Whither the United Kingdom?
Last week I went to visit friends and family in Scotland. The referendum – to decide whether Scotland should sever itself from the United Kingdom or remain part thereof – is a very recent memory. Some 85% of the Scottish electorate had voted: a majority backed the continuation of the union but a substantial minority (45%) wanted independence. Among the people I visited were passionate ‘Yes’ voters and equally passionate ‘No’ voters, all with cogent arguments to support their case.
To many international observers, and many of the less discerning in England, the argument is over, Scotland’s decision irrevocable at least for a generation. They are deluded. At the simplest level, the victory of the ‘No’ campaign was purchased at the cost of offering greater powers to the Scottish parliament before the next national (general) election, and few informed people believe that the necessary legislation can be drafted, debated, and brought into law in the time available without botching the job. If it can’t or isn’t, the Westminster government will be seen by Scotland’s ‘Yes’ voters (and many of her ‘No’ voters) to have reneged on its promises. Westminster – and the less-discerning observers – will then discover the consequence of fuelling the passion of the Scottish independence campaign with righteous anger. The argument will prove not be over. It will scarcely have begun.
On a slightly deeper level, many Westminster MPs are now asking for some semblance of English home rule. Since the Scots have their own parliament semi-independent of the UK (Westminster) government, and said parliament is now to be granted further powers of tax-raising etc., why shouldn’t the English? Accordingly, these members want Scottish MPs to be barred from voting in the Westminster parliament on matters that pertain only to England. In principle, this is reasonable; but so close are the ties between the two countries (trade, shared concerns in defence and foreign policy, shared economic woes) that in practice some apparently “English-only” matters will have implications for parts of Scotland. Would the interests of democracy be served if the MPs representing those parts of Scotland were barred from voting on those matters? This knotty problem – Scottish MPs voting on England-specific legislation in Westminster – was raised some 40 years ago by the member for West Lothian, Tam Dalziel. It came to be known as the “West Lothian Question” and to date no effective answer to it has been proposed. The present Westminster government has declared its intention to provide and implement an answer within the next few months, in parallel with the further devolution of powers to the Scottish parliament. I have yet to meet anyone who believes this possible. If – when – the intention is not realised, many English MPs will be very unhappy and their constituents unhappier.
Beyond and beneath these concerns lie further ramifications. The other countries of the United Kingdom, Wales and Northern Ireland, are going to want powers of devolved self-government similar to those conferred on, or promised to, Scotland. Why shouldn’t they? Moreover, there are regions within England that feel as remote from the Westminster administration as many in Scotland and Wales do. The prime minister and his immediate colleagues have recognised this and made vague promises about increased powers (especially financial powers) to the councils of big northern English cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. These quasi-promises were greeted enthusiastically by the leaders of those cities, but within a matter of hours smaller towns and rural areas were asking “If the big cities are to be given more self-government, why can’t we?” Certain parts of England, notably Cornwall, are almost certain to demand greater autonomy from Westminster. Thus, shock-waves from the Scottish referendum are spreading throughout the UK and show no sign of lessening.
These are interesting times, and major constitutional changes in the UK are inevitable. Yet no one is asking the underlying philosophical question: “What is the UK’s raison d’etre?” [Apologies, readers – this blog system won’t allow me to insert cirumflex accents.] In 1707, when the parliaments of Britain (i.e. England plus Wales) and Scotland were united, the long-term consequence was a kind of cultural hybrid vigour. Yes, there were troubles in the short term – the Jacobite rebellions testified to that – but the newly-formed UK leapt to the forefront of European culture, a pioneer in literature, music, the sciences, technological innovation, and above all in the emergence of democratic government: as illustrations, consider the explosive growth of the Empire and the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment. This blossoming of achievement continued through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, and any suggestion of severance of one part of the UK from another would have seemed eccentric at best. Scottish coal miners, Scottish steel workers, Scottish ship-builders, had closer ties to their English counterparts than they had to a flag, to any hint of independence. Of course the Scots were proud to be Scots, and the English to be English, and the Welsh to be Welsh, but first and foremost they were all proud to be British. There was no question of what the UK was about, what it was “for”.
This has changed. The Empire has gone. Its comfortable ghost, the Commonwealth, has scant influence on our citizens now because we are in large measure subject to the European Union – a source of annoyance to many, who seem to want the Good Old Days back and are unable to recognise that the Good Old Days will not and cannot return. Our mining and manufacturing industries have all but disappeared and solidarity among workers has concomitantly faded to a shadow of its former self. The Scots remain proud to be Scots and the English to be English, but there’s been a relative decline in “proud to be British”, and our government needs to recognise the change.
What remains for the UK? The question isn’t rhetorical. It’s fundamental to every decision we make about our national future. Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, no one in a position of political power is asking it, still less trying to answer it.
Since for the foregoing reasons the glue that’s held the UK together for three centuries has degraded and cracked, as demonstrated by the passion of the Scottish Independence campaign, we have to find ways of answering the question. Debating what extra powers to confer here or there, or cobbling together a solution to the “West Lothian Question”, is like trying to hold a fragmenting body together with sticking plaster; a temporary measure at best. It may be facile to answer: “The UK will become a Federal nation, analagous to the USA, with component countries and some regions having a measure of independence in respect of legislation (cf. States) but with national matters still decided by the central national (cf. Federal) government”. Perhaps the final outcome will be something along these lines. But if so, how do we get there from here? What will be the balance of power between the central and other administrations? Where’s the long-term national plan, the political strategy?
If anyone finds it, please forward it to the prime minister. He and his successor(s) need it.