GORDON Brown’s latest intervention in the debate on Scotland’s future is thoughtful and considered. It deserves close study by all engaged in the conversation leading up to the independence referendum. He raises a number of tricky questions the Yes side will need to answer long before polling day. And he is particularly incisive in his critique of the somewhat curious role Alex Salmond sees Scotland playing within the British Isles after independence. Describing the SNP plan to give the Bank of England control over Scottish macro-economic policy as “a form of self-imposed colonialism more reminiscent of the old Empire than of the modern world” is a neat and provocative challenge to the First Minister. But Brown’s more philosophical comments about what it means to be part of the UK raise some issues that will be of concern to those – such as this newspaper – with a historical position of favouring greater autonomy and self-determination for Scotland, within the Union.
The problem arises when Brown makes great play of the UK role in securing uniform rights for all people living within the United Kingdom: “We have guaranteed that no matter whether you are Scottish, English, Welsh or Irish you will have not just the same political rights but the same economic and social rights – to healthcare, to the same level of child benefit, to minimum wage, and to pensions.” On pensions, child benefit and the minimum wage, this is indeed the case at present. But on healthcare? And “social rights”? In these areas Brown’s argument does not stand up to scrutiny, and could be a cause for concern.
If social and health provision should be general across the UK, then it must be wrong for Holyrood to introduce policies that ensure there are radical differences north and south of the Border – on free personal care for elderly, for example, or free prescriptions. These are not available to a British citizen living in England. Similarly, English patients in the NHS have access to some cancer drugs unavailable to Scots patients. The two countries have different rules on the maximum time a patient should be expected to wait between diagnosis and treatment. Most of these material differences are the result of deliberate political choice.
On “social rights” too, in its most broad definition, there are plainly cross-border differences in how children are educated, how crime is prosecuted and whether or not students pay tuition fees for a university education. Again these are the consequence of deliberate political choices by successive Scottish Governments – including Labour-led administrations – exercising their perogative under devolution. In fact, the right of the Scottish Parliament to have a distinctive view on all these issues was one of the main drivers behind the century-old campaign for Scottish home rule, in which Brown played a not inconsiderable role. To hear him use this very different language now seems to suggest a far more centralising instinct is now at play here. The logic of Brown’s argument – taken at face value – is that devolution has gone too far.
Most Scottish voters – as well as this newspaper – would disagree. Our view is that the Scots’ right to go their own way on a range of health, education, social care, environmental, economic and criminal justice issues is not only a good thing, it needs to be extended to ensure a more coherent and accountable Scottish response to Scottish problems, within the UK. We look forward to Gordon Brown’s arguments to the contrary.