From Skintland to a United States of Britain

The hysterical debate around Scottish independence is harming independents

The Economist this week caused a bit of a stooshie north of the border by wading into the murky waters of the independence debate with a front cover that labelled an independent Scotland as "Skintland". Whether the SNP’s irate response to the article was individual petulance or co-ordinated political manoeuvring, we’ll probably never know.

What the Economist does spell out is that the hyperboles of neither side are true. Scotland has excellent resources and would not be an "impoverished backwater". Equally, there are not boardrooms full of investors waiting eagerly on the edge of their seats for Alex Salmond to usher them into his socio-democratic paradise.

If the economics are just about even, then, why all the fuss?

Because secessionist movements are not economic. A recent book by two MIT Economists concludes that the optimal size of a country is a trade-off between the benefits of being big (not enough of the current debate has focused on this) and the costs of heterogeneity. Voters want a government who represents their cultural and social beliefs. It is clear that a large number of Scots have felt disenfranchised by sneering, plummy Westminsterites for generations; but this narrow view disregards those many Scots who are proud to be both Scottish and British and who want to stay a part of the Union for the same non-economic national pride that the Nationalists claim a monopoly on.

The debate – an ideological one hidden behind the false pretence of economics – is reminiscent of the USA’s recent primaries, where king-making independent voters are forced to listen to months of diatribe before getting down to the (hopefully) more rational Presidential election.

And just like in America, voters who would prefer a pragmatic, economic solution for the UK are instead being offered two increasingly polarised options.

But there is an alternative.

Of the SNP's "seven key strengths" plan – released hastily in response to Skintlandgate – all seven would be attainable under devo plus/max, yet there is no mention of these options in the Economist article.

Most independents (a poor choice of word in this case) would probably welcome further fiscal powers for Scotland within the Union, preserving the benefits of size and free movement of goods and labour whilst allowing the Scottish Government to provide a more tailored basket of public goods. Indeed, fiscal decentralisation in Scotland offers a rare opportunity to make many better off without making others worse off. But the rub with this can be found in another Economist article two weeks previous:

Scotland, given the power to lower corporation tax. . . will suck investment and jobs from below the border.

There is evidence that this "beggar-thy-neighbour" approach is already happening, with companies such as Amazon awarding large contracts to Scotland over north England thanks to the good (generously funded) work of Scottish regional development agencies (RDAs), which were abolished in England to its detriment. Provided UK growth policy continues to focus on the South East – the SNP’s main, justifiable argument – devo plus/max will breed resentment and inequality in the rest of the UK’s peripheries. For this reason, a fiscally decentralised four-state solution would also be unfeasible.

What is required is a bottom-up model for the UK: Further fiscal decentralisation of the four nations alongside the regions of England; elected regional assemblies with tax-and-spend powers and well-funded RDAs; all backed up with the monetary largesse of the British State and the safety net of central transfers to underperforming regions. In short, a federation. This would allow Britain to rebalance via a productivity-driven, regional-growth model whilst maintaining an historic 300 year old Union and – although no-one seems to mention it – avoiding a costly, messy secession.

It is fitting, then, that as the polarised rhetoric on both sides of the independence debate begins to emulate American politics, the best solution for our constitutional future might lie in a United States of Britain.

The Economist "skintland" cover, which was in no way deliberately provocative

Dom Boyle is a British economist.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser