Bringing Britain together: time to re-address shared interests

In the current Scottish political climate, it isn’t fashionable to celebrate the achievements of past British administrations – still less, the concept of ‘British-ness’ itself – as the weight of this UK government’s onslaught on social provision, driven by an obsession with a small state, bears down on the low paid and the vulnerable.

With another £20bn of cuts looming – and remember, English local government will assuredly bear the brunt – even tougher times lie ahead. The (English) NHS, as we’ve known it – as thousands of protesting junior doctors attest – might be lucky to survive the next five years. The public sector accountants’ body, CIPFA, reckons that some English councils are dangerously close to financial meltdown. Spending on social housing in England is deemed unnecessary. The poor aren’t just being marginalised; they’re being cast adrift.

And that’s before we consider the withdrawal from anything reeking of industrial-regional policy and the shared economic and social agenda which once bound two nations and still – pace the naysayers  – should bind us together.

This, I know, isn’t a popular sentiment in Scotland – indeed, it’s something my ‘baby-booming’ contemporaries in the SNP might prefer to forget  – but we forget shared interests at our collective peril. On so many fronts, we act better when we act collectively. Take just three examples:

First, urban policy and Glasgow’s relatively recent addition to the once English-only Core Cities group (which now includes Cardiff too). It embraces Newcastle upon Tyne, Leeds, Nottingham, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool. The words of Gordon Matheson, Glasgow’s former council leader, in August last year are still ringing in my ears: “We’ve more in common with English cities than with the rest of Scotland.”

Second, cross-border transport. Last year I wrote a piece for my local daily paper, in Newcastle upon Tyne, calling for an Anglo-Scottish campaign to improve rail links from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh to London and Europe – via an upgraded east coast main line. Not being a great fan of HS2 – although a commitment to start it, say, in Glasgow rather than in London would have been a wonderful pre-referendum UK commitment – I’ve long thought that updating the east coast line was a far more realistic option.     Remember: when the Channel Tunnel rail link was completed in 1994, additional Eurostar trains were built to service Scotland and the north of England. They languished in London sidings for some time before being returned to France, largely unused – apart from a short-lived experiment on the Kings Cross-Leeds route. Surely, after 21 years, it must be possible to take a train directly from  – say – Edinburgh to Paris, via London, with St Pancras (the Eurostar station) next door to Kings’ Cross?

And so to health, a third example. Put aside the low-level co-operation astride the border – with Northumberland patients attending Borders General Hospital, in Melrose, and a GP surgery in Coldstream – and consider the bigger picture. At the acute level, the English NHS is vital to Scotland: a steady stream of Scottish ambulances, for instance, ferries patients to Newcastle upon Tyne’s Freeman Hospital, a major acute cardiac and heart and lung transplant centre .

And onwards to steel, and what remains of this once essential bulwark of the British economy.  Speaking at the SNP’s annual conference in Aberdeen last week, Nicola Sturgeon promised that her government would leave “no stone unturned” to save the remnants of the Scottish steel industry, part of (Indian-owned) Tata’s British operations. Quite how she plans to achieve this independently beats me. Let’s be clear: if TATA in Britain is to be rescued – whether in Scunthorpe, South Wales, or Lanarkshire – direct action by the UK government, addressing concerns about high energy bills and high business rates, will be needed.

As a former Scottish resident, now living barely 40 miles from the border in Northumberland, I’m still recovering from the dismal performance of the ‘No’ campaign in last year’s referendum. This largely failed (Gordon Brown apart) to highlight wider spatial issues which can only be addressed by joint action across a shared island. ‘Bringing Britain Together’ strikes me as no contradiction. It’s a decent post-unionist slogan which might address the reality of both full Scottish self-government and the need for a renewed relationship between Holyrood and the UK.

Time, I think, to re-address our shared interests. Has the UK served Scotland badly? When I began my working life, it was languishing alongside north east England as the UK’s poorest outpost. Through an active UK regional policy, it slowly climbed the economic league table, represented by GVA per head, to power ahead of north-east and north-west England, Yorkshire and the English Midlands. London, of course – a city-state set apart – remains another country.  That gaping divide between the capital and the rest is unhealthy for us all – and not just for Scotland. We have a shared interest in narrowing it.


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