5 December 2010

There's no devolution without devolution...

To paraphrase my Jacobin friend Maximilien Robespierre, this week I've found myself reviving the question "do you want devolution without devolution?" Various commentators have form with this particular species of misunderstanding, where notional support for devolution sits uneasily alongside trenchant criticisms of some inequality in these islands. Of late, intemperate terms such as educational apartheid are being bandied about in response to the prospect of ratcheted up English student debt, feeless Scottish higher education and the news that the Welsh Assembly Government has decided to bear the brunt of the Conservative-Liberal coalition's university fees hike, saving academic Welsh youngsters the significantly inflated cost of a degree which their English cousins will bear alone. What strikes me as curious is that challenging the "unfairness" of this seems to make Scottish and Welsh authorities the guilty regimes who ought to "get" a good deal less cash (this premised on the assumption that if education spending is higher, all spending must inequitably be too high). This argument doesn't register a number of debatable points. 

Firstly, "fairness" isn't a transparent term and different conceptions of a fair distribution of spending across the United Kingdom may be advanced. Paxman et al. specialise in obfuscating justifiable differences between conceptions of fairness by pigheadedly insisting on the common-sense damn-your-eyes obviousness of one particular conception of just spending. Cowrin, timorous politicians tend to collude in their own abuse here, deflecting and avoiding the substantive heart of the thing - which is a debate on what constitutes a fair distribution. Secondly, if we assume that our levels of public spending are justifiably fair(ish) on some conception of justice, different priorities in terms of spending could easily reproduce the student fees situation we have before us. It is by no means evident that fees in one part of the country and none in another indicates that the latter is growing paunchy while the other is being hollowed out to feed the lardy substance of the latter. Obviously enough, the consequence of not subjecting your students to fees would be diminished spending on some other area.  This, as others have rightly argued, is the inevitable consequence of devolution. 

Indeed, the incoherence of this allegation on the individual cost of higher education illuminates an important aspect of theories of apartheid. Oppression of this sort, I'd argue, is fundamentally premised on the inclusion of the excluded category whose life is regulated, allotted a subordinate position in relation to the dominant category. I know it sounds obscene, but an apartheid state only makes sense if it is underwritten by a unitary analysis. As I understand it, devolution is precisely about foregoing this sort of unitary thinking in the United Kingdom. I'm not sure how convincing the argument "different therefore unequal therefore unfair treatment" was before 1998 - particularly with a view to our different legal systems in the United Kingdom - but the logic of the case collapses  totally once you accept devolved axioms about the justifiability of different treatment, spending and priorities - in the name of "local" decision-making. Give me a black-hearted Unionist any day who despises devolution with all of his heart, compared to these lukewarm clots who can't embrace the basic conclusion demanded by their warped logic. There's no devolution without devolution.

The particularly bizarre aspect of this discussion is the suggestion that it is used as an excuse to attack devolution rather than the plots and schemes of coalition to balloon student debt, while giving us stern lectures on why national debt is terribly iffy. Instead of seeing this issue as a means of recognising English political choices as just that - choices - leaving room for others to take a different view about what matters, the education apartheid case seems to argue that if student funding differences are unfair, Scottish and Welsh authorities are faulty. Needless to say, this thinking needs to be rigorously repelled. If not, the debate risks being transformed into a bad-tempered indictment of the feckless Celtic fringe of ruddy-cheeked Scotch blackmailers and giggling Welsh chancers. Rogues on the make, needing no excuses to defraud your dull-dog English taxpaying yeoman of his hard-earned schilling. While  the underclass of "hard-working families" (as I like to think of them) are invited to viciously shillelagh the perceived excesses of the "devolved regions", sleekit English ministers would no doubt hope to slither away undetected. 

On wur ain snake-hipped ministers, in the Herald this weekend, Iain MacWhirter has a piece I'd very much endorse arguing that The SNP must stick to its guns on student fees. Mr MacWhirter has been very much on form this week, with another interesting contribution earlier on, arguing that the ongoing discussion on the new Scotland Bill represents a victory for the gradualist Scottish nationalist cause - but presents a real debating difficulty for the coming Holyrood election. Since I opened with Robespierre, I'll close with another Jacobin-inspired thought which seems relevant.  After King Louis' flight, Maximilien told his Jacobin brethren that:

"What frightens me is the very thing that seems to reassure everyone. And here I need to be listened to until the end. Once again, what frightens me is the very thing that seems to reassure everyone else: it’s that since this morning, all of our enemies speak the same language as us."

The core of MacWhirter's thesis is the notion that once you've transformed your opponents' premises, made them speak your language and talk to your concerns, you've been victorious.  It is certainly significant, in its limited way, that the new Scotland Bill proposes to change the Scottish Executive to the Scottish Government, in law. No doubt haughty quibblers are already feeling aggrieved to lose such an immediately useful form of condescension. At least in the deep fibres. In his remarks, Robespierre may have been concerned with false patriots who don the Phrygian cap only to cover their own iniquity and dissemble sincerity (a subject, interestingly enough, which Alex Massie has recently been blogging on under the title The Scottish Nationalist pathology). Both pieces to lend our lugs and minds to, I'd suggest.


  1. Beautiful Lallands.

    Now, could you condense this post into words of three syllables or less and post it on the Daily Mail?

  2. It is the boot on the other foot then as we here in Scotland have looked in envy for decades at the opulence and riches bestowed on London, whose gold plated streets have vacuumed our cities for as long. Then we had all the evidence of middle England Londoncentric thinking as we saw the plans for high speed rail stopping somewhere in the north of England. Compare that to Chinas latest rail project.

    Scotland in 2007 the year we were sold into servitude had 25% of the population of England. Now we are at barely 9%. Enough is enough. It is time to reverse the trend let them screech.

    Thanks for a wonderful piece of wordsmanship.

  3. I like the legal change from 'Executive' to 'Government' if only for how the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph will handle it. Both these papers have stuck resolutely to referring to the 'Executive' in that special brand of chauvinistic petulance so popular with the English press.

  4. I'm sure they'd publish my rebuttal whippity-quick, Conan!

    Although I didn't include it in the piece, it occurs to me that if we assume a minimal level of self-consciousness, the Mail's thinking on this might be explained by a technocratic unpolitical vision of politics - which assumes that the allocation of state spending must be based on some universally agreed standard.

    Namely, if anyone had the money, they'd stump up for fees. Hence, if England "can't" stump up for fees, it means that the Welsh and the Scots are getting too much loot. In this respect, it is a dense articulation of a wider problem Stuart Winton regularly brings up - which sees Iain Gray argue for short term prison sentences for knife carriers and Milliband oppose in England. Consistent?

    An odd form of the contention, I admit, but perhaps going some way to explaining how the fallaciousness of the position makes sense to those who propound it...

  5. Hamish,

    Since their insistence on the Scottish Executive was based, as I understand it, on high-minded claims about "accuracy", I suppose they'll have no option but to press this reasoning, swallow their vexation, and cry "Scottish Government" hereinafter. Unless, of course, they concoct some curious notion that the new legislation deprives the collective body of Scottish ministers of their "real" Executive essence...