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Three Hundred Years and Counting for Great Britain

by Gary J Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 05:27:37 AM EST

Today is the 300th anniversary of the passage by the Scottish Parliament of the Act of Union, which was a crucial stage in the construction of a United Kingdom of Great Britain.

The English version of the Act of Union received royal assent on 6 March 1707 and the union came into existence on 1 May 1707.

It is interesting how little fuss is being made about this tercentenary. The union was described at the time as a marriage of convenience and little patriotic enthusiasm has been invested in it.

The BBC has done some opinion polling and concluded that about three quarters of the English and just over half the Scots support the union. These are not overwhelming numbers for the foundation of the UK government.

I do not seem able to produce a hyperlink, but this is the link to the BBC website.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6264823.stm

For the modern political situation in Scotland and England see after the fold. Update Simon Jenkins in The Guardian has some thoughts on devolution. Something is stirring in the undergrowth of British politics. It ,ay come to nothing, but it may cause big structural changes in the next few years.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1991979,00.html


Scotland is due to hold its third election to the devolved Parliament this year. The polls indicate that the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition which has been in power in Edinburgh will lose its majority. Indeed it may be that neither Labour nor the Scottish National Party will be able to form a majority executive without two coalition partners.

On the face of it the three unionist parties - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats are likely to have a majority over the nationalist ones (SNP, Scottish Green Party, Scottish Socialist Party and whichever splinter group Tommy Sheridan is leading now). On the other hand the Scottish Tories are radioactive to the other parties, who are all more centre-left.

The unionist/nationalist divide is not as bitter or as absolute as in Northern Ireland, so a SNP-Liberal Democrat-Green coalition may be possible if agreement on policy can be reached. The SNP insistence upon a referendum about independence may be an insurmountable obstacle. On the other hand there may be something to be said for getting the issue out of the way, as the BBC poll only shows 35% support for independence.

Meanwhile in England support for a devolved English Parliament seems to be growing. The Westminster politicians are not keen on this option. They would lose all the issues their electors really care about education, health and criminal justice (if the English Parliament had the same powers as the Scottish one). The UK Parliament would be left with foreign affairs, defence and raising the taxes to pay for the schemes of the devolved institutions.

I think the fear is that an English First Minister would be an over mighty subject who would sooner or later do to the UK Prime Minister what Russian President Yeltsin did to Soviet President Gorbachev.

I have produced an exciting interactive poll about how long the union will last. What do you think?

Poll
How long will the union last?
. Until later this year. 300 is a nice round number. 16%
. Until next year. The Treaty of Disunion will take some time. 8%
. Until 2011. The Scottish election after next is the key. 8%
. During the 21st century. 8%
. In time for the 400th anniversary. 0%
. 500 years is a nice round number. 8%
. The great and glorious British Empire will last forever. 50%

Votes: 12
Results | Other Polls
Display:
I'm still thinking about the poll, I'll come back to it.

I personally don't think it's all that ethical to suppress a referendum with a Lib-Lab-Tory pact. If the SNP gets enough votes to form a Lib-SNP-Green coalition then I feel the Lib Dems have a responsibility to acknowledge that the will of the people deserves an outing, so long as they can (and I'd imagine they can) find common policy ground with the Greens and the SNP on other issues.

So, I support a referendum if the party advocating it gets significant support in the election. My gut feeling is that a referendum would likely not vote for independence this time around. I think it would be close, but I do feel there's quite a body of people who aren't yet up for the upheaval of the status quo. I'm not saying they are happy with the union, but they haven't reached boiling point with it either. But, I don't live up there and I only know a certain number of Scots.

Longer term forecasting is difficult because it relies on 2 or 3 variables. One is the actual election results. If the SNP falls short of predictions, then the issue will fade for a while, I think Alex Salmond would retire and the SNP will go through some quiet reorganising. On the other hand, if they exceed predictions but are thwarted by a Lib-Lab-Tory pact I can see the issue just getting hotter and hotter.

So, assuming there is an SNP surge which leads to a referendum, but the referendum says "no" for now. Then the jokers in the pack are Brown and Cameron and their platforms and policies and of course which one wins.

That's a story for another comment.

I think an English First Minister leads directly to the end of the UK parliament. Sooner or later there is going to be a conflict over money and priorities, particularly if the English FM is a Tory and the UK parliament as a whole is centre-left. I don't see that resolving without major changes.

Also, as you note, the UK parliament would have little direct connection with the voters. This would leave it with little popular support in confrontation with a government that deals with the things that matter, day to day.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 06:48:36 AM EST
From Martin Kettle at The Guardian

In England meanwhile such claims are even more fantastic. I keep reading about how English opinion won't put up with this or that. But the fact is that this is precisely what English opinion does. Even to talk about there being an English debate about separation is to exaggerate. In England any debate is confined to professional Anglo-Scots members of the political class, to constitutional reform obsessives and to mad people, mostly on the Daily Telegraph.

He's being overemphatic for comic effect, but not only did it make me laugh, I think it holds quite a large kernel of truth, at least at the moment.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 09:30:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Since I live in Scotland and am increasingly engaging with politicians re policies - particularly re microbusinesses - I thought I might chuck in my view.

There are antagonisms which are impossible to heal, I think, without a lot more water under the bridge.

Labour and Tory is one - but I could expand that to ANYONE and Tory. ie Lab/ Lib/ Tory is a non-starter, IMHO.

Labour and SNP is another.

SNP and LibDem are both decentralising parties, and tend to get on quite well - Perth & Kinross is a good Council example.

So I would go with what is essentially the only viable option if the seats permit - an SNP/Lib Dem/ Green alliance.

I think the anti-Labour vote will see such an alliance in.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 10:39:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the fear is that an English First Minister would be an over mighty subject who would sooner or later do to the UK Prime Minister what Russian President Yeltsin did to Soviet President Gorbachev.
Yup.

One thing that puzzles me is that the West Lothian question never posed itself in Spain, despite the fact that the plan that the framers of the Constitution of 1978 had in mind was basically for the peripheral regions (Galicia, Basque Country, Catalonia, and maybe Navarra, Andalucia and the islands) to get regional assemblies and having the rest under the National Parliament. In actuality, it took less than 10 years for the entire country to get carved up into 17 regional governments (plus Ceuta and Melilla).

Why was it that all of "Greater Castille" didn't just constitute itself into a single autonomous unit (like the putative English parliament) and instead organised itself into 10 regions? Is it because the mechanism was explicitly bottom-up? Also, the existing Regional organisation from Franco's time greatly influenced (but differs in significant ways) from the current subdivisions.

Also note that, just like the Spanish Autonomy Statutes are organic laws of the National Parliament (second only to the Constitution in rank) so the UK's regional assemblies have been created by act of the Westminster Parliament.

After quoting the Spanish Constitution's devolution procedure twice (here and here) I asked the following question in a recent diary, but I didn't get a satisfactory reply:

Suppose for a minute that the devolution provisions of the Spanish constitution were applied to the UK:
Section 143
1. In the exercise of the right to self-government recognized in section 2 of the Constitution, bordering provinces with common historic, cultural and economic characteristics, insular territories and provinces with a historic regional status may accede to self-government and form Self-governing Communities (Comunidades Autónomas) in conformity with the provisions contained in this Part and in the respective Statutes.
2. The right to initiate the process towards self-government lies with all the Provincial Councils concerned or with the corresponding inter-island body and with two thirds of the municipalities whose population represents at least the majority of the electorate of each province or island. These requirements must be met within six months from the initial agreement reached to this aim by any of the local Corporations concerned.
3. If this initiative is not successful, it may be repeated only after five years have elapsed.
(Where it says "province" read "county")

What would be the result?

The existing regional assemblies (Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Greater London) would be grandfathered into the system.


"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 07:05:34 AM EST
I agree it would be better to have a bottom up process. The existing nine English regions are lines on a map drawn up by the central government. Apart from Greater London, the regions are extremely shadowy. Most people probably do not realise they exist.

English local patriotism focuses on the counties (and probably more the historic counties than the administrative areas we have had since 1974). The only one of the 'new' counties which seems to have worked is Cumbria - isolated off in the north west corner of England.

Many counties would probably prefer to go it alone, although a few areas (like the three counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire) have traditional links.

Most English counties have the same population as one of the smaller US states. Idiosyncratic smaller counties like the Isle of Wight and Rutland might upset tidy minded bureaucrats, who want units they consider the right size, but the Swiss cantons seem to manage.

Devolution to the counties (or voluntary groupings of counties) might be the most popular approach, which is no doubt why no political party has suggested it.

by Gary J on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 11:25:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are 81 English counties... you are not seriously suggesting they would all want to be separate from their neighbours?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 12:12:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The number of counties has been confused by areas being given unitary status and then being designated as counties. These are, on the whole, not real counties. Some are the equivalent of the old county boroughs - which were part of a geographic county but not an administrative one. Others were detached from a historic county in 1974 and included in a new county, since abolished.

There were 39 historic counties.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Counties_of_England

Almost all of Middlesex and part of several other counties now forms Greater London. I do not see that region being unscrambled.

Cumberland, Westmorland and the northern part of Lancashire were combined into Cumbria. That arrangement seems likely to continue.

The Isle of Wight probably should be regarded as a distinct county. Grouping it with Hampshire makes little sense.

No doubt some counties would form groups, but not all. Cornwall for example has asked to become a region on its own. At a guess a bottom up arrangement might produce about 15 to 25 units, which does not seem too excessive for a country with the population of England.

To know for sure we would have to allow the councils to choose.

by Gary J on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 02:20:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The spread of BBC Local Radio stations gives an idea of what the main cultural/population/historical groupings are these days.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/england/radindex.shtml

There's 40 there, but some obvious potential mergers for the purposes of this discussion.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 03:34:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Let me try and construct a pattern of regions, using the existing county and unitary authorities. This is my guess about which counties and equivalent unitary areas would link together, but I am no expert about popular attitudes.

Some areas are relatively simple, but there is a large part of England where there are no obvious natural subdivisions and for historical ones you have to go back to the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the Heptarchy, before the tenth century.

The problems can be seen in the attempts by Wessex regionalists to define a Wessex region they can all agree on. Between the shifting boundaries of the historic Kingdom of Wessex, the Wessex of Thomas Hardy and the attempts of Cornwall and some in Devon to assert a non Wessex celtic heritage; the south west and south central portions of the map are problematic.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wessex

Region (including)

  1. Berks, Bucks and Oxon or possibly North East Wessex (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes, Oxfordshire).

  2. Cornwall (Cornwall, Isles of Scilly). It might possibly link with Devon, but Cornwall is the most distinctive English county, with its own celtic heritage.

  3. East Anglia  (Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Peterborough, Suffolk). A Kingdom of the Heptarchy.

  4. Essex  (Essex, Southend on Sea, Thurrock). One of the Kingdoms of the Heptarchy and a large modern shire county.

  5. Greater London (Greater London). The one region which is already a reality.

  6. Hampshire (Bournemouth (could go with its post 1974 county of Dorset or its pre 1974 county), Hampshire, Portsmouth,  Southampton). A part of the historic Kingdom of Wessex, Winchester was Alfred the Great's capital. However it is one of the larger shire counties, which I would see as distinct from the south west. The Isle of Wight might be included but I suspect the Islanders would strongly prefer their own small region.

  7. Isle of Wight (Isle of Wight).

  8. Lincolnshire (Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire, North East Lincolnshire). It could possibly link with the Midlands or East Anglia, but it is a historic county which does not quite fit with anywhere else.

  9. North East England (Darlington, Durham, Hartlepool, Northumberland, Stockton on Tees, Tyne and Wear). This is more or less the existing region. It rejected an elected regional assembly at a referendum, but a body with worthwhile powers might be more acceptable.

  10. North Mercia (Derby, Derbyshire, Leicester, Leicestershire, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, Rutland, Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent).

  11. North West England (Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Halton, Lancashire, Merseyside). This is the existing region. Possibly Cumbria might see itself as distinct enough to want to be a small region.

  12. South East England (Brighton and Hove, East Sussex, Kent, Medway, Surrey, West Sussex). This is a fairly cohesive geographical area with some historical ties. It combines two of the smaller Heptarchy kingdoms (Kent and Sussex) with the territory between them and the Thames (Surrey).

  13. South Mercia (Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Luton, Northamptonshire).

  14. Wessex (Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, Devon (unless it links with Cornwall), Dorset, Gloucestershire (possibly), North Somerset, Plymouth, Poole, Somerset, Swindon, South Gloucestershire, Torbay, Wiltshire). Not absolutely the same as the historic or literary Wessex, but you have to draw the boundaries somewhere.

  15. West Mercia (Herefordshire, Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin,Warwickshire, Worcestershire). Counties around and to the west of West Midlands.

  16. West Midlands (the metropolitan county of West Midlands, around Birmingham, not the larger current region). This is a large urban area. It could be treated separately from the rest of the Midlands.

  17. Yorkshire (East Riding of Yorkshire, Hull, Middlesbrough*, Redcar and Cleveland*, South Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, York)

*Possibly North East but the area was part of historic Yorkshire.
by Gary J on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 09:39:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you, this is the kind of answer I had inmind for my original question.

There is absolutely no problem for a large island such as the Isle of Wight to be its own region.

Regarding Wessex, since the process is bottom-up, as long as the existing Cornwall  county council refuses to join the rest of the Wessex councils in applying for region status, it would stay separated. Similarly for Cumbria.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 at 03:51:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And the rest of Wessex isn't that keen on Cornwall. At least 'round these parts.
by northsylvania on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 10:39:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
of ProgressiveHistorians, a community site dedicated to the intersection of history and politics, I would be honored if you would cross-post this excellent diary there.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...
by Nonpartisan on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 10:25:30 AM EST
Thanks for the suggestion. I will do as you suggest.
by Gary J on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 11:26:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hi NP - I'm happy that you enjoy many of our diaries, and have no objection whatsoever to your requests to crosspost at your site,  but at some point I hope that you'll be able to reciprocate and encourage some of your own diarists to crosspost here some diaries originally posted on your site!

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 at 06:03:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Meanwhile in England support for a devolved English Parliament seems to be growing. The Westminster politicians are not keen on this option. They would lose all the issues their electors really care about education, health and criminal justice (if the English Parliament had the same powers as the Scottish one). The UK Parliament would be left with foreign affairs, defence and raising the taxes to pay for the schemes of the devolved institutions.
Given that, despite a large degree of devolution of education, health and justice, the Spanish Parliament hasn't lost its pre-eminent position in the mind of Spaniards after 20 to 25 years of devolution, I wonder whether what you are saying is true, and how that would work. Would Westminster lose or share the power to legislate on these areas? Some power to legislate at the national level would be necessary to ensure coordination and cohesion of the regional systems (though the controversy over drugs available under the NHS in Scotland but not in England makes me wonder about this). Wikipedia claims
The Scotland Act 1998 creates the Scottish Parliament, sets out how Members of the Scottish Parliament are to be elected, makes some provision about the internal operation of the Parliament (although many issues are left for the Parliament itself to regulate) and sets out the process for the Parliament to consider and pass Bills which become Acts of the Scottish Parliament once they receive Royal Assent. The Act does not affect the power of the UK Parliament to legislate in respect of Scotland, recognising the concept of Parliamentary sovereignty.
I am beginning to wonder how the Scotland Act 1998 compares with, say, the new Catalan Statute. Comparisons between the Basque Country and Northern Ireland are also often made, together with the statement that the current Basque Statute devolves more powers than the Stormont Agreement.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 at 04:32:01 AM EST
The difference between devolution (Home Rule) and a proper federal system, is that the central Parliament retains full legislative power. It could, for example, abolish the devolved institutions or reduce the powers they have, without any greater formality than for any other legislation. Parliament can ignore devolution and legislate on devolved matters, but it has adopted a convention not to do so. The sanctions against these things happening are political instead of legal.

The reason why it is feared an English Parliament would lead to the break up of the UK is that England has such a large majority of the population. If the policies of a Conservative English Executive were being blocked by a Labour UK government, because of the non-English members being mostly anti-Comservative, then there would be a real risk of the total collapse of the political system.

The problem does not arise so acutely when no devolved area forms the majority of the whole union. That is why Labour and Liberal Democrat ideas involved the English regions having a status comparable to Scotland and Wales, rather than the whole of England. The refusal of the people to accept the Labour agenda has pushed the argument in the direction either of an English Parliament or the Conservative idea that only English MPs should legislate for England on the sort of matters which had been devolved to Scotland.

by Gary J on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 at 09:05:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
IIRC, the Scottish parliamentary seats are distributed (roughly) proportionally to votes. Correct?

Since this very seldom produces a majority party, different (formal and informal) rules generally rule the formation of a government. In some cases (like Sweden) minority governments are common and in some others (like Germany) they are very uncommon, if they exist at all. From what you have written it would look like it in Scotland would demand a majority for forming a government. True?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 08:00:25 AM EST
The Scottish Parliament uses an Additional Member electoral system, similar to that used in Germany. This ensures a quite proportional result and has produced a multi-party politics far more like that of Sweden than that of the majoritarian Westminster tradition.

It is fair to say that there is no realistic possibility of a single party winning a majority in the Scottish Parliament. Up to now a Labour-Liberal Democrat majority coalition has ruled in Edinburgh. It is uncertain what would happen if that coalition lost its majority.

The First Minister of Scotland is elected by the Scottish Parliament. I am not sure if he needs an absolute majority or if a majority of those members voting is sufficient. There does not seem to be any reason why there should not be a minority coalition, once a First Minister has been elected.

The current Parliament elected in 2003 (and the first Parliament elected in 1999) comprise:-

Labour 50 (56), Scottish National Party 26* (35), Conservative 17 (18), Liberal Democrats 17 (17*), Scottish Green Party 7 (1), Scottish Socialist Party 6 (1) of which 2 have since formed a party called Solidarity, Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party 1 (0), Independent 5 (1). The party total marked * includes the Presiding Officer, who ceases to be regarded as a party member whilst serving as Presiding Officer.

It will be seen that the three largest parties all lost a seat or seats in the second election, as the voters realised that parties with no hope in first past the post elections could win seats in a proportional representation election.

by Gary J on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 01:09:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Looking at the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish Parliament nominates a member to be appointed First Minister by the Queen. The act does not state how much support is needed to be nominated. In every case so far the First Minister nominee has been supported by more than half the members.
by Gary J on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 01:31:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I suppose if the Act says nothing else "nomination" is a regular motion of the Scottish parliament, so only a plurality of votes cast is needed to carry it?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 01:34:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"I suppose if the Act says nothing else "nomination" is a regular motion of the Scottish parliament, so only a plurality of votes cast is needed to carry it?"

I agree that is the obvious interpretation. I think if an absolute majority of all members was required it would have been specified in the legislation.

by Gary J on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 01:39:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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