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The SNP’s depiction of Scotland as a prisoner of Westminster is shrewd politics, but detached from inescapable realities.
By Jonn Elledge
If you ever find yourself in need of a fact guaranteed to start a row in certain corners of the internet, you could do worse than this: with 59 MPs, Scotland, a whole country, has only 80 per cent of the representation in Westminster that London, a mere city, has, with 73. If you want another fact, one that goes a long way towards explaining the political and economic mess the United Kingdom finds itself in, while also turning those rows into full-blown fights, consider this: of the two, it’s London that’s under-represented. And the contest isn’t even close.
The reason I’ve been pondering the relative populations of Scotland and England’s capital is because of this week’s exciting legal news – or, more specifically, the dark genius of the SNP’s response to it. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had been claiming – no really, honestly, not just saying that – that her government planned to hold a second independence referendum next October. Before legislating for one, though, it’s been to the UK’s Supreme Court to check that, under the UK’s constitution (pause for hollow laughter) it has the right to do any such thing.
And would you believe it, it doesn’t. The court said that, under the terms of the current devolution settlement, matters concerning the future of the Union are reserved to the UK parliament; thus, without permission from Westminster, Holyrood has no power to legislate for holding a second referendum. The ruling was unanimous, which suggests to me that this result was never really in doubt.
I’m not sure that this is quite the defeat for the independence movement that it might initially appear, however. Had the ruling gone the other way, the SNP would presumably have held its referendum, which the polls suggest it is by no means guaranteed to win. Now it doesn’t have to bother with that: instead, it can bolster its cause by portraying Scotland as a prisoner, at the mercy of the whims of ministers and judges in distant London.
But it’s the form of words being used to do it that’s really struck me. Consider this example, from Dundee East MP Stewart Hosie: “In 2014, Scotland was told it’d be an ‘equal partner’ within the Union. Today’s ruling from the Supreme Court has confirmed that Scotland is not ‘an equal partner’… and denies our democratic right to self determination.”
I’m not sure who, exactly, told Scotland any such thing – extensive googling has brought up a lot of SNP references to this promise, but no original quote. That said, the referendum campaign certainly did see unionists make certain promises, like “voting no is the way to guarantee EU membership”, that turned out to be not entirely true, so let’s give the benefit of the doubt and instead think about why the SNP might be hammering this line.
That Scotland and England should be equal partners in the Union intuitively seems fair: the Act of Union 1707 was a voluntary agreement, albeit one agreed to by a Scottish ruling class who were at the time upsettingly broke, and in terms of land area and cultural weight England and Scotland seem to be the same sort of thing. (I’m not sure the same privilege is always extended to Wales and Northern Ireland. Though I have my theories about why, I don’t have space to explain them, and in any case I am no doubt offending quite enough people already.)
Here’s the problem, though: in perhaps the most important sense, England and Scotland are not the same sort of thing at all. England is an order of magnitude bigger – 56 million people, compared to 5.5 million, and with the vastly larger economy to match. London’s population alone is around 64 per cent bigger than Scotland’s, which surely should raise some questions about whether it’s fair that it only has 24 per cent more MPs.
So the idea of Scotland and England being equal partners is a nonsense: in any remotely democratic settlement, England has to be greatly more powerful. And while there are many constitutions around the world that attempt to manage the interests of states or provinces of radically different sizes, the recent history of the US suggests that such systems can generate their own problems. And anyway, it is extremely hard to come up with another example as unbalanced as the UK: even the USSR was only 51 per cent Russian, compared to England’s 84 per cent of the UK.
The SNP, of course, knows all this: that is surely exactly why it keeps using that line. To voters that don’t appreciate the relative sizes of the two countries, the talk of “equal partners” sounds entirely reasonable, and England’s refusal to treat Scotland as a peer deeply unfair. But to those who do, it just highlights the fact that Scotland will never be able to guarantee it gets its way in a Union in which it holds just 8 per cent of the population. The logical corollary is that, if Scotland really wants to be treated as an equal, it has to leave.
Whether that’ll be enough, though, remains to be seen: polls still show “yes” trailing, and if the SNP and the wider independence movement can’t win after the last 12 years of abysmal Westminster government perhaps it never will. But even if depicting the Union as innately unfair works as a political tactic, that doesn’t mean equal partnership could ever become a reality. The UK has learned the hard way that leaving a much bigger union does not mean you get to negotiate with it as an equal, and an independent Scotland would still border a country with ten times more people. Some are more equal than others.
[See also: Supreme Court defeat should be a signal for Nicola Sturgeon to move on, but she won’t]