Wednesday, 17 October 2012

"Big Enough for Seven Kings"

The BBC reports that former Liberal-Democrat leader Menzies Campbell has been cogitating on "Home Rule" for Scotland in the event of a "No" vote in the forthcoming independence referendum. Though it's not really the place to comment on Sir Ming's plans here, the Blether Region must confess to a note of scepticism about what is proposed. The powers, for example, would apparently include income tax but not VAT. Yet for students of politics it is a commonplace that the rising levels of inequality in the United Kingdom since 1979 that scar so much of Scotland have in no small part been due to a massive switch in taxation from income to goods, the standard rate of VAT having risen from 8% in 1979 to 20% in 2012 while the top rate of income tax fell from 83% to 45%. Reducing inequality would be correspondingly more difficult if VAT were not devolved.

Be that as it may, one sentence from Mr. Campbell is striking. In discussing the extension of devolution, or, indeed, federalism, to England, he says:

"We expect that Scotland will contribute to the terms of that debate, at least by example, but it is for people in England to determine how they wish their own national and regional identities expressed within the constitutional structures of our United Kingdom."

Note that the reference, in the plural, is to the "national and regional identities" of England, usually considered a monolithic constituent nation of the United Kingdom. To some extent that is no doubt due to the fact that Cornwall, an area where a p-Celtic language was spoken until the eighteenth century, has never enjoyed the same sort of institutional recognition as Scotland, (Northern) Ireland, or, to a much lesser extent, Wales.

Some cultural Nationalists in Cornwall today use one of several competing standards of that language, and there is some support for devolution or even independence (generally speaking one can double the reported levels, since only around 50% of people living in Cornwall, an established haunt of retirees and surfers, are actually Cornish). Nevertheless, the Duchy's small size must make independence unlikely.

Ming's comments could also, however, be more controversial — and, in future, perhaps, much more important. The difference between a region and a nation, like the difference between a language and a dialect is, while not as utterly fluid as some would like to think, not hard and fast either. A few years ago the people of north-east England rejected plans for an elected assembly. The received wisdom on that is that any talk of devolution to English regions (which could, for a while at least, help perpetuate the Union with Scotland) was dead in the water at that point. Yet the Scots themselves failed to exhibit overwhelming support for an elected assembly in 1979 — a decision that many later regretted. Moreover, the north-east of England has a distinctive dialect in the form of Northumbrian, one that could easily be codified independently if the demand (or political will) were there.

Current moves towards ever looser Union between Scotland and England (or, indeed, the independence of the former) have rightly made political headlines. However, they may have far-reaching linguistic repercussions for English "regions" such as Cornwall and Northumbria too.

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