We now have the (quite exciting) Tory proposals for additional powers to a not-quite-independent Scottish parliament. As Benedict Brogan’s Morning Briefing recognises:
The implications of the Strathclyde recommendations for giving Scotland control of its income tax and reviewing the workings of the Union are only just beginning to be understood. Indeed, the coverage in the London editions, with the honourable exception of the FT, is fairly patchy. Yet the proposals published yesterday by Lord Strathclyde are revolutionary. They certainly are for the Tories. You don’t have to read Alan Cochrane’s “Doubting Thomas” analysis to see the dangers. Follow them through to their logical conclusion and it is hard not to conclude that this puts the Conservatives on the road to championing a new, federal model for the United Kingdom.
That’s perceptive; but the punch-line is a straight borrow from the Financial Times leader:
The Conservatives’ move has implications beyond Scotland. Ideally, it should point the way to a new constitutional settlement for the UK, shifting the country from an over-centralised state into a quasi-federal system. A new settlement would not only devolve fiscal power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would also see a greater status for the city-regions of England and a more explicit role for English MPs at Westminster in approving legislation that only affects England.
The Conservatives’ offer of a new deal for Scotland deserves wide political support. Ideally, it should be the foundation of a broad constitutional settlement covering all the United Kingdom. That idea will be in tatters if Scottish separatism wins the day.
Déjà vu, all over again
If this all sounds a trifle familiar, so it should. It is a replay from the last Home Rule crisis of 1912-14. Consider the speech Winston Churchill made at Dundee on 12th September 1912:
I am not in the least disturbed by the prospect of seeing erected in this country 10 or 12 separate legislative bodies for discharging the functions entrusted to them by the Imperial Parliament. The United States conducts its business through a great number of Parliaments and Germany has not merely Parliaments and States gathered and grouped together within the German Empire but has separate kingdoms and principalities and armies woven together in a strong federation of the whole. In the colonies, Canada, South Africa and Australia have found this federal system the only way in which you can reconcile the general interest of an organized State with the special and particular development of each part and portion of it.
[I don’t have the “authorised” text of that speech. That quotation is from The Times report, published 13 September 1912. In those days The Times was still a “paper of record”, not the Murdoch scandal sheet it has become.]
On the other hand …
I can already hear the snorts and harrumphs of those who will be repeating what A.V.Dicey wrote for the Contemporary Review, July 1882 (pages 66-86):
Federalism revolutionises the whole constitution of the United Kingdom; by undermining the parliamentary sovereignty, it deprives English institutions of their elasticity, their strength, and their life; it weakens the Executive at home, and lessens the power of the country to resist foreign attack. The revolution which works these changes holds out no hope for conciliation with Ireland. An attempt, in short, to impose on England and Scotland a constitution which they do not want, and which is quite unsuited to historical traditions and to the genius of Great Britain, offers to Ireland a constitution which Ireland is certain to dislike, which has none of the real or imaginary charms of independence, and ensures none of the solid benefits to be hoped for from a genuine union with England.
More to the point, without Churchill’s federalised England, the imbalance of the four Home Nations makes any settlement unequal. That was the case made by the Kilbrandon Commission (paragraph 531) back in 1973:
A federation consisting of four units – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – would be so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England. The English Parliament would rival the United Kingdom federal Parliament; and in the federal Parliament itself the representation of England could hardly be scaled down in such a way as to enable it to be outvoted by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together representing less than one-fifth of the population. A United Kingdom federation of four countries, with a federal Parliament and provincial Parliaments in the four national capitals, is therefore not a realistic proposition.
A new beginning, not an end
I’m assuming that the #indyref will result in a “No” vote. That, though, will not be any kind of satisfactory conclusion. The Scottish Nationalists will be able to bank their (say) 35-40% “Yes” vote; and — after a period of reflection and consolidation — come back for more.
The likelihood is that, after the next cycle of elections in 2016, the Scottish Parliament will return to the state it was designed to have — an absolute majority for any single party. The present majority is based upon a 45% popular vote, and the collapse of the Tory and LibDem vote across the country. Ironically, in losing seven seats and finishing a full 17.7% behind the SNP, Labour mislaid just half of one percent of its vote, and this in the aftermath of the 2010 UK parliamentary debacle, and the odium of the economic crisis. For all the froth, in the recent EU parliamentary elections, the SNP lead over Labour was sliced down to just 3%.
So, go to the FT again, for the conclusion to Kiran Stacey’s commentary:
Even if the nationalists lose the referendum, they will have changed Scotland’s place in the union for good. And, if they want to return to the question of independence in 10 or 20 years, opponents of devolution believe they will have the perfect starting point.
They will also have affected the way Aberystwyth, Derry, Newcastle, Falmouth and Lowestoft view their relations with the Great Wen. Which is more telling than any notion of a functioning “United Kingdom” (for many of its alienated citizens, it isn’t united, and it doesn’t function). And which might, just might also instruct us on the phenomenon that has been UKIP out in the sticks.