Sunday, May 13, 2007

Brown versus Salmond - what a contest!


It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. We will shortly have two of the most gifted Scottish politicians of their generation facing each other across the constitutional divide. Alex Salmond as First Minister of Scotland; Gordon Brown as Prime Minister of the UK. What is England going to make of this r grudge match?

On Friday, as Gordon Brown toured marginal constituencies in the South of England, he was pursued by a bagpiper reportedly hired by the Tories. The objective was clear: to indicate that in some way Gordon Brown is a stranger in a foreign land, that his not really ‘one of us’.

This has become the new Tory “dog whistle”, replacing immigration, as the subliminal message that Tories want to communicate to Middle England. They won’t want to make overt attacks on the next Prime Minister’s Scottish origins. But Tory focus groups have no trouble identifying disquiet about the Chancellor’s personality - the dour Scot has a lot of work to do if he wants middle England to warm to him. A few thousand eco homes won’t win the South.

Events this week in the Scottish Parliament will only confirm the sense of Scottish “otherness”. Alex Salmond will y be elected as First Minister of Scotland, with Nicola Sturgeon at his side. Salmond will then head off to meet the Queen - an even of immense symbolic importance, even if not very much will be said.

The English media will then begin to realise the enormity of what has occurred in Scotland. No only has Labour been defeated, but the nationalists have been allowed to form a government unaided, unrestrained by any unionist coalition partner. Alex Salmond may have very little scope for getting his own way domestically as a minority leader - much of his legislative programme has already been dumped. But the point is that it will look and sound as if he is the leader of Scotland, and many English commentators will conclude that Scotland is now, to all intents and purposes, a separate country.

Polls suggest that more English people support independence for Scotland than Scots. Resentment at Scotland supposedly being featherbedded by public subsidies and for living in relatively cheap homes, is not hard to find. The London mayor, Ken Livingstone - no friend of the Chancellor - claims that London is being impoverished in order to stuff the mouths of Brown’s homeland, and that the metropolis needs a better deal.

The idea that this global financial powerhouse - the richest real estate in the world - is in need of financial assistance from low growth Scotland may sound daft from our point of view. But if you are a professional family in your early thirties, living in a rented shoe box and faced with sending your kids to a run down local school, you might well start to wonder whether Londoners don’t deserve a better deal.

It is not that easy, however, for the Tories to play the English card, at least overtly . They are a unionist party, after all, and dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom. They can’t appear to be in league with the Scottish nationalists, even though, in a very real sense, they are. As First Minister, Alex Salmond will have no qualms about raising the West Lothian Question. His troops in the Commons will insist that it is unacceptable for Scottish Labour MPs to “dictate” to England its policies on education, health and such like, when English MPs have no say in a Scotland.

The West Lothian Question was always a difficult one for Labour, since their majority was reduced in the 2005 general election. But with a non-Labour party in office in Holyrood it becomes all but impossible to mount a convincing argument for Scottish MPs to retain their full voting rights in the Commons. (My own view is that it would be wise pre-emptively to reduce the number of Scottish MPs further) I suspect that this may be in the back of the Chancellor’s mind when he promised a constitutional review to restore power and respect for parliament. And if it wasn’t in his mind, it soon will be.

The irony of Gordon Brown setting up what the Guardian newspaper described as a cross party “constitutional convention” on the future of Westminster, when he has refused any review of Holyrood’s constitutional status, will not be lost on the Scots. Brown’s convention is meant to review things like the ministerial code, Royal Prerogative and war making powers. But if such a body is set up it will have to look at the reform of the House of Lord, and at the new constitutional relations across Britain.

The Northern Ireland and the Welsh assemblies are moving towards greater autonomy. It will no longer be possible, with a nationalist government in Scotland, for relations between Holyrood and Westminster to be managed by cosy personal relations within the party of government as has been the case since 1999. Constitutional machinery will have to be created to resolve the many disputes that will arise between a nationalist FM and London.

The Tories will realise that they have nothing to lose by agreeing to endorse Brown’s plans for parliamentary perestroika, since it will inevitably raise the question of voting rights of Scottish MPs. If the Chancellor is trying to restore power and influence to parliament, he is going to have to look at the issue of “English votes for English laws”, as the Tory home affairs spokesman David Davies calls it - this is the idea that Scots MPs should withdraw from votes on purely English legislation.

And if Prime Minister Brown tries to block any consideration of the WLQ, newspapers like the London Evening Standard, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph will go for him. The London media is not anti-Scottish as such, but if it believes Scotland is already drifting off into the post-imperial sunset, it will have no qualms about demanding that Brown should stop, as they will put it, imposing laws on England on the strength of votes from MPs from another country.

They will also raise the whole Barnett Question. With a nationalist administration abolishing prescription charges and bridge tolls, scrapping university fees, delivering free school meals and subsidies to first time home buyers, the perception will be that Scotland is getting away with grand larceny - financing a social democratic paradise on the backs of English tax payers.

Alex Salmond will agree that Barnett is unfair and should be scrapped; that there should be a new needs assessment and that Scotland should be forced to raise its own taxes in order to fund its own spending programmes. This could hasten the day when Scotland gets its own tax powers and assigned revenues from oil. And that really would be the beginning of the end for the UK. The Liberal Democrats may live to regret handing Alex Salmond the keys to Scotland.

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