Don't wreck the heritage we all share
Baroness Thatcher argues that devolution puts the Union at risk
If a professional politician says that something is more important than party politics it is generally time to take a large pinch from the salt cellar. But perhaps former prime ministers can get away with making this point, as I do in the case of the proposals for Scottish devolution on which the Scottish people will shortly vote. What is at stake—in the case of both the propositions on the ballot paper—is nothing short of the Union of the United Kingdom itself. And the constitution of our country is a matter of the gravest moment for all of us, north and south of the Border, although you would never think it from the shallow and cynical manner in which the Government is proceeding.
The argument for a devolved Scottish assembly, with or without tax-raising powers, is, of course, not new. In fact, it belongs by right to the 1960s and 1970s when too many people thought that more government was the answer to our national problems. Creating a new set of politicians, with new powers and spending more money is essentially what all the airy talk about devolution is about.
The true way to give the Scots more control over their future is, by contrast, to cut back what government spends and controls, leaving more freedom of choice for the people. That, though, is the last thing which so many still socialist-minded Scottish politicians want.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine how Scotland could conceivably benefit from what is proposed. Will there be more firms and jobs in Scotland after devolution than before it? Hardly. It is the excellent education, entrepreneurial flair and hard work of the Scots—along with low inflation and competitive tax rates—which have brought business success and more employment in recent years. But the prospect of more political interference, regulation and taxation—particularly at a time when global not local competition is what increasingly counts—can only deter foreign investors and drive talent south of the Border or beyond our shores.
The adverse consequences of the “tartan tax” , which a Scottish parliament would have the power to impose, have already been criticised by businessmen, and the Scottish people would do well to listen. Nor should they be beguiled by the Labour Party's undertaking that it will not, in fact, raise tax.
Let's remember some home truths. Powers are given in order to be used; politicians love to spend, and, in the end, they have to tax; all that ever deters them is the unpopularity of taxation. But, in this case, with the vast majority of the budget still coming from general Exchequer taxation, Scottish politicians will be able to shift the blame to Westminster for all that goes wrong.
So much for the gloomy jobs prospect under devolution. But would the Scots at least have a better deal on public spending? Almost certainly not. Public expenditure per head in Scotland is already substantially higher than in England, and this arrangement has continued unchallenged for many years. It is, though, doubtful whether it would last if the whole financial relationship were subject to fundamental re-examination on the basis of proven need.
Certainly, the majority of English MPs would have little sympathy for the predicament of a Scotland that had its own assembly and its own tax-raising powers when it came to the distribution of public money. And within the Cabinet, the ability of the Secretary of State for Scotland to argue persuasively for Scottish interest would be radically diminished, since he would have no responsibility for most Scottish services, and, for that matter, no obvious function at all.
But the longer term consequences, both for Scotland and for the rest of the UK, go far beyond economics. As the present Prime Minister tactlessly but accurately blurted out in the course of the general election campaign, sovereignty will continue to rest with him in the Westminster Parliament.
The outcry in Scotland which greeted this remark demonstrated, however, that the enthusiasts for a Scottish parliament do not accept that. The support of the SNP for what is proposed also shows that while the Government pretends that devolution will help keep the UK together, those who have set the agenda for change (and who intend to keep on setting it) are hell-bent on separation and will not be appeased.
As the case of the Quebec parliament in Canada confirms—and as the assertiveness of the European Parliament reminds us nearer home—directly elected assemblies which claim to represent the interest of peoples are naturally driven to assert ever wider claims.
And, of course, the opportunities for conflict between Westminster and the Scottish parliament are legion. I have already mentioned some of the predictable and potentially destablising clashes over spending and taxation. But what if, say, the Scottish parliament, which would have control over training, runs up against Westminster, which has control over social security benefits? How can these two aspects of labour market policy be disengaged? Or again, what if the Scots, who would have control over industry policy, wanted to bail out a firm against the general policy guidelines, which would still be set by Westminster? Whose judgment would prevail?
Still more seriously, what if the Scottish parliament refused to have nuclear weapons in Scotland, while the Westminster government was determined to keep our nuclear capability there? The agitators would have a field day.
Already, the constitutional absurdities of what is proposed are clear. The so-called West Lothian question has not been answered—this is, of course, the monstrosity whereby Scottish Westminster MPs would be able to vote on English domestic affairs but not on Scottish domestic affairs. It is but the thinnest edge of the wedge, which will—along with the proposed transformation of the House of Lords into a glorified quango, the sapping away of authority to Brussels and this Government's arrogant disregard for the rights of the House of Commons—ultimately undermine the respect due to our laws.
Over the centuries in the UK, we have created something of which we should be proud, a history to which the Scots have made a special contribution and from which they—like the English—have received enormous benefits. Scottish engineers, scientists, doctors, economists, philosophers, businessmen, soldiers, explorers and statesmen have helped make Britain what it is. And the spread of British civilisation, by trade, by conquest, by settlement, by education and by example has provided Scots with opportunities that would otherwise have been unthinkable.
The UK is that rare thing—a multinational nation state. We can, accordingly, be passionately proud to be Scotsmen. Englishmen, Welshmen and Ulstermen, without any diminution in our pride in being British.
But such ties of unity are inevitably fragile, because they are ultimately emotional; they can, like those of any relationship, unravel; and they may do so with unforeseen consequences. Scottish politicians do Scots no service if they lead them to believe they can always pick and choose the terms under which they wish to remain in the UK. They should not be surprised if the result of doing so is to awaken a resentful English nationalism, which questions other aspects of present arrangements that the Scots themselves take for granted.
I do not believe that most Scots want to end the Union. But separation is the destination towards which the present devolution proposals lead. They represent a negation of our shared history and an abdication of our joint future. Scottish voters can do no greater service to their country than to reject them.