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Jolly Olde English Politics, Part III

Some more questions about British politics, with answers from G.S. in Basingstoke, England, UK; A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK; and S.T. in Worcestershire, England, UK:

S.S. in West Hollywood, CA, asks: Here in the United States, despite what Republicans would have you believe, our poorest states are red states. They take more from the federal government in funding than they contribute in taxes. (And not once have they thanked California for the taxes we pay that help keep their states functioning!)

How does that compare to the United Kingdom? Would there be benefits for England if Northern Ireland, Scotland, and/or Wales left the U.K.? How do they contribute to England's economy/tax funds? Do they take more than they give or the reverse? Why is England fighting to keep them from leaving the U.K.? Are there economic or other reasons, or is it really just English pride, history and the symbolism of it?

A.B. answers: I'm writing this as a Scot, and forgive me for noting that this question, as framed, shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the internal politics of the United Kingdom. In the more than 40 years I've been regularly crossing the Atlantic (including living in the U.S. for 15 years across the 80s and 90s), I've noticed an unfortunate tendency to conflate the United Kingdom with "England," never mind the ongoing confusion over the important distinctions between the U.K., Great Britain, and the four constituent components of the U.K.

This isn't the place for a detailed history lesson, but it's worth stressing that the histories behind those four components of the U.K., and how they came to form part of the modern nation, are very different. It does us no good to consider Ireland, Wales, and Scotland as functionally identical in their historical interactions with England. There's even an entire TV Tropes page dedicated to the fallacy (though poor Wales, as usual, misses out). Personally, I blame a combination of Mel Gibson and that tricky U.S.-specific ethnic identity of "Scotch-Irish."

That slightly defensive intro was necessary because it's important that we don't understand the internal politics of the Union as "England fighting to keep them in the U.K." Yes, all of the main national U.K. parties are committed to preserving the Union, but their policies towards how to best do so vary, and not all of their members are English. And we also need to recognize the internal complexities of the different nations of the U.K. While the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly now supports a united Ireland, a plurality of Northern Ireland voters continue to support remaining part of the U.K.—though it's wholly fair to note that support for the Union has been in slow long-term decline. Scotland is deeply split, but polling shows that a plurality is still against independence. According to the poll list on Wikipedia, 16 of the last 18 polls on the subject have shown a lead for "No," with one tie, and one poll showing a 1% lead for "Yes." Looking further back in that Wikipedia poll summary, it seems likely that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a decline in support for independence. As to Wales, while support for independence has grown in the last 20 years, most recent polls suggest support of about 30%.

Placing the emphasis solely on what England is allegedly trying to do and "English pride" erases the complexities of these issues, and denies agency to the many voters of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales who also continue to support the Union. I know that this isn't quite answering the question as framed, but the Anglocentrism of the question is fundamentally flawed.

S.T. answers: A lot to unpack in this question: Let's start with the economic side.

Of the 4 U.K. nations, Wales is probably the most deprived: A combination of a south once dominated by heavy industry, and badly hit by deindustrialization, and indifferent agriculture in the middle and north. Northern Ireland was, of course, hugely impacted by "The Troubles," which came perilously close to civil war between the late 1960s and mid-1990s. Since then there has been something of a recovery, ironically partly due to enhanced economic integration with the Irish Republic. Scotland is by some measures more prosperous than certain English regions. There is, however, a divide between the west, another area badly hit by deindustrialization, and the east, boasting better farmland, the benefits of the North Sea oil and gas boom and Edinburgh's traditional role as a center of financial services.

England overall is probably the most prosperous, but there are huge divisions within it, principally between the affluent south/east and the less well off north/west. Again deindustrialization and the location of the finance sector mainly in London and the southeast have been major drivers. One issue is that public expenditure per head is far higher in the southeast than the rest of the country, though that does not prevent pockets of deep poverty in London, for example.

It probably is the case that England is a net contributor and the three other countries are net recipients. That does not mean, however, that a break up would make England wealthier because all parts of the U.K. benefit from being in one trading bloc and, as is being seen with Brexit, breaking up such a arrangement can easily reduce overall prosperity.

And, of course, there is sentiment and the bonds developed over decades and centuries. I was born in England, have lived in it all my life, and am culturally English, but my surname is Welsh, so there must be some border-hopping at some point in our family history, and my mother's family has Scots-Irish roots. So while I always describe myself as British, I would be saddened if the U.K. were to fragment. Indeed. I would say one of the great tragedies of the last 150 years in U.K. politics was the failure from the 1870s to the 1910s to accommodate demands for Irish Home Rule, largely due to opposition from the Conservative Party from 1886 onwards. The chance to have a federated nation was lost (although I recognize that cultural and religious factors were also key drivers in creating the Irish Republic).

G.S. answers: S.T has done a good job here of highlighting the various dichotomies between the regions. As an (English) northerner currently residing in the south, I can personally attest to the financial disparity between these two regions; it manifests itself in other ways, such as lower life expectancy, higher hospital waiting list time, etc., in those poorer regions. Readers may be interested to know the existence of the Barnett formula which, despite having no basis other than convention and its founder calling it a "terrible mistake," persists. The tables show that expenditure per capita is higher in each of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland than England, and this latter point was used as a blunt (if, to my mind, effective) cudgel during the first Scottish independence referendum campaign, and is regularly cited by prime ministers under hostile questioning about public spending from the SNP at Prime Minister's Questions.

F.S. in Cologne. Germany, asks: Does the resignation of Liz Truss mean the end of Thatcherism in the UK?

A.B. answers: No more than the rejection of almost everything Ronald Reagan actually stood for by the modern Republican Party means the end of Reaganism as a banner for the Republicans to unite under.

S.T. answers: Ah, good old Thatcherism—one of the most slippery "ism's" in existence!

It is almost impossible to define, not least because its originator was, despite her claims never to "U-turn," more than willing to accept actions which seemed to run against her principles when it suited her, and due to its own internal contradictions. For example, in the earliest years of her premiership, Thatcher was obsessed by controlling the money supply, taking down a quarter of U.K. manufacturing capacity in just three years in the process. When, however, access to credit for personal consumption boomed in the mid 1980's—an expansion of the money supply if ever there was one—she took no action to stop it whatsoever, presumably because the financial services industry was beyond reproach. And how can you reconcile a total free-for-all in the economic sphere with restrictions in the social and cultural spheres? (Arguably, the Conservative Party has still to work that one out.)

Nor was Thatcherism entirely new. Elements of it had been floating around before Lady Thatcher even became an MP. For example, in 1958, then-Finance Minister Peter Thorneycroft resigned from the government after falling out with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan over the issue of "sound money" and levels of government expenditure, both of which are Thatcherite through and through.

What was new in 1979 was the first Conservative leader to become Prime Minister, after being primarily chosen as leader due to support from the right of the party for several decades. She was in a position to implement policies, which had become increasingly popular in that wing of the party over many years.

Since then, there have arguably only been one or two Conservative leaders who were not primarily the candidate of the right, and so these policies continue. Most of Thatcher's successors have taken however a very selective approach to the inheritance. Most recently, Liz Truss famously tried to implement tax cuts favoring the wealthy (very Thatcherite) , based on extra borrowing (decidedly un-Thatcherite). Rishi Sunak, another self proclaimed disciple of Lady Thatcher, is likely to continue the trend of selecting those parts of the legacy which seem congenial whilst ignoring the rest.

In some ways, the U.S. and the U.K. systems are similar. In some ways, boy are they different. One last set tomorrow. (V & Z)

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