Subsidiarity and an official handbook to Britain

From the Herald, Ediotiral Notebook, 16 January 1993

ON my desk this week landed a handsome volume. Its cover carries a colour photomontage including pictures of the Queen, Big Ben, and Mrs Betty Boothroyd, the admirable Speaker of the Commons who looks like becoming one of the TV personalities of the decade. Britain 1993 is an official handbook prepared by the Central Office of Information. I looked through it in the expectation of being irritated by it and was not disappointed. But its crassness surprised even me.

First, it refers to the four constituents of the United Kingdom — the nations of England and Scotland, the principality of Wales and the province of Northern Ireland — as the ”four lands”. This probably arises more from a reluctance to use that divisive word, nation, than from any expectation that Britain will become a federal state composed of lands (or lander as they are called in federal Germany).

The second point of irritation in the handbook follows from the first. A neat little panel on Page 3 gives ”Some Dates in British History”. Students of the Tom Shields Diary will guess what follows. British history is in fact English history. The Treaty of Union with Scotland was merely an Act of the ”British Parliament”. No account is taken of Scotland’s own separate existence as a nation until 1707. And, yes, the Domesday Book and Magna Carta were ”British” events.

Perhaps we should just laugh off all this poppycock and forget its insulting nature. It is more serious than that. Scotland’s constitutional status, as a partner in the Union, is entrenched in the Treaty. The book is therefore highly tendentious and pernicious. It will be read, with respect and credulity, by foreign journalists and other visitors to our shores.

By coincidence this week I was reading a depressing article in the current issue of Foreign Policy by two American diplomatists, Gerald B. Hebman and Steven R. Ratner. Its theme is that disturbing new phenomenon — the failed nation state. From Haiti to the remnants of Yugoslavia, from Somalia, Sudan and Liberia to Cambodia, we find states utterly incapable of sustaining themselves.

In Eastern Europe, the successor states of the old Soviet Union are gripped by economic failure, corruption, crime, and gangsterism. They have weak civil institutions. There is also a retreat almost everywhere from liberal democratic ideas, a surge of crypto-fascism and anti-Semitism. Everywhere in Eastern Europe the media are being brought back under state control (as Calcutt would have it for newspapers here).

In 1945 there were 50 signatories to the UN Charter. Since that time membership has more than tripled, reflecting the enshrinement of self-determination as a UN principle.

Everywhere in this unsettled globe there are ethnic conflicts generated by the desire for territorial autonomy; everywhere there are irredentist campaigns by those who seek to regain lost lands.

The balkanisation of the world itself has become a dynamic process, like the multiplication of cells. New nations themselves instantly become fissile, with subgroups demanding their own place in the sun. In Scotland, with our regional jealousies, we are well aware of that subtext.

Hebman and Ratner argue that the tendency for the world to break up into ever smaller units must somehow be reversed. They blame not so much petty nationalism as the insensitivity and remoteness of central power and call instead for pluralistic unified states.

Mr Major and Mr Lang have gone at least part of the way in recognising that persistent nationalist sentiment in Scotland has got something to do with the insensitivity of the centre. During the Thatcher years, indeed, the line was that the Scots were moaners and bores and should shut up.

They have promised a new beginning and a package of measures. Yet since then we have seen Mr Lang adopt, in his speeches, the English view of British history, and we have seen him propose the reform of local government without its essential companion, a Scottish parliament within the Union for domestic legislation and administration. We have seen the continued erosion of the old Scots common law by UK statutes.

We have heard Mr Major explain why subsidiarity applies only to Westminster. It is, in fact, no more than a cynical formula for placating English nationalists and allowing Britain to evade the responsibilities of European Union.

If Mr Lang really wants a new beginning in Scotland, then he has much to do. He could start by persuading the COI to get its history right.