Bravehearts and canny widows

Whichever way the Scots vote on Thursday – and at the moment it’s too close to call – the old Union is dead. Even if the Noes win, a constitutional settlement that is supported by only 51% of the people of one of the component countries of the United Kingdom is only surviving on life support.

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, in a last-ditch attempt to save the Union, have jointly offered a major constitutional change with more devolution. Tinkering with a constitution is like removing one strut from the Eiffel Tower, you can’t stop with one piece. Why should Scottish Westminster MPs vote on English income tax? Before you know it, you are revising the entire structure.

That in fact is my eccentric reason for hoping for a No vote. It would force a proper constitutional house-cleaning in the United Kingdom. There would be a good chance of getting rid of the mumbo-jumbo about Crown privilege behind which unaccountable agencies like GCHG can shelter. The museum-piece House of Lords could be replaced by a Council of Nations like the German Bundesrat, with blocking powers on matters affecting the autonomous sphere of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The catalogue of human rights in the Human Rights Act could be raised, as everywhere else in the civilised world, to its proper level as a constitutional, not merely legislative, guarantee.

George Monbiot, the always interesting and often infuriating Guardian pundit, argues the other way. He thinks that Westminster is so corrupt and plutocratic that the Scots need independence to have a chance of clean democracy. Besides, he hopes that the shock and example would trigger an English movement for real constitutional reform.

Whatever, the impact on England has approximately zero weight in the decision of the Scots. The nationalists have, it is now clear, not done their homework on the economic impacts, especially the currency question. That’s being charitable. See Mark Carney, Paul Krugman, and Simon Wren-Lewis on this. The No campaign, led by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, has concentrated on the large economic risks. True enough, but by abandoning the terrain of emotional identification to the Yes side, they have defined the choice as one between the reckless courage of Wallace and the dour calculation of the Duke of Queensberry in 1707. Not surprisingly, men favour Yes and women No.

But what flag-waving appeal could have worked? Part of the deal for the Scots in 1707, after the failure of their own colonial venture in Darien, was to join in England’s imperial and commercial expansion, for glory and profit. They were not cheated on this. Scots played a quite disproportionate part in the British Empire, from its trading-houses to its battlefields. Glasgow became the shipbuilder to Empire. Hong Kong was created by Scots. But that’s gone now. Cameron can still offer occasional battles to the shrunken Scottish regiments; his oath of vengeance on ISIS was not just theatre. But generally, Britain is now just another peaceful European welfare state, cultivating its gardens like Candide. There is no wider vision or ambition to stir Unionist blood, not even building Europe, an unpopular project. So why can’t Scotland be its own cosy welfare state like Denmark or Slovenia? Catalans and Basques are asking the same question, with potentially graver consequences for Spain.

Update 17 September
At LGM, Dave Brockington (an American political scientist working in England) suggests that polls understate the likely No vote, and predicts a fairly comfortable unionist win. The key argument is that the 14% Don’t Knows are likely to break heavily No. It’s not as if they don’t know what the issues are, and if they still have not been convinced by the case for independence, it would be logical for them to support the status quo.


  1. Mitch Guthman says


    In all fairness to HRH, I don't think Crown privilege is being claimed by any of these government organizations to avoid accountability for civil liberties violations. I believe the British are now following the American example by making blanket claims of "national security".

    Also, I have seen a number of others making this argument, too. I would like you or somebody who is saying this to explain why the "constitutional housecleaning" you envision would lead to any better outcome from the perspective of civil liberties. I think the changes you foresee would lead to an even more Americanized government structure with significantly less oversight than exists today. It seems to me that the problem isn't the constitutional structure but rather the increasingly Americanized belief that claims of "national security" are not reviewable and trump all other concerns.

    I would also note that for all the shots people take at the House of Lords, they have consistently been more liberal and shown greater regard for individual rights than has the Commons, which has raced to rubber-stamp every proposal by the government to restrict civil rights. Surprisingly, the movement to restrict people's rights and expand the national surveillance state has come from the three main political parties and not from hereditary peers. The current bunch of Thatcheriate clowns who are running the "Labour Party" have, not surprisingly, been leading the pack to show have conservative they can be in all things.

  2. Keith_Humphreys says



    The House of Lords is packed with policy expertise that exists nowhere else in government. Some of the greatest scientists in the realm serve as cross-bench peers, for example, and they do what expert staff do in Congress in filling in the meaning, intent and specifics of legislation — Commons members are grossly understaffed and can't do that. The legislative process would be much more ill-informed without the deliberation and knowledge provided by the peers.


  3. JamesWimberley says


    The RBC commentariat rushes to defend the House of Lords! Well, well. The objection to the current cleaned-up Lords is not that they are incompetent, but that they are powerless, an inevitable consequence of their lack of democratic legitimacy. The House of Lords has shrunk to a revising chamber, which would not be necessary if the Commons did its legislative job. AFAICT the one slight parliamentary constraint on the executive now are the Commons committees, which occasionally show teeth, as with the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal. The Lords don't have committees with investigative powers.

    • Keith_Humphreys says


      There is no reason for you to be surprised that you got substantive pushback when you simply made a bald assertion with no argumentation behind it. Yes, it is fashionable in some circles to call the HoL a museum piece…but this isn't a Kensington cocktail party, it's RBC! For the Commons "to do its legislative job" it would need legislative staff, which it does not have, and British voters are hostile to the idea paying for such staff, The choices are thus to have legislation written with little or no expert input, or have the current system in which, for example, a bill on stem cells gets a thorough going over by a half dozen excellent physicians and biologists in the HoL. 80% or so of the details HoL put in are approved by The Commons because MPs know that having people who know something about an issue write the details of a law is a good thing for the country.
      You note that they have less power because they are not democratically elected. Yes. Feature not bug.
      :Last, it is rather strange to say that in a Westminster Parliament committees are the only "slight constraint" on the executive — they can fire the person in charge at any time! That makes them way more powerful relative to the executive relative to what one sees in for example the American system.

      • KatjaRBC says


        That sort of ignores the elephant in the room in that there is essentially no separation of powers in the British constitution; the Lords being capable, but essentially powerless does not help that argument. Supremacy of Parliament is, after all, another sore point for the SNP: One of the features they proudly advertise for their draft Independence Bill and planned amendments of the Scotland Act is that they will finally be able to fully establish judicial review, including giving the courts the full power to strike down "legislations and executive actions across the statute book" that violate basic human rights. For the SNP, the supremacy of Parliament and the very concept of the Queen-in-Parliament (which is essentially a fusion of executive and legislative power) is a nostalgia-fueled English idea that has no basis in Scottish law or tradition and that cannot substitute for sovereignty of the people and a modern written constitution with a Bill of Rights and separation of powers.

  4. KatjaRBC says


    "Whatever, the impact on England has approximately zero weight in the decision of the Scots. The nationalists have, it is now clear, not done their homework on the economic impacts, especially the currency question. That’s being charitable."

    I agree with that (and it's why I'd lean towards no if I were still able to vote in the referendum), but that's also where Cameron's austerity measures have come back to bite him. There's a huge class component to how the vote is split: Low-income voters tend to break for independence, high-income voters lean no. If you're, say, a person on JSA living in Hilltown, Dundee, then the economic gamble of independence is going to mean a lot less to you than how you're going to make ends meet or what further cuts to the social safety net Westminster might cook up in the coming year.

    It's worth remembering at this point that the SNP is not your stereotypical nationalist party in that it's unabashedly center-left and actually has tried to establish a presence to the left of Labour in recent years (Labour in Scotland has also been bleeding votes that went to the SNP). In the 2011 general elections for the Scottish Parliament, the conservative parties (combined) could muster a measly 15% of the regional vote. Katie Engelhart at the Atlantic draws a comparison to OWS for a reason and her point – that the referendum for independence has become a referendum against inequality – makes a lot of sense (especially considering that if the referendum had a devo max option, that would win in a blowout, signaling that it's mostly independence from Westminster policymaking that is being sought).

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