We are divided. Bitterly divided. However despite the endless recent commentary to the contrary, our divisions have actually precious little to do with either Scottishness or Englishness, and everything to do with the uneven development of capitalism in the British Isles from the Industrial Revolution onwards.
It is no accident that the regions that voted most heavily for the nationalists in Scotland were traditionally Labour-supporting post-industrial areas. Anyone growing up in one will be well aware of the almost sectarian levels of hatred between “us” and “them” that fester there. In Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales this helps to catalyse nationalism (“us”) against the English (“them”). However, the underlying resentment is no less prevalent in many Northern English cities such as Sheffield where I grew up, where the “them” is the “posh” or “Southerners”.
These attitudes are very deep rooted, and exist because historically there has been so little opportunity for most people. Hence, there is a tendency to view life as a dreary zero-sum game: if you are poor, it is because someone is rich; if you can not afford to eat well, then it is because somewhere a Bullingdon boy is quaffing champers with quail’s eggs. Capitalism is seen as alien, exploitative ideology. Needless to say without a major cultural change these areas will continue to economically under-perform and we will remain a starkly divided nation.
Everyone is talking about Scottish devolution now, but what is desperately needed is not simply a solution to the West Lothian question but a devolution formula that will allow ALL these UK regions to come to terms with capitalism. For that to happen, post-industrial areas must own the process and develop it themselves. A major part of achieving that would be the transfer of ownership of the natural mineral wealth under their local turf.
- By great good fortune, many of the areas rich in either oil or shale gas lie in, or offshore from, post-industrial areas. Transferring to Scotland or English local councils the right to grant and tax exploration and extraction of mineral reserves, in return for an agreed decrease in fiscal transfers from Westminster over time, would create a perception of economic self-sufficiency, restoring much needed local pride.
- In Scotland, a one-time transfer of oil assets could be achieved in return for a reduction or abolition of the notorious Barnett formula, eliminating at a stroke two major sources of past and future grievances between the Scots and the English.
- In shale-rich areas of England, local industry, government and communities would have a great incentive to create institutions that serviced the mineral extraction industries, just as Aberdeen did so successfully in the 1970s. Healthy competition would also exist between local authorities, helping to avoid the “resource curse”, where the proceeds of mineral wealth were simply frittered away by government.
- In Northern England, the cheap energy that shale gas could provide could lead to a renaissance in industry generally, in keeping with the proud traditions of the region.
Political circumstances and geological good fortune have combined to give us a unique opportunity to end ancient cultural divisions that scar our country that are far bigger than England vs. Scotland. Let us take it.