Monday, April 01, 2013

Basic Certificate in UK citizenship

Ordinary level

Paper 2: Political Interpretation

The deputy first minister of Scotland recently said that for each of the last 30 years tax receipts per head of population in Scotland have been greater than tax receipts per head of population in the UK. 

Q1 (10% of marks). What is the UK? 
 It consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (in order of population). Each, apart from England, which has nearly 84% of the UK population, has independent control over some aspects of its own affairs. This is called devolution. Despite this the electorate per Westminster parliamentary seat is more in England than in either Scotland or Wales.Thus both these components of the UK are over-represented at Westminster while being able to influence matters that affect only England and are none of their business.

Q2 (20% of marks). Is her arithmetic valid?
Without access to her sources and assumptions it is impossible to say. It is a fair bet that she has included a large amount for oil and gas revenues, though the boundary between 'Scotland's oil' and England's is far from universally agreed. We can be sure of this because firstly the SNP considers it to be Scotland's oil, and therefore Scotland's tax revenue, and secondly because without this revenue the figures, on the Scottish government's own admission, are hardly convincing. Scotland has 8.4% of the UK population and the figures produced by GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) show non-North Sea revenue as 8.3% of the UK total, coupled with the plain, and commendably honest, statement that the vast majority of revenue is collected at the UK level and 'generally it is not possible to identify separately the proportion of that revenue receivable from Scotland.' One suspects also that a large majority of the costs of collection and redistribution are borne outside Scotland.

Q3 (20% of marks). How will her remarks be interpreted?
A.  The key point is the comparison between Scotland and the UK; not 'the UK as a whole' but the briefest possible definition, plain UK. Ms Sturgeon (she's married, but not to Mr Sturgeon) wanted to imply a comparison with England, the association the SNP wants to dissolve. She was not claiming that Scotland pays more tax per head than England, though many of her listeners would hear that and be happy to believe it. Had there been credible evidence that Scots pay more tax than the English she would undoubtedly have said so. It is the Westminster parliament, the one that has the unenviable job, perversely, of governing the UK in the interests of the whole UK, that is to be presented as a block on independence. For Westminster, in the SNP mentality, read England. Ergo Scotland is doing more than England to finance the Union and would be better off on its own. Therefore Scots should vote yes in the referendum next year.

Q4 (50% of marks).What is it really all about then?
A. Perhaps surprisingly, it really is about finally settling the devolution question, one of half a dozen or so great loose ends left unfinished or funked entirely by the Labour government (see also House of Lords reform, public service pensions, security of the electricity supply, capping NHS costs . . .). The UK has two more or less viable economies, England and Scotland, one marginal one in Wales and a basket case in Northern Ireland that is bailed out by mostly the first two. A point not made by the SNP, but no doubt of concern to the UK government, is that without Scotland England would have to support Northern Ireland to a greater extent than it does now; there is no way, other obvious considerations apart, that Dublin would take on that burden on top of its present problems. Since one could hardly deny that at least some of the North Sea oil is in Scottish waters and the accompanying revenue would have to go to Scotland, the Scottish case for financial viability may well be sound and is certainly not spurious.

The trouble with devolution is that it has left the UK prime minister with a dilemma: he has to take decisions on things like foreign policy and defence from a UK point of view, but on devolved matters he must act in the interests of England or of some combination of two or more of the four countries of the union, since what has been devolved varies. A Labour prime minister will also want to hang on to the 41 Westminster MPs from Scotland and the 26 from Wales, without which he might not have a Commons majority with which to impose legislation on England. A Conservative prime minister on the other hand might well be very glad to be rid of the 41, or 67, together with the current 17/23 LibDems and nationalists who, whether outside pissing in or inside pissing out, are hampering his efforts at the moment.

At some point this undemocratic mess must be resolved. If it is reasonable for the Scots to decide their own future, as has been accepted, then why should not the Welsh, or the Northern Irish? If these two don't want independence, or don't want to ask the question, as the Scottish parliament did not until the SNP won a majority, then why should the English continue to have their affairs influenced, in some cases decided, by MPs from other countries? If Scotland votes yes it will break away and the whole Westminster scene will be radically changed. Pressure for a similar deal for Wales will increase while perversely there will be no such move from Northern Ireland, probably the one part of the UK any prime minister would be glad to be rid of.

If Scotland votes no it is naive to assume the status quo would be resumed. It would mean only that Mr Salmond has tried to move too fast. The question would come up again. Further powers would be devolved to try to slow the process and for every concession granted the unfairness of the present arrangement would increase and become plainer. Eventually even the English, Chesterton's Secret People, will have had enough but I doubt I will live to see it.