All of a sudden, the landscape seems to have shifted. Within the space of a month, two at most maybe, England appears to have come back into fashion. It now seems acceptable, in ‘progressive’ political commentary in the official press and on the blogosphere, to talk about what kind of England ‘we’ wish to create after the demise of the Union. It’s taken the realisation that the Conservatives will probably win outright at the next general election – a conclusion formed by many, including myself, after Labour’s disastrous local-election performance last week – to finally take on board the fact that the days of the Union are numbered and we’ll have to start talking and thinking about a separate England whether we like it or not. Welcome to the fold of sanity, one is tempted to say in greeting of the new converts!
Why is the break up of the Union so likely under Cameron? Well, it would only be hastening the inevitable, in any case. The reason, of course, is that if the Tories do win a comfortable parliamentary majority (albeit on a minority of the popular vote), this will be almost entirely on the basis of votes cast and seats won in England, while they have practically disappeared as an electoral force in Scotland and aren’t doing that much better in Wales. The prospect of living under a hated ‘English’ Conservative UK government, opposed to granting more powers to Holyrood, and perhaps reducing the influence, number and hence relevance of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament while forcing down the public-expenditure budget for Scotland, would almost certainly provide the final push and persuade a majority of the Scottish people to vote for independence – a referendum on which the SNP plans to hold in 2010. And if a referendum at that time were blocked by the other parties at Holyrood, then the next Scottish general election in 2011 would effectively be turned into a referendum in all but name.
In any case, it’s hard to see Scotland surviving in the Union till the end of a Cameron government unless the Tories come to their senses and realise that if they want to preserve any sort of Union, they’ll have to grant equal nation status and representation to each of the nations of the UK under a federal system, including England. As I’ve suggested before, maybe Cameron will do a deal with the SNP to hold a referendum after the 2012 Olympics – giving him two years to concoct a plan to save the Union.
However, rather than trying in vain to save the Union, would it not be far more sensible and show more foresight to start planning now for the future for all the countries of the UK after the end of the Union? The federal option is one such possible future. If, on the other hand, Scotland decides to go it alone, as now appears more likely, what then for England – and for Wales and Northern Ireland? Shouldn’t we start thinking and talking about the future for these countries (and also for Cornwall) – whether we stay together under new constitutional arrangements or whether we, too, go down the road of independence? Such ‘national conversations’ in each of our countries – mirroring the national conversation the SNP government has got going in Scotland – would provide an opportunity for ordinary citizens to have an input and try to get their voice heard, offering a chance to prevent the process being run by Westminster politicians seeking to preserve their privileges and their power.
The window of opportunity to hold these conversations is the period running up to a Scottish referendum on independence. Indeed, if we do not start working out what sort of future we want as nations after the Union, we could end up having that future dictated to us by the outcome of the Scottish vote. There’s a strong argument for saying that the people of Scotland alone do not have the right, at least morally, to determine the future of a union that involves many more people than just the Scots. (Last week, the Scottish Labour Party may already have conceded the constitutional principle that Holyrood has the ‘sovereign right’ to call such a referendum on its own initiative, as Anthony Barnett observed.) We’ve already seen the destructive effects of letting the Scots and Welsh vote on devolution without giving the people of England a say on whether they wanted the same constitutional arrangements for England; so we should not wander carelessly into a repeat of the same sort of mistake, but this time one with potentially even more drastic consequences.
In a comment on the OurKingdom blog last week, I argued that it would be illogical to extend a referendum on Scotland’s independence to all the citizens of the UK, in that only the Scottish people could be said to have a moral or constitutional right to vote on their nation’s status. The only way to give the other nations a say on the matter of independence at the same time as the Scottish vote would be ask the same question of voters in those countries; i.e. to ask the English whether they want an independent England, and the same for Wales and Northern Ireland (and possibly Cornwall).
In other words, a Scottish referendum on independence is asking voters there to answer essentially two questions rolled into one: 1) do you want the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as presently constituted to come to an end? 2) do you want this end to come in the form of independence for Scotland? If Scottish voters are entitled to determine whether the UK breaks up, then it should be self-evident that people in the other nations of the UK are entitled to the same choice. That’s the first of the two questions. In relation to the second, it’s unworkable and inequitable to ask the Scots if they want independence while asking the rest of the UK if they want something else, such as a federal UK, or a re-design of the devolution settlement creating English and Welsh parliaments, for instance. We should be asked the same question, and be given the same choice, as it relates to each nation in turn. And if the Scots voted for independence, this could simply invalidate referendums in England and Wales asking a different question, as the whole constitutional set up would have be re-evaluated and renegotiated as part of Scotland’s secession.
So if an independence referendum in Scotland now appears inevitable – whether it comes in 2010, 2011, 2012 or whenever – the people should demand equivalent referendums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and maybe also Cornwall). It’s not just up to the Scots to strike the final nail into the Union coffin; and if they get the option of voting for independence, so should the other nations of the UK.
And in the meantime – in the two to four years running up to a likely Scottish vote – it’s time for the people of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall to take charge of their future by starting to really reflect and debate what they want that future to be: a federal UK whose constitutional framework and institutional structures could be the same whether Scotland were included or not? Independence for each country? A new state of England and Wales, with devolved parliaments for Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland becoming part of a united Ireland with strong guarantees for the rights of the Protestant community? A separate England with the ‘Celtic’ nations of the British Isles joined together into a new confederation?
It’s time to get those ‘national conversations’ going in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall. The future is ours, and the people – not the politicians – should decide.
Subsequent to this post, I’ve started a new blogsite intended to kick off just such a national conversation for England.