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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 December 2006, 14:37 GMT
Divisions rage despite the Union
Brian Taylor
Political editor, BBC Scotland

So just how should we commemorate the Act of Union - whose tricentenary falls this year?

Saltires and Union flag
The Union can inspire passionate support or opposition

Perhaps you favour a special coin? Maybe an exhibition at Holyrood and Westminster? Both are in train.

Then again, perhaps we might mark 300 years of political marriage between Scotland and England by filing for divorce - and abolishing the Union.

Such an option will be on offer to Scots at elections next year, albeit indirectly.

First, though, the celebrations that are already in hand.

The exhibition and related school projects will, apparently, "inform and stimulate debate about the legacy left by the Act of Union 1707" (Source: the Scottish Executive).

Alternatively, it will amount to "a few half-baked parties about a Union that is past its sell-by date" (Source: the Scottish National Party).

What about that coin, then? Chancellor Gordon Brown announced that he had obtained the approval of Her Majesty the Queen to issue a 2 coin in honour of the treaty which conjoined the parliaments of Scotland and England.

Same monarch since 1603
But separate Parliaments
Earlier union bids mis-fired
1707 Act passed in England and Scotland
Created new Parliament at Westminster
Scottish law preserved
Scotland gained economic security
England gained defence against French
Big deal, say cynical critics (see above). Mr Brown, they noted, also signalled in the self-same announcement that he intends to use the coinage to mark the Queen's diamond wedding anniversary, 200 years since the abolition of slavery and the centenary of the Scouting movement.

His metallic enthusiasm for the Union, they say, owes much to his ambition to be the political boss of the still United Kingdom.

You see the difficulty. How do you commemorate an event which is still the subject of controversy, both in terms of history and contemporary politics?

How do you agree a common programme about an issue which is itself divisive?

Historians and commentators are still arguing over the motivations underlying the 1707 Union of the Parliaments, at least from a Scottish perspective.

It would appear fairly clear that England wanted peace on her northern frontier and a Protestant succession to the Crown.

But what drove the Scots? The same? The lure of trade? Or selective bribery? Did we in Scotland harbour far-sighted merchants and politicians - or "a parcel o' rogues" who were "bought and sold for English gold"?

Then turn to contemporary verdicts on the Union. Is there, as the first minister of Scotland argues, a "Union dividend" for the Scots, alongside his claimed "devolution dividend"?

Holyrood chamber
The debate about devolved powers or independence rages on

Do we in Scotland gain, globally, from the diplomatic and political clout wielded by the United Kingdom?

Alternatively, are we impoverished by Union? Are economic policies tailored to the south-east of England?

Is our Scottish voice, on issues of Scottish concern, drowned out by a louder cry from London? For Scotland, this is a genuine and substantive debate. As it is for England - or should be.

It is entirely legitimate for a free people to consider the method by which they are governed.

It is entirely legitimate to review, three centuries on, the terms of a political and constitutional pact which subsumed two parliaments into one.

To date, commentators in England have declined to participate on those terms.

Articles on this topic in London-based newspapers have mostly read like chapter headings from a reprint of The Unspeakable Scot, a tasty little tirade first published in 1902.

From this standpoint, the very notion of Scottish independence is fanciful, even risible.

Politicians and people are beginning to query the right of MPs from Scotland to vote on matters uniquely affecting England

In such articles, the Scots are to be lampooned as second-rate and, simultaneously, to be condemned for sending so many of their number south to govern England.

One analyst argued that the "Scotch" had an intuitive desire to be oppressed and added, charmingly: "In which case, hell, Jimmy - just say the word, we'll be there for you."

Another offered both good news and bad news about the "English-hating Scots".

The bad news was that Scotland remained a subsidised drain upon England. The good news? Scots, apparently, are dying more quickly than people in England.

I cannot be sure what innate psychological issues prompt such bile, perhaps the authors had a particularly severe Scots nanny. No matter, consider the following.

Firstly, such intemperate insults have long since lost their power to stir the Scots. If they pay any attention at all, most informed commentators in Scotland shake their heads in amused puzzlement.

Scottish votes

Secondly, I do not believe the good and sensible people of England as a whole share such attitudes.

There is in England a nascent, rather inchoate debate over Scottish participation at Westminster.

Politicians and people are beginning to query the right of MPs from Scotland to vote on matters uniquely affecting England.

No matter that the number of Scots MPs has been reduced, post-devolution. No matter that England was seemingly content for the entire UK to be governed by a parliament where there was - and is - a predominant English majority. England is, understandably, beginning to grumble.

I believe this will have to be addressed. Certainly, the issue will force itself onto the agenda if and when the Conservatives win a majority of English seats but are denied the keys to Downing Street by Scottish votes.

A wise body politic would anticipate such a problem by debating the issue sooner rather than later, sensibly and, if possible, calmly.

Perhaps, in similar mood, it might be possible to turn aside from invective and undertake a review of the Union. The year 2007 offers two motivations for such a review.

Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond has his sights on an independence referendum
Firstly, history: that anniversary. Cast your eyes back for a moment to 1707.

In January that year, the independent Scottish Parliament endorsed Union.

After ratification by Westminster and Royal Assent in March, the Scottish Parliament gathered for the last time on the 25th of that month prior to dissolution.

The Union took effect on 1 May, 1707. From then on, the parliaments of Scotland and England were conjoined, meeting as one at Westminster.

Secondly - and more significantly - contemporary elections. Members of the present, revived Scottish Parliament (devolved, within the Union) face the voters on 3 May, 2007.

A key element of that contest will be the challenge of the Scottish National Party: their attempt to win devolved power in order to hold a referendum on full-scale Scottish independence.

There are subtleties and complexities here. There will be voters who want enhanced powers for the devolved parliament at Holyrood - perhaps substantially enhanced - yet step back from or actively dislike independence.

To win power, the Nationalists would almost certainly require a coalition partner because of Holyrood's proportional voting system

There are, for example, Tories, who previously opposed devolution, who now believe in granting Holyrood significant additional tax powers and then campaigning, within that structure, for tax cuts.

The argument being that the free-market, low-tax approach flourishes best in major league politics, rather than in a constrained body which depends upon external funding.

Further, the election is far from the only hurdle confronting the SNP. To win power, the Nationalists would almost certainly require a coalition partner because of Holyrood's proportional voting system.

This was explicitly designed to prevent any party from winning a majority of seats with a minority of the popular vote.

It is by no means clear at this stage who might act as the SNP's buddies, should it come to that.

Domestic law

The Greens could play a role but might not have enough seats.

The Liberal Democrats might well have enough seats - but say no to a deal with the SNP as long as the Nationalists insist on an independence referendum. Which they do.

Plus, of course, the elections on 3 May are about much more than independence.

They are about the powers wielded by the Scottish Parliament which, for Scotland, makes the domestic law and governs education, health, the environment and the rest of the devolved panoply.

Plus, of course, nothing may change. Labour may hold on to their seats and reconstruct their partnership with the Liberal Democrats.

Perhaps, for our present purpose, we might leave such entertaining speculation until 4 May, after the voters have delivered their verdict.

Instead, with that history and those elections in mind, let us consider the parties and their views on the Union.

The Tories would sustain it. The Liberal Democrats would sustain and reform it, extending further powers, including over tax, to Holyrood. The SNP would end it.

And Labour? To discern, you only had to be in storm-battered Oban for the party's Scottish conference in November.

Prime minister, chancellor, home secretary, Scottish secretary, UK minister after UK minister condemned the SNP's proposals.

Gordon Brown and Jack McConnell
Gordon Brown and Jack McConnell rounded on the SNP in Oban

Scottish Executive ministers, meanwhile, set out what Labour planned to do under devolution, within the present powers. This, despite some comments to the contrary, was a planned dual strategy.

In response, the SNP accused Labour of resorting to "smear and fear", of using unsubstantiated claims to close down a debate, rather than engage in it.

Naturally, it is entirely up to the voters to choose, to decide whom they believe.

However, is it possible to sift some of the arguments for and against Union, to suggest which are substantive and which are less so?

By "substantive", incidentally, I do not mean "correct in all respects and for all time". I merely suggest these are arguments which require to be addressed, either to be sustained or rejected.

On the Labour/Unionist side, I am less than impressed by the claim, repeated in various guises, that climate change/drugs/terrorism "know no boundaries" and that this, therefore, pre-empts Scottish independence.

Taken to its logical conclusion, that is an argument for a world state, with no national boundaries whatsoever.

On the SNP/Nationalist side, I am less than impressed by the mantra that small is inevitably beautiful in politics, that Scotland would thrive because other small, independent states - Norway, Iceland, the Republic of Ireland - are seen to be doing well economically.

Albania and North Korea are small states in trouble. China and India are huge countries which are growing rapidly.

California, firmly within the United States, has one of the largest and most diverse economies in the world.

Both the SNP and Labour are inclined to state contentions - and repeat them ad-nauseam - as if they were received wisdom.

In each case, we should ask: would Scotland, would the UK, be better served in these areas by sustaining or repealing the Union?

To be fair, both parties also offer more sophisticated arguments. Labour argues against the disruption involved in creating a Scottish state. The SNP argues for matching the oil fund of Norway or the corporation tax rate of Ireland.

To be fair (twice: a new record), much of the debate over the Union depends upon nebulous but still important issues like self-confidence, global standing and political clout.

Each side asks us, in effect, to believe, to have faith that their prescription will work.

However, there are also substantive issues which might be said to define the debate.

So what are they, bearing in mind that many domestic matters such as education are already run from Scotland according to a Scottish electoral mandate, distinct from Westminster?

For these, we might look to: the economy; public spending; relations with England, including family links; relations with Europe and the world; defence; energy, including oil; the environment; pensions; immigration and international transport.

Broadly, much of the present Westminster reserved list.

In each case, we should ask: would Scotland, would the UK, be better served in these areas by sustaining or repealing the Union?

Is it too much to expect a mature, evidence-based debate, relatively free from rancour and bile? Given how much is at stake, it probably is. However, I ask nonetheless.

See pupils learning about the Act of Union

Union anniversary to be marked
09 Nov 06 |  Scotland
Special coin to mark Act of Union
15 Jun 06 |  Politics
Brown makes case for Britishness
08 Sep 06 |  Scotland


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