Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Southern League

A while I ago I posted on one of this blog's regular topics, regional income inequalities, and Vino asked whether I thought a Southern League could arise, a major political lobby protesting that vast transfers of income (8% of the South's GDP) are going elsewhere and calling for Southern fiscal autonomy. A movement analagous to the Italian Northern League. I didn't really have an answer beyond a vague inclination that such gripes were channelled into a resentment of the more obviously unfair Barnett formula and Scotland's special treatment.

I've been thinking about the question of a Southern League occasionally since. You see, a major problem for the UKIP is that most people put the EU pretty far down their list of priorities, they don't care enough to abandon the traditional parties. By contrast with a Southern League you could promise to combine big tax cuts with increases in spending on most public priorities, more police for example. You could constantly replay the man in Ann Widdecombe's tv programme telling the employed that if they don't like subsidising his laziness and copious procreation they can "take a long jump [off a short cliff]". It could be a brutally effective populist campaign.

Despite that it seems utterly implausible that such a movement will emerge on any serious scale. I can see two plausible reasons why the subsidy to the North troubles people so much less than the subsidy to Scotland (significantly more English now support Scottish independence than Scots according to this poll from late last year):

1) The Scottish subsidy is more unfair as it is not based upon Scotland being particularly poor, this causes it to anger people more. At first this might seem like the obvious explanation but when you consider David B Smith's very convincing argument that the subsidy actually keeps the North poor it becomes less so. I'd think that after a few decades of the subsidy failing to create a serious improvement people the difference between two poorly justified subsidies would start to fade and the subsidy to the North would face serious opposition.

2) English nationalism. I think that the greater willingness to accept subsidies to Northern England might be more evidence that English national feeling is increasingly for England rather than Britain. North and South, for all the 'Northern monkey' and 'southern furry' jokes, are not thought of as a 'them' and 'us'; the question of who gets what is therefore a far less emotive subject. In a way this is troubling as it constitutes further evidence that the Union is under huge strain but there is a very definite positive side.

The Union, and British identity, has been dealt a savage blow by a poorly thought-through and unequal devolution. It's good to know that the older English identity has not been wounded in the process but has stepped back into the limelight to provide an object for the English people's common loyalty and a flag for them to rally around and justify continuing to support each other. While I do think we need to end suffocatingly high levels of public spending in the North I would want us to do that because it is the right thing for the Northern economy rather than because each region is out for itself. I'm glad we still want to look out for each other; that could be an important instinct in troubled times to come.

1 comment:

Vino S said...

Interesting article, Matt, and I do tend to agree with you that there is no likelihood of a 'Southern League' at the moment [although, i would of course argue that the Conservatives fulfil part of that role - by articulating the political interests of the middle-classes in Southern and Midlands suburban constituencies (as well, of course, as some Northern ones)].

I see a contradiction in your last paragraph, though. You oppose the high level of public spending in poorer regions and yet say that you are glad that people in different regions look out for each other. Surely, the high level of public spending is the manifestation of this. To reduce public spending in the North would require political changes which would include taxpayers in one region not caring about others in other regions.

In addition, of course, I would make the point that I made in the earlier discussion - most public expenditure (i.e. cash transfer payments) goes to individuals not to regions. As such, the redistribution is between affluent taxpayers (who may be concentrated in some regions) and low-income people and pensioners (who may be more numerous in other areas).