Preserving the UK

Although I wrote on the subject of the threat to the United Kingdom from an increasingly separatist Scotland only six weeks ago (“Countering Nicola Sturgeon”, 22.05.21), I return to the theme in this week’s essay.  I make no excuses for doing so: the subject remains in my view the most important longer-term political issue facing the UK, more significant even than either the recovery from the pandemic or the establishment of a post-Brexit modus operandi with the EU – and that alone justifies a second consideration of the issues.  But also, I have just returned from a week’s holiday in Scotland, and what I saw there surprised me and prompted some serious thought.

I should say up-front that I am English, and have neither lived nor worked in Scotland.  But I have visited it very frequently for over 50 years, have travelled in all parts of country, and have many friends there.  As much as any Englishman can, I thought I had a fair picture of both the country and the Scots people.  Both are different from England and the English, of course – the landscape and scenery spectacularly so – but both have hitherto seemed to me to be recognisably part of the same family.

After a week driving the length and breadth of Scotland and visiting both its cities and its more remote countryside, I sense that this is increasingly no longer so clearly the case.  There is a different atmosphere, a greater differentiation in the way people think and react to news and events than I expected or have experienced before.  And it is clear too that there is a growing difference in the national narrative – what matters to people, what people talk about, what the media focus on.

The biggest difference from my last visit – only 18 months ago, but crucially pre-pandemic – is the respective attention given to the two governments, the UK government in Westminster and the Scottish government in Holyrood.  The importance of the Scottish government and its decisions for the day-to-day lives of Scots has been growing over the years since devolved administration was established in 1999, but even as recently as my last visit, events and decisions at Westminster were fully reported in the Scottish media and given serious weight.  This has changed; the media, especially the newspapers (though less so the BBC, which remains a UK voice), all but ignore UK-wide politics and events and the focus is notably more inward-looking and in-turned.

This is partly because the news remains dominated by the pandemic and the resulting social restrictions.  This is an area where the Scottish government has full authority, and they are making the most of it – the government is very active, the messaging is incessant, the rules are both stricter than in England and much more closely policed and obeyed.  In any public space – restaurants, for example, or shops – one is accosted immediately on entry and asked much more vigorously to comply with registration and social distancing requirements.

As it happens, the result is not noticeably very different – Scotland has experienced a very similar level of COVID cases and deaths to the other parts of the UK.  And the two outright successes that Scotland (like the rest of the UK) has enjoyed, viz the vaccination programme and the furlough scheme that has preserved so many jobs, were respectively “made in the UK” and “paid for by London”, and Holyrood played almost no role in either.  But Nicola Sturgeon has made a great play of “defending the Scottish people”, unilaterally banning travel to and from virus hotspots in England like Manchester and refusing to allow cruise ships to sail between Scottish and English waters, and in general having pointedly different rules and timings, often it seems mostly for the sake of being different.

This is all very much part of the Scottish government’s main message to its people, that it is they that are the dominant government in Scotland (with – for the moment – a few powers still withheld from them by Westminster), rather than the UK government being dominant and allowing Holyrood some few devolved powers.  A message that the Scottish newspapers seem happy to relay – indeed cheer-lead, as all the leading papers appear to be ardent supporters of the SNP and criticism of Sturgeon is hard to find[1].

Students of politics will recognise the issue behind this – it is all about where power naturally resides in a polity, in which direction it flows and who controls how it is exercised.  In one model, power is held at the centre, and discrete amounts of it are delegated to lower levels of government.  This is the traditional model for a unitary state; in such a society, of which the UK and France are examples, power flows downwards but remains under the control of the centre, which determines what parts of its authority it is willing to share with regional administrations and, crucially, when it can reclaim them.

In another model, power is held at lower levels, and only pooled or ceded to a higher level when the lower levels deem it to their mutual advantage.  This is the traditional model for a confederation and for many federal states;  the most obvious examples are the EU, where the member states have decided to pool certain specific powers and cede them to the Commission but retain all others, and the United States, which takes the issue a degree further and holds that power resides with the individual citizens, who have voluntarily ceded some powers to their state governments, which in turn (and with their citizens’ consent) have ceded some powers to the federal government in Washington.  Here very obviously, power flows upwards and can in theory at least be reclaimed by the lower levels should they wish.

The debate between these two different understandings of power is often summarised in the one, rather ugly, word Subsidiarity.  Ugly it may be, but the concept is fundamental to how different peoples agree to live together.  And, in a nutshell, it is the constitutional debate that the UK should be having.  If the Union is to survive, what kind of union is it to be?  One in which the four home nations are the natural seats of power, and voluntarily agree to pool some of their authority for the common good, or one in which Westminster continues to hold the power and doles out a little as it can to its junior partners?

As I say, this is the debate the UK should be having.  And, to their great credit, the Welsh government has tried hard to start it, with an impressive paper “Reforming our Union – Shared governance in the UK” that Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, issued a couple of years ago.  Drakeford is a Unionist;  he wants a strong Welsh government in a strong United Kingdom, and his paper was well-intentioned, well-written and well-argued.  And sadly, totally ignored[2].

And this is the UK’s main problem.  Unionists are unwilling to enter into any sensible discussion on the Union, even with those like Mark Drakeford who wish to preserve and strengthen it, for fear of opening Pandora’s box and giving credence to what they most fear.  But unless they are willing to find a solution that is acceptable to the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish – and of course the English too, who should not be forgotten – there may be no Union left to discuss.

To be fair, it is hard to see how any sort of progress  on a new constitutional arrangement for the UK can be made as long as there is no real distinction between the UK or federal government, and the government of England.  With no English government, it is hard to see how relationships between the four home countries can be discussed when over 80% of the population are not represented at the negotiating table.  And discussions on how England should relate to the renewed United Kingdom cannot even start.

This concept, that the UK government is – and needs to be – different from the government of England is I think not sufficiently understood in Westminster.  Even to suggest that England should, like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have its own totally separate government and parliament appears to be an anathema to many Unionists.   The “solution” known as EVEL (“English votes for English laws”, ie a sub-committee of the Westminster parliament for English affairs, in which only English MPs sit) is not an answer, and there does I think need to be wholly different parliaments for England and the UK, made up of different people and with different leaders (and preferably based in two different cities), before the debate can move forward.

Only if one does this can one hope to address what is the source of much of the Welsh government’s obvious frustration, which is that it is not clear enough when the Westminster parliament is legislating for the UK, when for England and Wales, and when just for England.  Because it is the same body of MPs in all three instances, they naturally blur the boundaries of their competencies and “interfere” in matters which should be for the Welsh Assembly.  But if there were separate legislatures for England and the UK they would have to demarcate much more precisely what was the purview of each, and it would be much clearer what powers the UK government could and could not exercise in each constituent country.

A separate English parliament would I think have one further interesting consequence, which is that it would be on the same side as the Scottish and Welsh ones in resisting too much overbearing and meddling from the federal UK government – and to have the English share a common interest with the other home nations is surely a sine qua non of building a union all want to belong to.

What might come out of this?  It would lead naturally to a much smaller federal government, perhaps concerned only with international relations, defence, trade negotiations and monetary sovereignty, alongside a residual and smaller fiscal role, and this in turn would make the devolved administrations much more significant, itself I think positive for preserving the Union.  And if the Scots did not want to stay a member even of this much more decentralised union, then probably there is nothing that would keep them and they should, as I said in my last essay, be allowed to leave.

Achieving this, or even opening a debate on it, will however be difficult, if only for the reason that in England itself there is a strong Conservative majority, so that for the other political parties to agree to the establishment of an English parliament per se would be largely to entrench a Tory majority in the dominant home nation.  But unless this debate is opened, unless the questions of where power resides in the United Kingdom and who determines how it is allocated between the various administrations are addressed, the Union will not survive.

As one person said to me last week in Scotland, “We can either discuss the terms under which we will stay in your union (sic), or we can discuss the terms under which we will leave it”.  That is the choice facing Westminster.  And Boris Johnson does not have the option of “neither of the above”.



[1]              A lack of balance which I have to admit is wholly mirrored in the English press, which when it does not ignore Scottish politics completely, presents a very one-sided image in which the SNP is “the enemy” and Sturgeon is variously portrayed as a rabble-rouser or a scheming witch.  Neither this nor the Scottish media’s hagiography of her is a fair or balanced assessment of course, but it is another indication of two societies growing apart.

[2]              The main response from the UK government was that the prime minister appointed a “Minister for the Union” – he gave the job to himself, as it happens, which as well as showing a total misunderstanding of the seriousness of the challenge the Union faces (defending it is not a part time job for a busy minister, let alone a busy prime minister), is even for him about as tone deaf as it comes given how the other home nations see him.