If Westminster Can Give Up Powers, Why Can't Delhi?

Published: May 05, 2015 22:09 IST
British politics is undergoing an historic and seismic shift. The country seems to have come full circle since the War. The social democracy of the post-war era gave way to neoliberalism red in tooth and claw in the 1980s. Thatcher deindustrialized the nation, reducing it to one based on finance and shopping. Her model collapsed with the crisis of 2007, and since then, two events have brought the struggle for a new social model to a head.

The first was the referendum on Scottish independence last year, whose aftershocks continue to make the political weather. The Yes campaign, lead by the Scottish National Party (SNP), lost by 10 per cent.

The second event is this week's General Election. Strange as it might seem for this small island, robust fiscal federalism is emerging as the path back to social democracy.

To get a sense of scale, the whole of the UK could fit inside Uttar Pradesh, a mere seven per cent of India's land mass; England is the size of Tamil Nadu - and Scotland is about the size of Assam. Yet our continent-sized nation is governed from far-away Delhi by a bloated, creaking apparatus that is itself a creature of Westminster.

There are many resonant themes for the Indian observer in Thursday's election, the most notable being the fracturing of the stable, two-party system (Labour vs Tories) into one of regional groupings with sub-national affiliations leading to coalitions at the center. One of the supposed virtues of our shared first-past-the-post system is its delivery of stability, one of the truisms of electoral science. Yet, in societies deeply divided on caste, regional, ethnic or sub-national lines, this two-party stability breaks down as minority affiliations retain salience.

India could certainly teach Britain a thing or two about running a democracy under such fissiparous conditions. But the British conversation might also demonstrate the power and promise of real devolution.

Chastened by the loss in the bid for independence, the Scottish National Party is now a separatist party in name only. What we have emerging is a New SNP seeking a permanent place on the vacant left-wing of British politics. Its novelty is that it is using a nationalist narrative to get there rather than a class-based one. And in doing so, the SNP is following the wishes of the majority of Scots.

Scotland does not want independence; this much the referendum made clear. What it wants is "devo max," the maximum fiscal devolution possible within the union. A New SNP under the rising star of British politics, the plucky Nichola Sturgeon, is fashioning itself to deliver just that.

Even before the referendum, it was clear that, had devo-max been on the ballot, it would most likely have won. This explains why the previous SNP leader, Alex Salmond, made the bizarre move to push for independence while keeping the pound sterling as the currency of independent Scotland. By bartering away substantial monetary sovereignty, Salmond was talking independence while actually batting for devo max.

Yet, the desire for devo max is itself an expression of a deeper social fact: the political centre of gravity in Scotland, eight per cent of the union, is significantly further to the left than in England. As all Indian school kids know, north England and Scotland were the industrial heartland of the UK, responsible for the drain of Indian wealth by out-competing our vast but pre-industrial textile industry. When Thatcher delivered the coup de grace to British industry, these areas were hit hard, leaving behind a post-industrial working class with long-standing Labour affiliations. As Labour then morphed into the Thatcherite-clone of New Labour, the northern and Scottish working classes found themselves out of step.

The economic shift was therefore a geographical rupture. This rupture is so stark that now, after the rise and fall of finance, discontent is being expressed as a demand for devolution, if not outright independence. There are now three regions represented by as many sub-national parties: the Tories are dominant in the south-east around (but not within) the financial centre of London, Labour is strong in the deindustrialized north, and the Scottish National Party, now the third-largest party, are set to sweep Scotland, which holds 59 of the total 650 seats.

In the lead up to the referendum, all Westminster parties stood shoulder-to-shoulder in defence of the union, promising devolution that went further than the 1999 creation of a limited Scottish parliament. Yet, once the No vote won, this promise was kicked into the constitutional long grass by Tory PM David Cameron. Associating itself with such treachery meant political death for Labour in Scotland. The result shocked even the SNP: a storm surge in its membership notwithstanding its referendum loss.

What Scottish voters have been doing, therefore, is securing the union by voting down independence, but using nationalist momentum to try and reset the centre of gravity at Westminster. Its devo max that they've been after all along.

The English media, both left and right, do not recognize this fact. They appear to continue to labour under the assumption that the SNP are the separatist party of old, intent on creating havoc in Westminster in order to secure independence by threat of disruption by capturing nearly all of Scotland's seats.

In the short term, the SNP is locked into its separatist narrative; it cannot officially renounce it without losing credibility at home. But the SNP cannot adhere to independence in substance without condemning itself to flogging a dead political horse.

By punting and saying that another referendum may or may not be called in the future (demographics favour independence as most young people desire it), its new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, can keep up the pleasing nationalist rhetoric while repositioning the SNP as the new-old Labour up North.

Further, it seems clear that Sturgeon's attitude to independence is more instrumental than principled. Scotland needs no confirmation of its nature as a nation, she insists; its distinction is a lived reality. Coming from the left of the party, her nationalism is more utilitarian than existential, a distinction she draws from SNP founder and legal theorist Neil MacCormick. As she said even before the referendum, "My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice...independence is the pragmatic way forward."

What the SNP is really about is getting the Tories out and social democracy back in. Such is the charm of its message, and its new leader, that many people across the UK wish that the SNP were running candidates across the UK, and not just in Scotland.

Just as Blair's New Labour tacked to the political centre in the late 1990s to gain traction while retaining the outward appearance of a left-wing party, so New SNP is moving to become a party that will "play a constructive role, to challenge the old order with new and progressive ideas." No more chest-beating about independence: "that is not what this election is about." It's about being constructive "across the UK," a phrase used no less than 18 times in the manifesto vs the very qualified use of "independence."

In this election, Scottish votes are still British votes, votes for seats in the House of Commons of the still-united kingdom. By treating a vote for the SNP as political untouchables, the English establishment are being contemptuous of their fellow citizens. They also happen to be inaccurate.

British developments make us consider again whether India is a governable as constructed. Given our own constitutional logjam, with a seemingly strong executive still unable to govern effectively, more compact units of governance must be the way forward for our union of states.

(Anush Kapadia is a lecturer on political economy at City University in London)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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