Before the referendum I pledged to write to my MP if there was a no vote pleading for the wishes of the Scots to be respected for greater devolution of powers, whichever way the vote has gone. But as things turned out, there was no need to lobby for further devolution (yet) as that was promised, ooh, whole days before the election, without about as much thought gone into it beforehand as I put into choosing my lunch.
I hoped very much it would be a ‘no’ as my family crosses England, Scotland and countries outside the UK altogether, and the run up to the referendum was a period of great frustration for many of us denied not just a vote, but a voice altogether. As time wore on, I sympathised with more of the ‘Yes’ campaign, especially every time the parties in the rest of the UK rattled their sabres about leaving the EU. My husband would apparently have been eligible for citizenship (although ironically, not eligible to vote) and I indulged in one of my daydreams of moving to Edinburgh and watching from afar should UKIP really start tearing the UK to shreds. Still, the ‘no’ vote came as a relief, but it was sad and there was no celebration. I knew how the ‘Yes’ voters must have felt because I know how devastated I would have been if they had won. I thought ‘that’s how I would have thought about them if they’d won,’ when I heard people in Scotland on the ‘Yes’ side who were furious in their grief, like David Greig who said: ‘The result was, in those final weeks, a feeling arose that if we voted Yes we’d be yoked to a grieving, lunatic, hostile nation to the south.’
And then, repulsively, as things have turned out, there has been a huge spillover from the Scottish referendum into ‘English Votes for English Laws’, claims of greater tax powers for London, (even for Croydon), party politicking with the legal soup we call the Constitution. There is no national leadership. We’ll go to Dundee for the first time since the referendum in a couple of weeks and see what the mood is there, but down South, the only mood I’ve seen is, ‘so enough of that brief interruption where we talked about Scotland for a fortnight, let’s go back to talking about me.’ And the only thing in all this I might get a vote on is London.
I complain that there is no-one talking about the common good, nobody talking about cooperation or trying to heal the injuries in relationships between people since the referendum, and no wider appeal to the fact that a few months ago, politicians here were vowing that we were ‘better together,’ in the general landgrabs on resources and party-political constitutional rigging that is going on at the moment.
I hoped that Scotland would not separate, and I don’t believe that London, or any region, should take further steps towards isolating its budget from the rest of the country – because it is too short a step from there to refusing help to parts of the country that need help. We are all interdependent, and likely to become more so. Why should London keep its tax revenues itself when its workers commute in from the counties all around? Why aren’t we giving away some of that money to create jobs nearer where people live, rather than proposing to make the centrifugal force of London even stronger? Why not take some of the pressure off London, and its overheated housing bubble and over-stressed infrastructure?
Even worse, people seem to be abandoning the idea of mutual help. Climate change could bring about floods or other disasters in the richest or poorest parts of Britain, and so we never know when we might need the help of a city or region in another part of the country. Many of us don’t know what the changing economy will bring for us and so community should become more important to us, not less. I can’t imagine saying to my family that I would vote for London to keep more of its own tax revenue, if I had even the smallest reason to believe that that over time would mean London staking a claim to its ‘own’ money and not contributing to the public purse to help parts of the country that will never be so well off.
Which is not to say that more devolution might not help. We have social problems and economic inequality in the UK, and perhaps devolution would lead to innovations in governance based on a deep understanding of the local context. Local charities, small businesses and social enterprises might find new roles based on closer access to power and a more pragmatic, tactical, human scale politics that is less combative and ideological. If we could have that, and still have the idea of helping and being helped, and of thinking actively about how the country as a whole can develop, not just the city or region we are in, I would vote for that. The post-referendum debate could have become about citizen engagement rather than gone straight to taxes, and maybe it still could.
But I’d have to be more sure about it than I am. Maybe local systems would develop new power elites, and cronyism could thrive. Maybe competitiveness between neighbours would result in a race to the bottom and an attempt to export one unit’s problems to the next. Southwark Council’s leader being wined and dined in Cannes by companies he then sells housing estates to, isn’t a great advert for localism.
Maybe one day I’ll vote for London to be a city-state, but I don’t think so. I have family ties to Dundee, East Devon, York and parts of Lincolnshire. I have studied in Leeds, Norwich and Cambridge. I have daydreamed about moving to Edinburgh or the North Essex coast. And I can’t begin to list the places that I have got to know and like because friends hail from there or have moved there. And that’s just the UK. Many of my friends are bi- or tri-national and multilingual, and I can’t imagine trying to unravel their lives, or force them to choose one identity and reject half their family through something like the Scottish vote.
In the days after the referendum, I decided after years of dithering, to apply for British citizenship. Partly I’m tired of having paid taxes for 18 years without representation, partly scared of the way that the mood against Europe threatens the basis on which I’m here. But also because the Scottish referendum made me realise how viscerally and passionately I care about Britishness. I agree with Billy Connolly when he talked about his distrust of nationalism, and his sense of community with people beyond national borders. I was raised to believe in solidarity more than in national borders. But you have to have an identity of belonging to convince people that you are arguing constructively from a position of love, and British politics and culture, including the left-wing and the ‘Yes’ campaign have gone down the path that says that a geographic identity is the primary form of belonging. So I will apply to be British, and I feel happy about it. We have so many identities and the power of Britishness, it has felt to me now that I have decided to apply for citizenship, is that you can be British and something else too: a Yorkshireman, a Scot, a Finn – and that’s just my closest family. But if that identity does not mean mutual help, it cannot build anything else, and has only a symbolic role. Losing all that mutual help in a spate of local devolution would be a long-term injury that would outweigh any short-term economic benefit. If I become part of that system then I will be able to vote for mutual help.