1 December 2014

The "pooling and sharing" Union's last throw of the dice?

What is the Union for? We can't really make sense of Thursday's Smith Commission without considering this question. For many and most of those who voted in favour of independence last September, the Union is a ball and chain. Not a harmonious "family of nations" undertaking a joint enterprise together in shared institutions, but a dysfunctional form of politics, reactionary, lopsided, its institutions governing against the grain of the majority of Scots. 

That isn't rich loam from which to grow a new, optimistic account of what the British state and its institutions are for, capable of preserving the unity of the state in the longer run. The SNP were always going to be suspect negotiating partners for the pro-union parties, as they know - or ought to have known - that once they're out of the door, they're inevitably going to slate your proposals as a failure of nerve, and if they think they can get away with it, as a shameful failure to live up to your promises. There's no surprise that the seeds cast by Lord Smith fell on stony ground with the Nationalists.  

Nothing will prevent the political point-scoring, but entering into a long disquisition about whether "the Vow" was honoured or broken seems to me entirely pointless. The extensiveness of the new powers is largely in the eye of the beholder. Given these pessimistic starting points, your average Nationalist will struggle to see the Smith Commission report as anything more than a shill, mistrustful of Scottish self-government or "continued Westminster rule", in the First Minister's phrase. And Nicola is in one sense, dead right. 

For all of the panicked focus in the rest of the United Kingdom of the end of the Union as we know it, the Smith proposals are, essentially, a conservative restatement of the idea that the Union must do things and be seen to do things. Big things. It cannot be an empty vessel within which an autonomous Scotland is contained, and set at liberty to pursue its own priorities. A disinterested lender of last resort, or an organiser of armies and navies with no real interest or say in the domestic affairs of Scots. It must be a state with a purpose, with a mission. To characterise this as an unprincipled "fudge" is fundamentally to misunderstand the political thinking undergirding it. 

For Smith, the Union cannot be conceived a loose confederation of mutually uninterested parties, pursuing their own distinct political priorities. There must be Union dividends. It must pay you back in cold, hard cash. It is a single market in which the worker must be at liberty to float freely, and in which the worker can expect the same minimum wage whether she labours in Cumbria or in Aberdeen. Where her pension is paid from the same pot as her cousin in Kent. A union which builds homes, sustains communities, builds ships, heats pensioners. A Union which secures your fealty, not out of fellow feeling, or a dim sense of identity, but by keeping hold of the purse strings. By keeping significant parts of the doing of British government in hand. 

You may no longer work for state-owned corporations. Ravenscraig may have closed. But the Union justifies its existence by being a force in the life of every person in this country, more and less happily, more and less forcibly. Bugger the abstract calculations: Unionism must remain a matter of self-interest. The UK parliament and government must be felt to be a force in the land. Key political struggles must continue to be fought across the United Kingdom map. You may not agree with that. I don't agree with that. But by no means is it a dishonourable or self-evidently daft account of what it means to be part of a Union state. 

We find echoes of it in each and every other federated and confederal system in the world, where the central government finds itself under pressure to justify its existence and its political legitimacy. It isn't a UK pathology. It doesn't represent chronic mistrust of the Scottish people's capacity for self government. It's just how things work in a negotiated constitutional system, balancing the coherence of the state against demands for autonomy. It may be messy, it may not be the form of devolution I would have adopted, but it isn't an outrage and a scandal. 

Disappointed critics of the plans were given to ask, why can't Scotland decide these questions? Look at all the things we can't do. It is a scandal. But to put the Unionist case at its highest, this critique rests on a fundamental misapprehension. Certainly, Holyrood has no power to vary the universal credit, but via its Members of the Westminster Parliament, Scots have a powerful (if minority) say in how these basic UK-wide benefits should be shaped. 

It is one thing to complain about what the UK parties do once in office, and of the policy consensus dominating them. It is quite another to say that you exercise no power whatever over this decision-making. Smith turns essentially on defining what questions should be subject to co-decision across the United Kingdom in the Westminster parliament. You can argue that this exposes us to bad decisions. You may contend that Holyrood would make a better job of it, and better reflect the democratic aspirations of people living in Scotland. I sympathise. But co-decision making was always on the Smith agenda. Remember Gramsci's dictum: "devo-max" was never on offer. 

In this respect Smith is - essentially - a Calman Plus package, reflecting many of the same principles and approaches which leant the 2012 Scotland Act its finickiness and caution.  It entirely chimes with a key section of the Vow, in which the three Westminster party leaders set out a vision of the United Kingdom which "exists to ensure opportunity and security for all by sharing our resources equitably across all four nations to secure the defence, prosperity and welfare of every citizen." 

Some months ago, Alistair Darling observed that most of the low-hanging fruit of devolution had already been gathered. The obvious competencies had been harvested in the Calman process, and in dribs and drabs before and since. Smith represents a slightly bolder rattling of the boughs, dislodging shoogly issues such as the Crown Estate and a general welfare power, but otherwise leaving the golden apples of significant powers over welfare and taxation unplucked.

This should surprise nobody. The key break on the radicalism of the Smith Commission was always likely to be the instrumental vision of the Union, most associated with Labour, but endorsed by Annabel Goldie last week. One nation. Pool and share. Pool and share. Smith faced a simple choice: honour this vision of the United Kingdom, or junk it in favour of a bolder idea of Scottish autonomy, relinquishing key reserved competencies (and arguably, breaking with the spirit of the famous pledge in the Daily Record). 

It was never likely to happen and it is surprising that some folk persuaded themselves that anything like the Scottish Government's proposals were likely to materialise. That isn't to say that  some of the Smith proposals won't have positive effects if enacted. They are, however, positive effects and the elimination of paradoxes and uselessly constraints which will be appreciated by sad-hearted constitutional obsessives like me, but risk going unnoticed by the wider Scottish punterdom. If enacted, after Smith, the Scotland Act may be a more satisfactory statute. I doubt, however, whether the vision it articulates has the force or simplicity to nip desires for greater autonomy in the bud.  

Much has been made over the weekend of the Smith Commission heralding the beginning - or perhaps the acceleration - of an ever-looser Union. (The "F" word - federalism is being tossed carelessly about: handle with care.) Massie argues that Anglo-Scots relations have become increasingly "contractual" in nature. That may be so - but for me, the Smith Commission's findings stand precisely at odds with that logic: they don't confirm or promote it. Although the tax proposals have soaked up a good deal of ink, the bigger story for me is Smith's conservatism on the welfare state: preserving the universal credit and jealously retaining responsibility for the minimum wage. 

Smith represents the maximum devolution possible, without fundamentally reshaping the United Kingdom, and ditching the "pooling and sharing" Unionism which was the lifeblood of Labour's argument against independence. The final package isn't a repudiation of these principles, but a last-ditch defence of them. What some critics have slated as the Commission's grudging minimalism can be seen in another way -- its proposals represent a stout insistence that the Union must work for Scots and be seen to work for them. It cannot be the label, tying together a loose confederation
One of the propaganda coups of the long referendum campaign was when Alex Salmond lured David Cameron to Edinburgh. The photographers and cameramen might have been filming an international visit. Cameron didn't look like a Prime Minister on the north most corner of his own patch, but a visiting dignitary in a strange land. The SNP's pitch to the Smith Commission essentially asked the UK to internalise this vision of how Scotland should function within the Union: as the constitutional near abroad. Smith declined. And in declining, Smith represents the end of the road for the post 1998, tinkering vision of devolution which leaves the centre of British politics fundamentally unreformed. 

I keep coming back to Tom Nairn's analysis of the devolution push of the 1960s and 1970s. It remains germane today:

"There was no real belief in a new partnership of peoples. And in fact, such a partnership - in other words, genuine "transfer of power" from the old state - was never conceivable without the most radical reform of the centre itself. To give effective power away meant examining, and changing, the basis of power itself: the Constitution, the myth-source of sovereignty, and all that it depends upon. The whole British political system had to be altered. There has been no serious question of doing this, for the sake of the Scots, the Welsh and the Ulstermen. The only political party which advocates it is the one permanently removed from power, the Liberal Party. Unable to contemplate radical reform of the centre (since its whole modern history has been built on avoiding it) London government has blundered empirically into using the usual tactic of graduated response. One commentary after another has explored the self-contradictory nature of the proposals, their liability to generate conflict and escalation of nationalist sentiment and demands."

Lord Smith's proposals represents the last roll of the dice for the pooling and sharing vision of the Union. To be candid, I think they've made a fatal error. If the purpose of these proposals was to answer and dissipate Scottish demands for self-government, and in the long run lock Scotland into a more satisfactory constitutional settlement, they have failed. Calman Plus proposals could never achieve that. Lack of control over key areas of taxation and social security will remain the Union's running sore.  

Half a century on, there remains no real belief of a new partnership of peoples. The small-mindness and exhausting partisan snark of the post-Smith fallout underlined that fact. There is no new Unionism. No visionary, zesty endorsement of home rule. There is only the defensive crouch and the possessive gleam in either eye, the grim determination to give the old "pooling and sharing" conception of the Union one last heave, one last chance. The Union must die so the Labour Party can live. 

In time, the Smith Commissioners may come to lament their caution.


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  2. A pooling-and-sharing union could be a fine thing if Westminster behaved properly and carried respect. It does not.

    This being so, any viable defence of the Union had to start with reform of Westminster and the City, not with reform of Holyrood. No such reform has ever been proposed. In accepting the line that Westminster cannot permit devolution to hollow out the Union, you are accepting Westminster's positioning of the problem as one of the correct degree of Scottish autonomy, not of the unacceptable degree of Westminster corruption.

    What the Smith Commission seeks to preserve under the heading of a "pooling and sharing union" is a monstrous corporate oligarchy, which has constantly evaded responsibility for the current constitutional crisis, and I'm afraid I can summon no respect for the Commission or for its stated principles.

  3. Well maybe. Except that there's no attempt to articulate why, as a matter of principle, any of the reserved matters must remain reserved, or why some bits of particular policy areas may be devolved (why onshore oil and gas but not offshore?). And, as you know, any attempt to claim a principled basis is immediately vulnerable to counter-example - abortion and women's rights being a case in point.

    1. Aileen,

      A fair point: one I almost committed a paragraph to in this, but jettisoned to keep the blog tolerably brief. No "rational basis", if you like, for what we pool and share -- and what we're happy to devolve. Take education, for example. The difference in policy approach is a very visible wedge in the Union - but shouldn't educational opportunity be a shared social right, important whether you are in Reading or in Glasgow? Legerdemain to make sense of it. But we would say that -- lawyers are always excessively orderly and fixated on daffy concepts such as consistency and coherence.

  4. There is no new Unionism. No visionary, zesty endorsement of home rule. There is only the defensive crouch and the possessive gleam in either eye, the grim determination to give the old "pooling and sharing" conception of the Union one last heave, one last chance. The Union must die so the Labour Party can live.


  5. Home Rule Party(federal union)

    have the unionists left a gap for a new political party Scotland'?

    1. That "Home Rule Party" slot was occupied for most of the 20th-century by the Liberals. Labour shared that slot in the 1920s and 1930s.

      Any notion of filling that slot has to start from an analysis for why its previous occupants have vacated it. AFAICS, the answer to that question lies in England, which has shown no appetite for the sort of federalism once sought by the Libs. Even within the Libs, their merger with the SDP led at SDP insistence to a federal structure with devolved English, Scottish and welsh parties. That move was deply resented by English Liberals, and 25 years later its failure is shown by the English LibDems lack of an separate identity. Who except a politics wonk even knows that they exist?

      As a platform for a Scottish political party, independence does not require an English counterpart; it just needs a Scottish base ready to chart a course away from England. But Home Rule as a proposition requires an English counterpart willing to co-operate in building new structures.

      Without such a partner, a Home Rule Party in Scotland would be all dressed up with nowhere to go. It would be inviting voters to come with it to a dance where nobody would dance with them.

    2. abetso

      thx for the reply,what a mess the union is in

    3. To my eye, we've reached the end of the post 1998 constitutional cul de sac. Across the UK, federalism is an idea without a constituency, and without a vehicle.

  6. "It may be messy, it may not be the form of devolution I would have adopted, but it isn't an outrage and a scandal."

    Oh, I think it is. If our starting-point is that a people have the right to shape their own form of government, then what we're looking at is indeed a scandal, because it falls so far short. If the message from Westminster is "we are unable to accommodate your aspirations within the UK", that should have been made clear during the referendum, as opposed to Cameron explicitly saying that all the options for devolution would be on the table in the event of a Yes vote.

    I'm not sure how helpful the international comparisons are, because in most federations there's a reasonable degree of public contentment with the basic model, even if there might be quibbles over the details. In the small minority of cases where there is disenchantment on a par with Scotland's, you see exactly the same constitutional instability as we have here. It would be better in those cases if the political establishment just went along with the popular will, because otherwise they're just prolonging the agony for themselves. Eventually the dam breaks. It'll break even in Quebec, in spite of the federalist triumphalism over recent election results.

    1. I should have said "in the event of a No vote".

    2. James,

      It is a legitimate political analysis, close to my own first preferences. But if anything, the Vow pulls against the vision of radical autonomy you and I favour. You can't slam the Union parties for standing on a false prospectus and then expect them to ditch their pledges. If they wanted to "save" the Union in the longer run, to my mind, they ought to have done it. But they didn't. Hence the key argument of this blog. Pooling and sharing's last ditch.

    3. P.S. On Quebec, I'm not that bothered either way. The two campaigns seem essentially different to me. There is plenty about Quebec nationalism that I find deeply unattractive, politically.

  7. "A union which builds homes, sustains communities, builds ships, heats pensioners."

    If it did do that, which it most certainly does not, then there would be less antagonism towards it.

    1. Gordon Brown did all of these things yet for some reason you guys hate him. Strange.

    2. How many homes did Mr Brown build? (6?)
      How much did the excess winter death rate fall due to policies introduced by Mr Brown? (0?)
      Ships, unusable floating targets built by borrowing yet more debt - I give you.

    3. Proportionately many more than Eck. Don't know but NHS spending soared. Ships. Yes. Child and pensioner poverty halved. Your point?

      Brown did all of these things but, despite claiming that they are good things and you want them, you refuse to give him or Westminster credit and continue to vilify him and others who actually did what you claim to want.

      Typical contrary and close nationalist mindset.

  8. The one definition you seem to have missed is "A union the Scottish people support and have voted for".

    1. Surely you can see this vote was all one sided and corrupt plus it was the old people who lost it for us and they will be dead soon leaving us in the shxt with the english! Scotland never had a true unbiased vote for the union we we conned by the enemy 😞