Why federalism won’t save the Union

More devolution will only further weaken the ties which bind the UK together.

During his trip to Edinburgh last week, David Cameron rather unexpectedly announced that he supported an increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament. The current devolutionary settlement, he said, did not have to be the "end of the road" and, provided Scots vote to reject independence at the referendum in 2014, he would be willing to examine ways in which it could be "improved further". Over the weekend, both Michael Moore and Alistair Darling expressed similar sentiments, although, like the prime minister, they refused to say how they thought Holyrood's legislative remit should be enhanced.
 
As Tim Montgomerie explained in the Guardian on Monday, there is a clear political rationale to this new "progressive unionism". The reality is that most Scots support greater fiscal autonomy and, so far, attempts to draw a line in the sand at the status quo - or, worse still, the Scotland Bill - have only played into the hands of the SNP. It makes sense, then, for unionists to seize the initiative by embracing federalism - or some variant of it - and handing Scots responsibility over the bulk of their financial and economic affairs. This would undermine the drive toward separation by sating the Scottish appetite for more self-government.
 
But would it? A federal UK would mean Scotland was only just shy of out-right economic independence. It would see Holyrood take charge of, among other things, Scottish income and corporation taxes, national insurance and - in all likelihood - North Sea oil revenues, while foreign affairs, VAT and monetary policy remained reserved to London. Further devolution for Scotland would have to be met with some form of devolution for England. This would almost certainly involve prohibiting Scottish MPs from voting on English-only matters. Under these conditions, the Union would amount to little more than a kind of glorified defence alliance, with Westminster's UK-wide role being restricted to that of conducting Britain's external relations.
 
The difficulty, though, from a unionist perspective, is that the case for Scotland to determine its own foreign and defence policies is at least as strong as that for it to determine its own economic policies.
 
For instance, an independent Scotland could cut its defence expenditure from the £3.1bn it currently contributes to the British defence budget to around £1.8bn in line with the Nordic average. This would represent a significant saving at a time when public finances were under considerable pressure. It could also force the removal of the hugely dangerous yet strategically redundant Trident nuclear missile system from its waters, thereby substantially improving its security situation. Finally, it could fashion a new role for itself in international politics which reflected its status as a small, northern European social democracy, rather than remain anchored to the UK as it struggles against the decline of its global influence.

Currently, these arguments do not chime with majority opinion in Scotland. But then, a decade ago, the idea that the Scottish Parliament should raise most or all of the money it spends didn't chime with majority opinion either. What changed was Scots' sense that they were capable of governing themselves: the more they did it, the more they wanted to do it. This bears out the "slippery slope" theory advanced by people like Tam Daylell and Michael Forsyth, the most staunch defenders of the UK's unitary political structure. They warned that, as Ian Macwhirter puts it, "independence is a process, not an event" which will occur incrementally over a number of years and through a series of different devolutionary stages, whether people vote for it directly or not. In light of recent events, it is becoming increasingly difficult to say they were wrong.

So, although Cameron, Darling and Moore may view federalism - or devo-max - as the best way to preserve the Union, there is a strong chance it actually represents another step along the road to Scottish independence. Devolution has a logic and a momentum of its own. So far it only seems to be weakening the ties which hold the UK together.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.