Salmond’s referendum: UK federation beats disintegration
My letter in today’s Guardian argues that rising demand for fuller self-government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland points to full UK federation as a better culmination of devolution than the disintegration of our country. When will any UK political party grasp this and thereby reap a great medium-term reward? Let’s hope someone will show my letter to Ed Miliband, the only current party leader with imagination, a long view and the required dash of courage.
For anyone who doesn’t read the Guardian, here’s my letter (printed exactly as submitted!):
Professor Curtice calls devolution “a one-way process that seemingly can have only one conclusion – breakup and separation” (Devolution’s slippery slope, 10 October). The first of your reports on Scotland (Scotland gets a choice of ‘independence lite’ in referendum, 10 October) similarly documents popular pressure for fuller autonomy for Wales and Northern Ireland and for full fiscal autonomy for Scotland, with the Scottish Lib Dems advocating “fiscal federalism for all parts of the UK”, not just Scotland; and you report UK MPs inexplicably alarmed by Alex Salmond‘s indications of willingness to consider full fiscal autonomy for Scotland within the UK as a possible referendum alternative to independence.
But it’s apparently taboo to mention either of the elephants in the room: how long England will passively watch the other three UK nations moving inexorably towards full internal self-government while England alone is denied its obvious benefits; and why those seeking a credible policy for saving the UK from disintegration still can’t see the obvious alternative to breakup, namely a full federation of the four UK nations – each eventually enjoying full internal self-government – with the Westminster parliament and government becoming the federal organs responsible for only those subjects that need to be managed on an all-UK basis. That, rather than disintegration, is the logical (and potentially most popular) culmination of the devolution process and, given some imaginative political leadership, one that could revolutionise the way we govern ourselves. There could be a rich reward for the first UK party leader to pick up this ball and run with it.
In a typically shrewd commentary, the Guardian’s Michael White is one of very few commentators even to mention federation as a possible solution:
A federal British solution as part of a wider constitutional settlement including Lords, Commons and the voting system? That gets some Lib Dem support. But England’s dominance (52 million out of 62 million) makes it tricky.
But it’s precisely England’s dominance that makes a federal system necessary: full internal self-government plus equal representation in the federal second chamber (as in, for example, the US and Australia) would protect the three smaller UK nations from constant English interference in their affairs, a protection which partial and reluctant devolution fails to provide at present.
According to media reports, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is intensely relaxed about the prospect of Scottish secession and the break-up of the UK, because it might mean a permanent Tory majority in what’s left of Britain. There was a time when failure to defend one’s country’s integrity and survival constituted high treason, a capital crime. In our more enlightened times, imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole would no doubt be a preferable alternative to beheading. The prime minister, David Cameron, is said to be troubled by the threat of Scottish secession, not so much out of old-fashioned patriotism or concern for the welfare and interests of the people of the four UK nations, but because he doesn’t fancy going down in history as the prime minister who presided over the death of the United Kingdom. Well, never mind his motives. How is he going to head off Scottish secession? None of our leaders seems to have a clue. If Ed Miliband’s office doesn’t spot the opportunity, perhaps David Cameron’s press secretary will recommend that he has a look at today’s Guardian letters. (Nick Clegg, too?)