Right of small nations to reject dependency culture

12 May 1989

IT IS a curious experience to sit on a sunny bench in this city which is Europe's supreme memorial to political failure and read a series of essays on the unexpressed rights and will of the Scottish people.

Berlin is a terrible warning to all who do not count their blessings. If Scotland is the forgotten partner in the UK — here in Germany, as everywhere else in the world, the term England is used interchangeably with Britain — then how much more powerful must be the suppressed feelings of a great nation sterilised by formal political division.

From my hotel window here I can see the ruined profile of the Gedachtniskirche, which stands like a broken tooth in the centre of West Berlin to remind the fat, the prosperous and the complacent of the terrible consequences of the collapse of democratic consent.

Over the Wall the Eastern sector has been tarted up with signs of commerce that seem to be window dressing in both the literal and figurative senses. The economic divide remains so marked that the Wall’s immediate removal would unleash an unmanageable wave of emigration to the West. The East German leadership remains very hostile to perestroika.

Yet small nations have their rights too. The fact that a nation is not oppressed, that it enjoys the rule of law and that its citizens have freedom of movement does not mean that it must yield the right of small countries to self-determination. Indeed, Berlin is a monument to the folly of crushing minority voices.

The absence of oppression creates certain constraints: constitutional change in Scotland can be pursued only through the political process. As Owen Dudley Edwards comments in the concluding essay in A Claim of Right published today and edited by him, the SNP is to be commended for never having set foot on the paths of violence which led to the snakepit of Northern Ireland.

If a new Scottish constitutional arrangement is to emerge it must do so with the consent of the English, and many of the essays in A Claim of Right attempt to deal with English indifference or positive hostility.

Labour believes it has found an answer to the West Lothian question — a problem that with Home Rule Scottish MPs could vote on English domestic affairs while the English MPs would have no say on equivalent Scottish matters — with their proposal for assemblies in England too. Yet this is to ignore the fact that we are dealing here with a national, not a regional question. Bernard Crick, in the outstanding essay in the collection, is an Englishman, but he expresses some exasperation that even Charter 88, the movement for constitutional reform in the UK, should perceive the Scottish question as regional.

He asks how any of his fellow English can be ”so obtuse” as not to recognise that Scotland, for all the interconnections and friendliness, is a nation, or be so condescending as to think that the Scots cannot operate a federal system.

The objection to federalism has been that it would be asymmetrical. This is a spurious objection, as the most cursory examination of other federal systems show. As the authors of A Claim of Right note: ”Tidiness of the system is a minor consideration. The UK has been an anomaly from its inception and is a glaring anomaly now. It is unrealistic to argue that the improvement of government must be prevented if it cannot be fitted within some preconceived symmetry.”

Tory dissidents, too, are tending in the direction of asymmetrical federalism. Michael Fry, in a typically trenchant and refreshing contribution, puts again the argument, now increasingly adopted by Labour, that Scotland should raise its own taxes, share in petroleum revenue tax, pay for its own services and remit payments to Westminster for central services like defence. This, as Fry argues, would certainly undermine the dependency culture.

Mrs Thatcher herself is seen by Professor Crick and others as making an historic misjudgment in her treatment of Scotland comparable to that made by Lord North with the American Colonies. That is a bit steep, but she is certainly the best recruiting sergeant the SNP has had for some time. Pork-barrel political gestures, which seek to placate the Prestwick lobby or buy off the business class, are not going to change that.

Chris McLean of the SNP points to the essential flaw in the Constitutional Convention. It is unelected. The Labour Party is trying to absorb its activities into its main devolutionary programme and use it as a means of neutralising the SNP. Labour politicians lorded it at the opening session. No wonder the SNP stayed out; I cannot share in the lamentations with which Dr Ewards concludes precisely because change must come from the political system.

The Economist pointed out recently that if, as would be reasonable, a Scottish Parliament resulted in a cut in the number of Scots MPs at Westminster, Labour might be excluding itself for ever from UK office. A robust answer to that, surely, is that if Labour cannot win in the south it will not achieve office anyway.

Christopher Harvie suggests that the only way in which the political system might be made to cough up would be by means of an electoral alliance of the anti-Government parties. This could wipe out the Conservatives in Scotland. Mr Dewar seems to be striving to achieve such an alliance but the history of the convention does not suggest he will be successful.

Rather romantically, in the Buchan tradition, Tom Nairn quotes the bucolic wisdom of the Liddesdale postman: ”Ach, politics . . . the troube wi’ us is we’ve never been able to agree amang wirselves.” The timeless girn, he calls it, and this collection of commentaries shows it is alive and well in modern Scotland. Unity continues to elude us.

Independence in Europe remains, as an idea, opaque and imprecise. But whichever way you look at it, some sort of federalism is implied, whether in the UK or in the EC. Getting the English interested remains the difficulty.

Owen Dudley Edwards, editor. A CLAIM OF RIGHT FOR SCOTLAND. Polygon, #14.95 (hardback) #5.95 (softback).