In his excellent biography of the great mid-nineteenth century Emir of Jiqal, David Maxwell McDonald, the British Ambassador to the Emirate wrote of the Emir’s exquisite good taste and perspicacity.
I was reminded of these virtues when I spent a fortnight of hours reviewing the 1982 UK election, courtesy of that great institution, the BBC.
Over the next eight weeks it will cover a number of different themes including two rather crucial questions, “what is the UK for?” and “if there’s to be a Union what should it do?” In an unflashy way it’s questions like that the UK Government is attempting to answer, and if the SNP were genuinely “constructive” they’d get involved instead of carping from the side-lines.
That everything had changed; changed utterly.
As Young went on to explain, although it was generally “good sense” to “appoint individual people to jobs on their merit”, it was the opposite when “those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others”. By 2001 he concluded the UK was pretty much there, and furthermore this “new class” had the “means at hand” (ie education) “by which it reproduces itself”.
Indeed, the remarkable rise of the recently departed Jeremy Thorpe and his small band of Liberals in the general election of February 1974 represented a decisive shift to a new electoral age in which the two historically dominant parties couldn’t count on majorities and smaller parties became increasingly mainstream.
Last week the Scottish actor James McAvoy (currently starring in Peter Barnes’ play The Ruling Class) echoed Lord Young in describing “a frightening world” with “one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts”, by which he meant those educated at independent schools.
Which is why, as Iain Macwhirter wrote in yesterday’s Sunday Herald, the SNP’s decision to rule out unequivocally any deal with the Conservatives makes little sense. If the Nationalists genuinely want to maximise their influence in a “balanced” Parliament and hold, as Alex Salmond puts it, Unionist “feet to the fire”, then such a stance reduces rather than increases their chances of doing so.
As did its description of “shared” powers such as welfare, a fixture (as the ERS presentation made clear) of federal or quasi-federal constitutions the world over. Shared services require consent, discussion, co-operation and, ultimately, agreement if they’re to work effectively. In fact, as Mr Terry concluded, a key question amid general constitutional reform ought to be “what powers should be shared at the UK level?” rather than “what powers should Scotland have?”
If we had a real meritocracy now, the First Minister told the Independent last week, we’d have a gender balance. While at UCL last Wednesday, in response to a question from the audience, Ms Sturgeon declared: I’m in favour of the principle of meritocracy.
Nationalists are more consistent on this point than some opponents give them credit for. Since the 2001 UK general election, when the current Finance Secretary John Swinney was in charge, the SNP has essentially pursued a twin-track constitutional strategy, advocating both independence and, failing that, “fiscal autonomy” (yet another term for Home Rule). Following defeat in last year’s referendum it was always likely the party would revert to the lesser option.
Beyond the simplistic confines of a certain Nationalist mindset, where more autonomy – and of course “full” independence – for Scotland cannot conceivably involve any risk or loss of revenue, there exists that scary, unpredictable place known as the real world, somewhere I dearly wish certain politicians and commentators would spend more time getting to know.
For years a thriving Hapsburg port, it then changed hands between Italy, Germany and Yugoslavia before becoming a “Free City” after the Second World War and, in 1954, returning to Italian sovereignty.
Even in areas where Campbell reckoned Scots differed “quite a lot” – on nuclear weapons, the monarchy and workfare – the gap wasn’t that large. On the monarchy, for example, two thirds of Scots agreed “Britain should keep the monarchy” while in rUK the proportion was three quarters – both sizeable majorities.
Even so, the SNP is in a remarkably strong position less than four months from polling day. Jim Murphy, meanwhile, seems intent on reviving a long tradition of “Unionist Nationalism” by picking fights with what he calls “London Nationalists”, and even his own leader to highlight the point that Scotland, as he claimed at a recent lunch with journalists, “is different”.
On Saturday evening Scots, Canadians and Canadian-Scots gathered at Glasgow City Chambers to celebrate this bicentenary, although proceedings necessarily skirted over a lively historical debate as to Sir John’s true legacy, good or bad.
In response the First Minister looked uncharacteristically rattled, failing to address either Kezia Dugdale’s “bin Barnett” charge or indeed an ongoing barrage about the falling oil price. Given that the economics of independence played a major role in last September’s majority No vote, it makes sense for Scottish Labour to carry on, as Peter Mandelson once put it, “punching the bruise”.
Despite his modest status in life (he was a dustman) he was quite a difficult man to please. Once, when my aunt achieved 95 per cent in a school test, his only response was: “What happened to the five per cent?”
But it’s only a start, for current levels of inequality are above all the consequence of an orthodoxy that has dominated economics since the 1980s. And however the First Minister’s speech at UCL was spun last week, it didn’t offer a fundamental break with that consensus. By advocating austerity-lite (increasing public spending by 0.5 per cent), Ms Sturgeon basically echoed Ed Balls’ previous position (although I seem to remember the SNP roundly condemning him when he set out a similar policy).
If Smith had promised to devolve the welfare state in its totality then Ms Sturgeon might have a point, but then of course it did not. I suppose in a contorted sort of way her response was a compliment: that is, the UK Government ended up delivering so much of what it promised that the First Minister et al were compelled to latch on to technical trivialities.
The same is true of Podemos in Spain, whose supporters recently gathered en masse in Madrid. But while its recent growth in support is impressive, its leaders are better endowed with charisma than they are with credible alternatives to the economic status quo. To be fair, Syriza has long advocated a more specific agenda of debt forgiveness, public sector job creation and increasing the minimum wage, which is at least coherent if not likely to succeed.
Various opinion polls do indeed show majority support for Home Rule or “devo-max” in Scotland, although one must treat such evidence with care: if that constitutional option is presented as cost-free – and it usually is – then naturally it looks very attractive. But then of course it wouldn’t be.
This column first appeared in the ether. It is reprinted here without permission.