An Electoral Fiddle To Gain Independence?

A CONSTITUTIONAL issue and dodgy tactics are threatening the unity of the United Kingdom.

In Scotland, Alec Salmond leads the Scottish National Party (SNP) with 69 seats in the 129-member Assembly. He is promising a referendum on independence before the next Assembly election in 2016.

Prior to 1997, John Major’s Conservatives opposed a vote on Scottish devolution reasoning that it might well lead down a slippery slope that would eventually change the course of British history established over the past 1,000 years. He was only 700 years out, the last Scottish parliament having met in 1707 when the Act of Union of Scotland and England signed it out of existence.

Tony Blair took the opposite view: Scottish devolution would fatally undermine the SNP while remedying Scotland’s long-felt want for a measure of self-government. His political judgement here – as in a number of notable cases – could not have been more wrong.

One of the things few people could ever have foreseen was the emergence of a majority SNP government. But in 2011 Labour (16), the Liberal Democrats (8) and the Conservatives (1) lost seats to the SNP. Scotland now is in the uneasy position where it’s governed by a British Coalition whose parties are third- and fourth-placed in the Holyrood parliament.

ANNOYANCE

The differences between the two countries have led to feelings of annoyance south of the border because Scotland’s enhanced subsidies paid by Whitehall give her free personal care in old age, free university tuition and free prescriptions. In England these things cost respectively £35,000 pa, the best part of £9,000 pa and £7.40 per item.

There are a few places across the world where 16-year-olds have the vote. Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man changed their laws to allow this between 2006 and 2008. A handful of other states permit it: Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. You have to wait till you’re 17 in Indonesia, North Korea and Sudan. But in Malaysia, Lebanon, Oman, Singapore and Saudi Arabia they have to wait until 21 before you can vote. And if you’re a woman, you can forget about it for ever!

In the last tax year, there was a gap of £14bn between what Holyrood raised in taxes and what they spent on their public services. This money was exported north by the London parliament, subsidising each Scots man and woman by almost 20 percent more than the English.

A hard core of 30 percent in Scotland supported independence in the election earlier this year with perhaps 39 percent against breaking up the union.

Now the Scottish Government has announced that 16-year-olds will be allowed to vote in the independence referendum in an attempt to maximise nationalist support for the break-up of Britain.

At present the lower age limit for voting is set at 18 by Westminster. The referendum, however, will be organised by the Scottish Executive and that body can ordain the rules for every part of it – including the age of franchise.

CONVINCED

Salmond has made it clear that he intends to use his SNP majority to force through a new, lower age for voting. He is utterly convinced that younger Scots are generally more nationalistic than their older compatriots.

This will add another 125,000 voters to the register, effectively three percent of the Scottish electorate.

There have been complaints from Scots that the SNP government has been unadventurous and unambitious with domestic issues but this appears to be part of a deliberate tactic by Salmond not to do anything divisive ahead of the independence vote. He wants to go into the referendum on a platform of sensible, uncontroversial management of the economy. What is more, the strategy seems to be successful if the increase in support for independence is any guide.

The latest estimate is that support has risen to between 35 and 39 percent, while support for the Union has slipped to around 38-39 percent.

From Salmond’s point of view the most startling statistic is that support for independence among 18-24 year-olds stands at 40 percent with only 32 percent favouring keeping the ties with the Union.

PLAUSIBILITY

Salmond’s spokesman explained the plausibility of the reform, “All sections of Scottish society will come together to choose Scotland’s future and independence in the referendum and it is only right that young folk – who can legally marry and join the armed services – should have their say.”

In London an official Whitehall source reinforced the SNP’s optimism, affirming that Westminster could not stop the SNP lowering the voting age: “If (there is) legislation to hold a referendum on independence then it would be for the Scottish Government to decide on the franchise.”

The Darien Venture (1696-1700) was Scotland’s attempt to become a great trading nation by setting up a colony in Darien on the isthmus of Panama to expedite trade between the Pacific and the Atlantic. They took thousands of mirrors, wigs and combs to win over the natives – or so they believed, Disease, death and bankruptcy followed. In return for paying off the Darien debts, England got the Act of Union.

The original Act of Union in 1707 came largely because of financial problems the Scots had over the failure of the Darien Venture and it was the price they paid to the English. But it was a marriage of convenience that few Scots approved of. Robert Burns summed it up,

“We were bought and sold for English Gold

 Sic a Parcel of Rogues in a nation.”

Daniel Defoe was recruited as a spy for the English government and he describes violent demonstrations: “A Scots rabble is the worst of its kind. For every Scot in favour there is 99 against.”

PROOF

And if further proof of the unpopularity of the Union is needed it is a fact that on the day the Act was signed, the bell-ringers in St Giles, Edinburgh, rang the bells in the tune, “Why should I be so sad on my wedding day?”

So finally, unless there is a vigorous fightback by Westminster it seems as though the United Kingdom is sleepwalking into oblivion. I can honestly say as a Brit from south of the border, I have never for one moment felt superior to the Scots. Indeed, in many ways, especially in the field of education, I have felt considerably inferior. Moreover, I have never heard any English people ever make slighting comments about the Scots. The odd joke about meanness maybe, but that is countered by jokes about English thick skins and stiff upper lips – all good-natured stuff.

But this is not a joke.

The United Kingdom will be a vastly poorer place if Scotland should declare independence.

John.polley1@ntlworld.com

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