There is a year to go until the Scots vote on whether to remain in the UK. What is increasingly clear though, is that a ‘no’ vote would not be the end of the story – with all three unionist parties making it apparent that Scotland is likely to be devolved more powers if she chooses to remain in the union.
Soon to be launched at the Fabian fringe at Labour party conference this Sunday, the Constitution Society’s paper, If Scotland says ‘No’ – What next for the Union explores what the consequences of a ‘no’ vote might be – not just for Scotland but for the United Kingdom as a whole.
Whichever way Scotland votes will significantly impact on the rest of the UK. Should she choose to remain in the union, it seems untenable to grant Scotland increased powers without consulting the other home nations. Whatever ‘devo-max’ might eventually entail, Scotland cannot be given a blank cheque for voting ‘no’.
The Constitution Society has called for a constitutional convention for the entire UK to set about a new settlement for the home nations and their place in the union.
We currently have a very asymmetrical constitutional set-up, with the legislative powers of the individual home nations increasingly dissimilar to each other. Scotland has a parliament, Wales an assembly, Northern Ireland (for numerous reasons a special case) has an assembly that can be suspended. England, the largest and most populous country of these islands, has no form of sub-Westminster government at all.
Controversies over the Barnett formula, the West Lothian question and resentment over tuition and pharmacy fees have sometimes fuelled resentment in England. Wales may feel shortchanged with an assembly that has far fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament. Scots have no desire for their MPs to vote on English and Welsh issues. There is no ill-intention, but currently the system is not operating as well as it should.
A constitutional convention could set about consulting the people of the UK as to the arrangements that work for them. We have stumbled along so far, making piecemeal changes that have resulted in unintended and sometimes undesired consequences. A convention would allow us to ‘future-proof’ the union, setting a balance that lets every country flourish.
A convention should be above party politics – there should be no race to grant Scotland powers to shore up support for Labour in Scotland, no push for ‘home rule’ to save the Scottish Liberal Democrats. All parties should work together in the interests of Scotland and the union. Any further changes will impact the rest of the UK, so the rest of the nation should have a say.
It may well be that England is content to continue as things are. When polled, the English have been remarkably relaxed about Scottish and Welsh devolution. They have rejected regional government and (largely) directly elected mayors. But a growth in English national consciousness has developed in recent months, and there is some resentment over a postcode lottery on a national scale. It is essential that any rebalancing of the UK does not come from the top down. We do not have to be apprehensive about asymmetry if it is felt to be fair and agreed upon by the people. Diversity in our legislative set-up should not be feared: uniformity has never been the mark of Britain’s unity.
Only a full consultation will ascertain what works for England and how the English fit into a rebalanced United Kingdom. If powers are to be given they must be asked for, not imposed. An English parliament would only work if the people wanted it. Likewise, Wales and Northern Ireland should be consulted on how they fit into the Union – they may aspire to have the powers that Scotland holds or be content as they are – but they should be asked.
A constitutional convention cannot be dreamed up overnight; it must be carefully thought-out and implemented. It would ask some hard questions, possibly leading to a new settlement for a federal UK, or possibly consolidating what we have into far more united Kingdom that is tailored to the differing needs of the different peoples of these islands.
It is clear that if Scotland says ‘No’ the journey has not ended, in many ways it will have just begun. But if done correctly, a constitutional convention could set us on course to weather the storms of the next 300 years.
‘Devolution: Constitution and reform’ will be held at the Mercure, Brighton, on Sunday 22 September at 7.45pm. More information can be found here.