10 February 2015

Never mind Scotland. What about the rest of the UK?


Last week – and four parliamentary terms after other parts of the UK had already received handsome forms of self-government – William Hague proposed a very modest and not particularly intelligible plan to ensure England had some devolution of its own. His plan would not allow English MPs to propose England-only legislation. It does nothing to address the fact that poorer parts of England receive less taxpayers’ money than richer parts of Scotland. And (correctly) it did absolutely nothing to slow the march to home rule that was “vow”-ed to Holyrood by the three main party leaders during last year’s Scottish referendum campaign.  But, judged by some of the reactions, you would have thought the retiring Mr Hague had declared political war on the Union.

The increasingly Tory-sceptical Financial Times, for example, warned that the plan might “reignite nationalist sentiment across the British Isles in ways that puts the union once more under threat.” Have the FT leader-writers been paying any attention? They might not have noticed recent opinion polling from north of the border but Scottish nationalist feeling doesn’t need reigniting. It’s burning ever more brightly – and the careers of dozens of Labour MPs might be about to end on the SNP’s bonfire. If the SNP holds the balance of power after the next election and help to install Ed Miliband as prime minister I suspect that the sleeping English giant might soon find its feet and voice. Polling by YouGov finds strong opposition in every region of England to any SNP role in the UK government. The way to head off English unhappiness is not to pretend there might not soon be a problem. It’s not to deny England something that other parts of the UK already have. It’s time to give England some self-government of its own.

Labour – whose former Scotland spokesman had promised that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead” – could hardly have been more wrong but have the party’s big beasts shown even a smidgeon of humility? Has there been any apology for taking the UK to the brink? Any consideration that defenders of the Union should consider a different direction? No, no, no.

Even now – with Alex Salmond scheming to hold the balance of power in the House of Commons – Labour politicians like Gordon Brown have the audacity to blame David Cameron for the SNP’s rise. The Tory leadership could hardly have acted more selflessly or meekly during last year’s Scottish referendum campaign. It raised the money for a financially bankrupt Scottish Labour establishment to fight to defeat separatism and to keep an almost Tory-free Scotland within the UK. And then when William Hague proposes a teeny-weeny, half-hearted, pee-wee form of devolution to England – of a kind more suited to Lilliput – the Scottish Labour Party goes into default mode and blames the Scottish Tories for stoking up nationalism.

Too many right-leaning Scots who should know better have also gone native. When Tory HQ produced a poster warning of a Miliband-Salmond pact after the next election there were claims that this, too, would encourage nationalism. We are way past that point. Nationalism is already unleashed. Unleashed by a complacent Scottish Labour establishment that is now embroiled in an ugly bidding war with the SNP as to who can get more money and more power from London for Scotland. When any English person protests about any of this the “you don’t understand Scotland” rebuke comes from Scottish Unionists as much as from Scottish Nationalists. What kind of Union has the UK become if it discourages any questioning of the devolution settlement that has failed so spectacularly in its intended aim?

The Scottish Tories meanwhile are probably the least successful centre right party in all of Europe. Still burdened by the legacy of Thatcherism and the poll tax experiment some polls have them down two or three points from their last miserable general election performance. No centre right party ever really flourishes if it doesn’t own a large part of the patriotic vote but Scots don’t see the Scottish Conservatives as Scottish. The charisma of Ruth Davidson won’t be enough to change that – just as the decency of her predecessor as Tory leader, Auntie Annabel Goldie, wasn’t.

I hope the Union will survive. I really, sincerely do. I hope so because we’ve achieved so much during our three-centuries-old partnership – and I’m sure we will achieve much more if this extraordinary partnership of four nations endures. But it cannot endure on bribes. It should not endure by denying England devolution. It must not endure at the expense of other poorer parts of the UK.  The fact is Scotland enjoys a very fair deal inside the Union. Although there are pockets of considerable poverty inside Scotland, it’s a relatively prosperous part of the UK and gets about as much money out of the rest of the UK as it puts in. I suspect as its population ages (its demographic trends are more fiscally challenging than southern England) and the oil revenues from the North Sea decline it will increasingly rely on the rest of the UK to help pay its bills – as it did during the financial crash of the big Edinburgh banks. I, personally, make no complaint about that at all. That’s what a socially just Union should be about and the fact that the Eurozone isn’t behaving in a socially just way to a country like Greece is why it will never be an optimal or stable currency zone. But I digress.

We’ve all benefited from North Sea oil revenues since the 1970s and Scotland should benefit from England’s huge shale reserves and London’s global status in the years to come – if, of course, the frackers can get overcome the Green Blob and the other Luddites. But the Barnett formula for distributing public spending across the UK needs to be abandoned and replaced with a modern assessment of social need. Like the bias of the UK state to the increasingly wealthy elderly rather than to the increasingly squeezed young; or the bias to the short-termism of spending more and more tax revenues on housing benefit rather than the long-term need to build more affordable housing; the bias in the political debate towards Scotland must end.

Here are ten other parts of the UK that deserve more attention from Her Majesty’s Government than Scotland (I don’t pretend it’s an exhaustive list) – and whose interests are unlikely to be well served by Alex Salmond becoming kingmaker after 7th May:

1. West Wales and the Valleys: According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a quarter of the Welsh population live in poverty. Wales, in aggregate, is much poorer than Scotland, in aggregate. Partly disguised by the wealth generated by commuters, poverty is particularly concentrated in the West Wales and Valley area – identified by the European Union as one of the five most disadvantaged regions in Western Europe. Pete Hoskin has written powerfully about how poverty is “rife” in the country in this very beautiful part of Britain. Wales as a whole does least well from the decades-old Barnett formula that distributes public spending across the UK. Even though it is poorer Wales gets £9,709 per head of population from the UK taxpayer while Scotland gets £10,152. If public spending was distributed across the UK according to genuine need Wales would probably gain by £500m to £800m every year. It’s not clear, however, that the Cardiff government that has presided over the decline of the Welsh NHS would spend it wisely. But that’s another matter.

2. Seaside towns: From Blackpool to Great Yarmouth to Rhyl most of Britain’s once fashionable seaside resorts have seen much better days. A landmark report from the Centre for Social Justice, Turning The Tide, found that levels of educational attainment, worklessness and social problems like teen pregnancy were all much worse in places that have lost their once famous tiddly-om-pom-pom.

3. Rural Britain: One of the great success stories of recent years has been the improvement of education in inner city areas like London. Many urban areas are still very disadvantaged but Times journalist Alice Thomson recently drew her readers’ attention to the challenges facing rural and semi-rural Britain. “Thirty years ago,” she wrote, “cities were depressed, depleted and dreary; now market towns have withered. Their schools have the worst education performances in England, their high streets are boarded up, their cinemas closed and their A&E departments merged. Urban councils receive 40% more funding per head from central government than rural authorities. The pastoral idyll is fading.”

4. Cornwall: A particularly poor rural area is the Duchy of Cornwall. While the UK average wage is £23,300 the Cornish average is nearly ten grand lower at £14,300. Not only is it materially poor, it is poor in civil society, too. The Centre for Social Justice found charitable and social enterprise activity particularly weak in the county.

5. The North East: Within England households in the North East have the lowest disposable income but have also seen the fastest growth in recent years. Durham & Tees Valley is the poorest part of this region.

6. Lincolnshire: That this English county is on this list might surprise you but only West Wales, Cornwall and Durham & Tees Valley are poorer in the Eurostat league table for the UK.

7. Northern Ireland: The 1.8 million people of Northern Ireland get the most public spending per head of any part of the UK and for understandable historical reasons. Northern Ireland doesn’t need any more state spending, however, in any shake up of the UK – it is Sovietised enough. It does need more imaginative public policy attention, however. The recent plan to devolve corporation tax being a good example of what the province needs.

8. Early intervention programmes: One of the big ideas of this government was to invest more in the crucial and formative early years of a child’s life. That’s a hard thing to do during a period of austerity when there’s no money to spare but it certainly cannot be afforded if public spending is skewed towards the elderly. The early intervention foundation work led by Labour MP Graham Allen deserves more pilot funding.

9. Single earner families: Sometimes I have to wonder if public policy has given up on single earner couples. There is ever more public money sunk into childcare and the flagship coalition tax policy is a change in the basic income tax threshold that overwhelmingly benefits two earner households. The consequences for one earner families are stark. One-third of all families with children living in poverty have just one breadwinner (notes the JRF) and the choice for one parent to stay at home is becoming increasingly unaffordable for any household of modest means.

10. Minority groups: Certain ethnic groups are particularly disadvantaged within the UK. Joseph Rowntree research, for example, has found that Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and black Africans suffer particularly high poverty rates compared with black Caribbeans and Indians, for example, and certainly much higher rates than white Britons. Interestingly, however, white working class boys perform most badly at school.

What I’m not arguing in all of this is that there isn’t poverty or great need in Scotland. That would be absurd. Public interest in the Conservative Party’s renewed interest in fighting poverty probably began in Scotland when Iain Duncan Smith made his famous visit to the deprived Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. Many communities in Scotland remain poor and these were the communities most enthusiastic about leaving the UK in last September’s referendum. They were and are most hungry for change. My point is not to argue that these parts of Scotland should lose out in any rethinking of how UK-wide public policy develops. I’m simply saying that we need better and more precise measures of disadvantage. Resourcing and policy innovation should be more targeted – more specific to communities and towns rather than regions or nations. While we need a political system that isn’t focused on the parts of Britain that shout loudest or have the most political clout I’m not expecting we will get one any time soon. Regardless of that, it’s important to know that Scotland as a whole (and I emphasise “as a whole”) is far from the most disadvantaged part of the UK. Other parts of the British population are in greater need and they deserve better.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for the The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice