasing devolved powers. All Scottish parties have endorsed its premise: the status quo is no longer an option.

Salmond is inverting Nye Bevan's strategy, demanding that Westminster devolve those powers to Scotland that most Scots think belong in Scotland, for example, the administration of Scottish Parliament elections. Since Westminster will reject a number of these demands as impractical or unacceptable, he will then argue that there is only one alternative: independence.

As of now, Scottish universities are worried about losing revenue because all Scottish parties are opposed to following the English policy of increasing university revenue by charging students more. Unless the Scottish Government boosts its allocation to the separate Scottish Funding Council by £168 million a year, the quality of Scottish degrees and research achievement will suffer, claim the heads of Scottish universities.

The Whitehall doctrine of Treasury control keeps purse strings in London. To meet its very generous spending commitments, the SNP has three options: to back off from its promises; to use its statutory powers to raise taxes in Scotland above England; or to blame its budgetary problems on being shortchanged by successive British Chancellors. Alastair Darling's belt- tightening public expenditure plans have made the third option the inevitable political choice.

Battles about money are actually about power. For example, Salmond's request for an £8 million subvention from Whitehall for the cost of policing demonstrations at the British Navy nuclear base in Scotland is intended to highlight the fact that the placing of the weapons there (like the presence of Scots in British uniform in Iraq) was not decided by a vote of the Scottish Parliament.

The SNP's answer to complaints that "the Barnett formula" (introduced in 1978 to maintain a balance in public spending between the four constituent countries of the UK) is overgenerous to Scotland has been to propose abolishing it by making Scotland independent. To the materialist argument - Scotland cannot afford to be independent - Salmond's response is that this is an indictment of London's mismanagement of economic development and oil revenues.

The Prime Minister wants to run British Government without being embarrassed at Question Time by opposition parties highlighting the responsibility of the London-based Scottish Office for the confusion in counting votes in the devolved May election. Labour's losses then showed that the party's use of "separation" as a bogey word to describe the SNP can alienate rather than attract voters. A demoralised Labour Opposition in the Scottish Parliament is now searching for something positive to justify its claim to regain office.

Brown's goal is to make British Government more attractive. His discussion paper on constitutional reform canvasses many possibilities for increasing the accountability of Government to the British Parliament and people. Reshuffling power in SW1 may appeal to those for whom politics in England and Britain are interchangeable. But it has limited appeal elsewhere in the UK.

Brown is also seeking to promote "Britishness". But little is said about what this means. Questions for applicants for British citizenship offer a quiz-show definition of the term based on mugging up gobbits of information in order to tick the right boxes. Shakespeare's "scepter'd isle" of England was actually a half-island, consisting of the Tudor Kingdom of England, plus the Principality of Wales, and Scotland - then under a Stuart King, James VI. (So Brown is in good company in confusing Britain and England. In Scottish schools, British history starts in 1603, when James came to the English throne as James I, or the Act of Union in 1707; before that it is Scottish history, with bits of England on the side.) England's greatest 20th-century poet, the St Louis-born T. S. Eliot, described his poetry as written with Homer and Dante as well as Shakespeare in his bones. Any catalogue of British values is likely to contain more universal human values such as courage (and Anglo-American or Western values such as freedom) than dour Scottish values learnt in a Presbyterian manse.

Any attempt to define "Britishness" presents Downing Street with awkward issues. Should decisions be made by a committee five-sixths English or representative of the nations of the UK? Should its terms of reference emphasise common values or recognised differences - for instance, in religion, language and politics? How much should English schools teach Robert Burns, Sean O'Casey or Welsh poets in translation?

In Wales, language is a wedge issue because most people who think of themselves as Welsh do not speak the Welsh language. Since the creation of a nominally separate Welsh Board of Education generations ago, the Welsh have voted with their mouths, preferring to be examined in English and arithmetic far more than in Welsh and history. In recent decades, Welsh- language primary schools have maintained the language, while the requirement for bilingualism in some public sector jobs gives a minority of Welsh an advantage in applying for them.

The Prime Minister's rejection of a general election this autumn showed that politics in England is still decisive. The threat to a Labour victory was in marginal seats in the south of England and not in devolved regions. The delay in balloting gives David Cameron's Conservatives two more years to seek victory by appealing to English voters. At the 2005 general election, the Conservatives won more votes than Labour in England but, due to anomalies in the electoral system, Labour won far more seats.

If the Conservatives were to win more English seats as well as more votes than Labour at the next election, the party could claim it ought to govern England. However, the asymmetries of the British electoral system could leave it with fewer seats at Westminster. At such a juncture, an SNP Government might call a Scottish referendum, asking voters to end the prospect of continuing asymmetries and frictions in favour of a simple symmetrical solution: independence for Scotland and independence for England.

Richard Rose is co-director of Aberdeen University's new initiative, Scotland in an Interdependent World, and author of Politics in England (1964), just published in a new edition titled Politics in Britain .

AFFAIRS OF THE STATE

Devolution, many say, has been good for Scotland's universities. Since 1997, politicians of all parties have lavished them with rhetorical praise. The Cubie Report led to the abolition of upfront tuition fees, one of the keynote policies of the previous Labour-Liberal Executive that signalled, in a low-key way, a distinctively Scottish agenda. There was a better than expected settlement in the 2004 spending review.

Three of the new SNP Government's early announcements were welcomed by the Universities and College Union Scotland and the National Union of Students. In line with the Nationalists' longer term commitment to free higher education, the graduate endowment (a post hoc tax) is to be abolished. The joint Crichton Campus at Dumfries got the funding needed to retain its threatened arts curriculum in the rural south-west. And the anomaly of treating asylum seekers differently from home students for fee purposes is to end.

But big questions remain. Scottish universities are set to lose out in funding, relative to those institutions south of the border, as top-up fees come fully on stream, and the spectre of raising, or even removing, the £3,000 cap materialises.

The devolved Government, some vice-chancellors say, will have to find answers to the funding gap or we will lose our competitive standing in the world league tables. The brains will migrate south for better pay.

Why are the Scots committed to maintaining substantially publicly funded higher education? There's the perception, of course, that it was a cross- class consensus against Margaret Thatcher's "no such thing as society" form of neoliberalism that delivered devolution. And the distinctiveness of Scotland's education system - with the universities at the apex - helped keep alive "Scottish identity" during decades of empire-based unionism and "British" social welfarism.

But is even this small challenge to the Anglo-Saxon model, in which the market must rule, foolhardy rather than brave? Or could Scottish higher education market itself internationally as a distinctive living tradition - working within the Bologna Process (in which it has consistently been ahead of the game) - keeping alight the beacon that philosopher-historian George Elder Davie called the "democratic intellect"?

The idea has an economic as well as a humanist rationale. There's a projected need for many more graduates over the next decade, and, if their education is funded by the well-off and business through taxation, society and enterprise will benefit from skilled people contributing to the economy and the tax base - rather than struggling to recover from student debt and, perhaps, emigrating.

Davie, moreover, was writing just before the 1963 Robbins Report, when the last serious attempt was made to debate publicly with some intellectual depth what Britain's university system should be about, and how it should make the diversity of its history speak to the educational aspirations of modern society.

Now there's a much-changed world in which universities are catering for young people born into the IT revolution, for women, for ethnic minorities - in a way Lionel Robbins could never have imagined.

Is the market the inevitable answer? Should Scotland go down the road of ever-higher fees, mediated only by means-tested, discriminatory, bursaries in the name of not equality but rather "social inclusion"?

Is the trend irreversible to private-sector pay for research stars and the relative depression of general salaries - which, even after the Framework Agreement, are, compared with other professions, far behind where they were in the 1970s?

Is there really no alternative to a world in which the concentration of diminishing public resources in fewer research-led institutions destroys the aspiration for universities to be both internationally excellent and the pinnacle of strong regional educational provision?

To inform future Scottish funding decisions - beyond those to be announced next week - let's at least have a major public discussion about what universities are for and where they should be going.

UCU Scotland will be glad of the chance to make the case for the economic and human benefits of a predominantly state-funded system. And just having such a debate could give a lead to the UK as a whole.

Terry Brotherstone is president of the University and College Union Scotland.

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