Closeup/International Affairs

The battle of Britain

Thistle, daffodil and rose untwined — or untwining

Walter Stewart August 7 1978
Closeup/International Affairs

The battle of Britain

Thistle, daffodil and rose untwined — or untwining

Walter Stewart August 7 1978

The battle of Britain

Closeup/International Affairs

Thistle, daffodil and rose untwined — or untwining

Walter Stewart

Britain has been up in arms over the devolution of Scotland and Wales for years, without any clear idea what the fuss is about. You can have your face broken in a Glasgow pub for attacking devolution by a gent who supports it because it promises independence for Scotland, and revenge for that unpleasantness at Culloden in 1746. For no extra charge, you can have your arms torn from their sockets in Cardiff by a pro-devolutionist who is sure the word implies an end to narrow nationalism, and the triumph of democracy. If that proves tiresome, you can have an eyebrow raised at you—far more painful—by a bowler-hatted Londoner who deplores devolution as a synonym for separatism, the shattering, not of Empire (that went long ago), but of the Mother Country itself.

The chances for mayhem and misunderstanding are brightening every day with the pending final passage of two devolution bills by the British Parliament, a looming referendum in Scotland and Wales, and a general election projected for this fall in which the subject is bound to come up. During that election,

Britons may be treated to the spectacle of Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Conservative party, lashing devolution because it is wicked and will mean the breakup of the kingdom and should be rethought, and the past leader of that same party, former prime minister Edward Heath, supporting the idea because it isn’t and won’t and should not. With any luck, confusion will be complete by Christmas.

In fact, “devolution” means the transfer of power from a central government to a local one. “Separatism” suggests splitting off part of one country to form another while “nationalism” denotes devotion to the interests of one’s own nation. It is possible to be prodevolution and anti-separatism, just as it is possible to be a nationalist and either for or against devolution. However, all three words seem to be scrambled together in the minds of many Britons. For example, A. F. Mutch, convenor of the Grampian Region of Scotland, which includes Aberdeen, says he opposes devolution because “if separatism comes, I’ll have to move to England;

Scotland will be the poorest country in the world”; a Glasgow businessman is certain that “devolution is about one thing only— North Sea oil. It is the politics of greed”; while a London public relations consultant is convinced that “the whole thing is a farce dreamt up by some daft buggers in kilts.”

Devolution does not mean the separation of Scotland, and may prevent it; there is probably little profit in the battle over North Sea oil; and the real proponents of devolution are neither daft nor kilted.

Never mind. One Aberdeen financier is for devolution because he thinks it will bring down the price of Britain’s exports, and thus provide jobs—he has it confused with devaluation.

For a Canadian reporter to be hurled into this sea of misapprehension, namecalling, divided loyalties and total confusion is, of course, Old Home Week. Compared to a Canadian constitutional wrangle, the thing is a snip; devolution is what

our provinces already have, in far more generous measure than anything proposed for Scotland and Wales. Clinging to that fact, and ignoring the miscellaneous claptrap, it is possible for a Canadian to pluck out of the devolution battle some lessons that apply to his own country and, by looking at his own country, to make some guess about what is likely to happen in Britain.

For a start, devolution is coming to Britain, slowly but surely, like a tardy tide. It is coming not because Scotland and Wales want separation from England, but for a complex of reasons, base and noble, that have nothing to do with bagpipes, leek soup, or half-remembered battles, lost long ago. It is coming because it reflects a widespread yearning for local political control, and because it has the support of the ruling Labor party, a strong wing of the Tory party, and the national parties of Scotland and Wales. Not separatism—only the national parties support that—but devolution.

In Cardiff, the Welsh capital, Emrys Jones, secretary of the Welsh Labor party, sits in his grim, cramped, third-floor office, looking gaunt and stern, like an Old Testament prophet who has absentmindedly shaved off his beard. He lays down the law: “Devolution cannot be stopped. It flows from today’s political developments as inevitably as night follows day.” But what if there is a change of government? What if the referendum fails? “Why then,” says Jones, nodding fiercely, “we shall just have to do it again, and again, until we get it right.” Moses used that tone on the Red Sea, and the Red Sea, no fool, got out of his way.

In London, Scottish lawyer John Smith, the cheerful, canny, chubby minister of state for devolution, is just as sure. “Every public opinion poll to date has shown a clear majority against separatism and a clear majority for devolution,” he says. “The process may be delayed, it may be modified, but it cannot be scrapped.”

Along a narrow lane outside the hamlet of Hollybush, on the west coast of Scotland, an elderly gentleman, who knows nothing of politics, reflects the same view.

“Oh, God, the young ones are all for it,” he says. “So we shall have to have it, won’t we?”

What Britons will have to have, if this gentleman is right, is not some newfangled gadget, but the expression of a kind of regionalism Canadians have known for decades. The referendum question shortly to be placed before the people of Scotland and Wales will ask them if they approve of the government’s proposals, and 40 per cent of all eligible voters—not merely a majority of those who turn up at the polls—must approve for the referendum to pass. When and if that happens, the Scotland and Wales bills, now in their final parliamentary throes, will become law. They will, in effect, transfer power out of the cluttered corridors of Whitehall in London, and into the meeting halls, committee rooms and homes of the outlying districts.

The two countries, however, are approached differently. Scotland, which already has a wide measure of administrative control, as well as its own legal system, traditions and church, would assume many of the powers of a Canadian province. Scots don’t like to admit this; devolution’s proponents say they are opposed to a federal system—they roll their eyes and talk of Quebec—but that is what it comes to, nonetheless.

There would be a Scottish Assembly, based in Edinburgh, with about 100 members, and an executive headed by a first secretary, a quasi-premier, who would be appointed by Whitehall but nominated by the assembly. The assembly would have the right to pass laws dealing with a wide range of matters, including local government, health, social welfare, education, housing, transportation and the regulation of the courts. The central Parliament at West-

minster would have the right to disallow legislation it found repugnant (as does our House of Commons, in theory at least), but on its own turf the Scottish Assembly would be a powerful body. It would receive a block budget from Westminster, which it could divide up as it liked in the areas under its jurisdiction.

Scotland would continue to be represented by 71 MPs at Westminster (and Wales by 36); the real change would be that the wide range of local issues that are decided by the British Parliament as a whole (which means, in effect, by an army of bureaucrats) would come under the direction of directly elected, local citizens, who are not trying to sort out the nation’s defence stance in Asia while dealing with school milk programs for Garscadden. Scotland contains only about one-tenth of Britain’s population, and while it has no reason to complain of its financial treat-

ment—public spending is higher per capita in Scotland than in England—Scottish concerns do not rank high in London; 71 MPs, even gabby ones, tend to get lost in a sea of 635 House of Commons representatives. The Scots have different priorities than the English—they are more worried about housing, for example, and less worried about immigration—but, at present, they have no way of expressing their differences short of separatism.

Wales has only about half Scotland’s population, less autonomy, no separate legal system and an even greater dependence on Whitehall. Curiously, the Welsh have kept more of their own language than the Scots—about a fifth of the nation is bilingual and 32,000 Welshmen speak only Welsh, while Gaelic in Scotland appears to be confined to scholars, cranks and ancients. But Wales has been so poor so long that most of its nationalism is gone,

scooped out with the coal deposits. Although there is a Welsh National Party, the Plaid Cymru, it took only about 10 per cent of the vote in the last general election, and sent only three MPs to Parliament. The Scottish National Party took nearly onethird of the 1974 vote, and sent 11 MPs to Westminster. Welsh devolution, then, is more modestly scaled than Scotland’s.

There would be a Welsh Assembly at Cardiff, with about 80 directly elected members, but it would have no powers of legislation and only a rudimentary executive. Its main function would be to set up committees to direct—not legislate—government operations in local matters, from health and the environment to housing and transportation.

As in Scotland, a major benefit would be to bring under local scrutiny a wide range of appointed bodies, from the Welsh Water Authority to the Ancient Monuments

Board; from the eight Area Health Authorities, which spend over $500 million a year, to the Sports Council for Wales, which spends about $3 million. Appointments to these bodies are currently made by the secretary of state for Wales, and the local bureaucracy is run, in the end, by outsiders. The Welsh Development Agency, for example, is headed by a Scot, Ian Gray, a charming, informed and intelligent gentleman, but a Scot nonetheless. If devolution comes to Wales, he will have to find another line of work. The Welsh Water Authority would also see some changes; under current arrangements, nearby English cities can buy Welsh water cheaper than the Welsh.

In short, the real push for devolution in both Scotland and Wales is not an argument about patriotism, but about regionalism, patronage, dollars and democracy.

“It is inconceivable to me,” says Emrys Jones of the Welsh Labor Party, “that thoughtful people could oppose putting greater responsibility in local hands. What we are talking about is making those who have the power to affect people’s lives answerable to those same people. That is what democracy is all about.”

There is another and less highfalutin level to the argument, a line that is explored in Scotland rather than in Wales, and that has to do with the squabble over oil income.

The Scots are a peculiar breed; dreamy but grabby, sentimental but never above turning the situation to their own advantage. Remember Annie Laurie? She was the lovely lass who was locked in her room because she had taken a lover her parents found unsuitable, and he, poor stricken lad, wrote a lovely song about her in which he promised to lay doon to dee. However, after a spell in her room, Annie said to hell with it, chucked the romance and came downstairs. Her lover, William Douglas, married one Elizabeth Clark, Annie married Alexander Ferguson and, as far as we know, they all lived happily ever after.

Scottish nationalism is like that—dewyeyed, but canny; you want to watch what happens after the music dies. The movement was getting nowhere until oil bobbed up in the North Sea in 1970. The oil brought with it, alongside dreams of avarice, a tricky problem. Since Scottish law is quite different from English, whose rules would apply in the North Sea? The issue was resolved by drawing a line on a map, dividing off English and Scottish spheres.

Then most of the significant oil finds turned up in the Scottish area, and that— not memories of haggis and the bagpipe— created the recent bull market in Scottish nationalism. There was something to get sentimental about.

George Reid, the slender, outspoken Scottish National Party MP for Stirling East, makes no bones about the thrust behind his party: “We stand to get more money.” Didn’t this sound a little greedy?

Reid thought a moment, then nodded, “I

would accept that... Of course, that’s not all there is to it. We are a separate people; we’re not class-ridden like the English; we’re different in many ways. But the money doesn’t hurt.”

Reid, who attended McGill University in 1961 and visits Quebec from time to time, sees only minor parallels between his party and the Parti Québécois. “There is no language issue, for one thing, and, for another, we’re not talking about going it alone. We’re talking about a customs union with England and membership on our own hook in the Common Market. We’re talking about getting more—not all, but more—of the proceeds from North Sea oil. We have been a separate nation—we’re more like Catalonia than Quebec—but we don’t kid ourselves that any nation can be really independent in today’s interdependent world.”

One similarity with the Parti Québécois is that “only about 25 per cent of our vote is hard-core nationalist. We get the votes of people fed up with the old parties, or drawn to us by our social policies, which are mildly left-wing, like Lévesque’s.” The SNP did well in the 1974 elections, when tempers were high and the mood uncertain, but now that Britain has regained some of its self-confidence, Reid admits, “We’ll probably take a battering this fall.” However, “We’re not going to go away; 30 per cent of the vote doesn’t just vanish.” The national cause will soar again, Reid believes, when

the people of Scotland, voting in a devolved assembly, remember about the oil.

What is intriguing in the squabble over oil revenues—Minister of State John Smith says flatly, “Oil is not devolved”—is that it may be a battle over an empty box. Lord Kearton, chairman of the British National Oil Corporation, who should know, says, “There is a tremendous fuss made about the tax take coming from oil. You can read the government white paper waxing lyrical about £4 billion of income— but where is it to come from? The oil companies are allowed to write off 175 per cent of their costs of drilling and exploration against income. Not 100 per cent— 175 per cent. It doesn’t take much to see that all an oil company has to do is to keep drilling, and very little tax will be paid.”

There is still, of course, an awful lot of money in the North Sea operation. There are balance of payments benefits both from selling the oil and from not having to buy it from the Arabs; there are fortunes in equipment and supplies, and thousands of jobs, direct and indirect, in extracting the oil from the sea and moving it to market. Moreover, the British government will benefit from its own holdings in profitable ventures such as British Petroleum and Kearton’s own BNOC, but, Kearton says, “The tax take will be low—a few million pounds a year. Most of the fuss is over a fiction.”

As if that weren’t enough, the Shetland

Islands, in the middle of the oil basin, have served notice that they want no part of Scot control; they care no more for Edinburgh than London, and if Scotland devolves, Shetland wants to reserve its right to devolve from Scotland.

The SNP may be chasing a chimera if it thinks it will float to independence on a sea of oil. But that does not mean that devolution is threatened. One Whitehall source, who has worked closely on the devolution bills, puts it this way: “Devolution doesn’t go down with the SNP vote; just the opposite. The bills take the wind out of the nationalist sails by giving local people the control they want without having to break up the nation.” In fact, he would not be surprised to see regions of England, such as the Midlands, asking for some of the regional control that will go to Scotland and Wales. The Welsh Labor Party is on record as supporting this further step.

Canada, of course, has already been this route; not only do Canadian provinces wield more power than anything dreamt of for Scotland and Wales, but now cities and regions are demanding more autonomy. Their hope, like the devolutionists’, is to bring decision-making home, to bring sprawling governments back to grassroots. That, it seems in the ’70s, is a worldwide ambition and it will be surprising if the Britons, once they work their way through their confusion, don’t act on it, in both Scotland and Wales.^