Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

28 November 2013

Launch of the Blueprint for ‘Scotland’s Future’: A Red-Letter Day for England?

Cross-posted with thanks from English Commonwealth.

Yesterday saw the launch of ‘Scotland’s Future’: the Scottish Government’s white paper on Scottish independence, billed as the blueprint for the country’s future. English Commonwealth looks forward to the publication of the UK government’s blueprint for the future of the United Kingdom, and particularly England’s place within it.

We could be waiting for a very long time. The sad truth is that the British government appears to have no coherent long-term vision for the Union, for the relations between its constituent countries and for its systems of government – let alone any vision for England.

In the specific context of the Scottish-independence referendum, this presents the No campaign – Better Together – with something of a quandary: they have no positive vision for the future of the Union, and of Scotland within it, to set against the blueprint for an independent Scotland set out in the white paper. There simply is no such positive plan for the Union. Any alternative ideas they might come up with would be pure ‘fiction’, as the Better Together leader Alastair Darling described ‘Scotland’s Future’ yesterday.

Better Together can’t even outline a detailed set of proposals about how devolution might be extended in Scotland in the event of a No vote, for instance by giving the Scottish government control over most of the taxes raised in Scotland. They can’t do this because no commitment to ‘devo more’ or ‘devo max’ exists on the part of the Westminster government, let alone any overall policy framework setting out the maximum degree to which devolution could be rolled out to all of the constituent nations of the UK – including England – and the constitutional ramifications of so doing.

Better Together can’t even speak with any authority about what the stance of the UK government would be on a whole range of issues were it to find itself in the position of negotiating an independence settlement with Scotland following a Yes vote in the referendum. These issues include things like the currency; Scotland’s EU and NATO membership; the UK’s nuclear deterrent, currently based in the Scottish port of Faslane; and other security issues such as naval shipbuilding, dividing up the armed forces and border controls.

On the face of it, there appears to be no contingency planning for this eventuality on the part of the UK government, which is perhaps over-confident that the No’s will win. If there is any contingency planning, then it certainly hasn’t been revealed to the pro-Union campaigners, because free and fair election rules preclude the government from disclosing valuable inside information to only one side in the referendum, and because this information would in any case no doubt be classified as a state secret.

But over and above contingency planning, there appears to be no plan at all for what the constitutional and governance framework of the ‘rest of the UK’ (rUK) would look like if Scotland departs from or breaks up the Union. So Better Together simply cannot predict anything sensible or coherent about what the eventual Scottish-independence settlement would look like, because nobody in the UK government has articulated any ideas whatsoever about what rUK would look like: about which elements of the present UK it would insist on retaining and what it would be willing to share with Scotland in a continuing social and economic union. Following a Yes vote, we’d be in a completely different political and constitutional ball game, and no one has yet proposed let alone established what the rules of the game would be.

This leaves England potentially in a massive constitutional limbo. Let’s put it this way: there’s no plan for a continuing Union including Scotland, even less of a plan for rUK, and even less for the status and governance of England within rUK.

Never mind Scotland: England needs a plan B. That’s why, more than ever, we need a Constitutional Convention for England. If the government won’t direct its thoughts to the shape of a continuing UK with or without Scottish independence, and England’s place within it, then the people of England must do so in its place. English Commonwealth urges its readers to support our petition for just such a constitutional convention. So far, as I write, our petition has generated a mere 37 online signatures out of a target of 1 million.

Come on, men and women of England: don’t let England’s future and very existence be decided by default by the people of Scotland and by a UK government that couldn’t care less about our country. Let’s make the day the blueprint for Scotland’s future was published a red-letter day for England!

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5 Comments »

  1. I agree with about 95 percent of this, as you will see from my blog post today at http://www.barder.com/4088 and my letter in today’s Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/nov/27/tough-choices-scottish-independence. I have reservations about the final 5 percent, namely your call for a Constitutional Convention to decide the constitutional future of England. I am sure such a Convention will eventually be necessary, but I believe that it will be needed at a later stage. The first thing we need is a clear policy declaration by the Labour party that if Scotland votes No to independence, the next Labour government will negotiate with the political leaders in Scotland a move to full internal self-government for Scotland. Ideally this should be coupled with the adoption by Labour of the long-term objective of a federation of the four UK nations, with each of the four nations (including England) having its own parliament and government, full internal self-government for each, and a federal government and parliament responsible only for foreign affairs, defence, and other matters affecting the whole of the UK. Such a preliminary commitment, probably only by the Labour party in the first place, is urgently necessary if the separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK in a few months’ time is to be averted.

    I envisage that the modalities for achieving this would probably begin with a Royal Commission or Speaker’s Conference, followed by an all-UK Constitutional Convention to endorse the federal objective and produce a route map for achieving it. Parliament would then pass the necessary enabling legislation, probably followed by a UK-wide referendum. Only then should there be Constitutional Conventions in each of the four nations, including England, to draw up the four national constitutions within the overall federal framework approved by parliament and the referendum. The draft constitutions produced by the four national Conventions would then be approved by each of the four national parliaments and then submitted to a separate referendum in each of the four nations. It would then be for the Westminster federal parliament to draw up the UK federal constitution in the light of all the preceding laws and Conventions and submit the resulting document (establishing a federal house of commons and Senate with limited powers, a federal supreme court, etc.) to a final all-UK referendum. All this would inevitably take many years — indeed, it would take several years to establish a national all-party consensus in favour of the whole scenario before the first steps could be taken.

    In the light of all this, I submit that to call for an English Constitutional Convention at this stage would be seriously premature. It would be impossible to draw up a constitution for England in a vacuum. An English constitution can be drawn up and agreed only after its context within a federal UK has been worked out and agreed.

    Alas, I’m afraid our political leaders — other than those of the SNP and perhaps of UKIP — are too timid and short-sighted to undertake such far-reaching and radical a programme for the UK’s constitutional future. As a result of their cowardly inaction, there is a growing risk that the Scots will vote Yes for independence next September, an eventuality for which, as you rightly say, our UK and English political parties are apparently wholly unprepared, as indeed they are unprepared for the questions that will arise if Scotland votes against independence.

    I shall be putting a copy of this comment on my own blog.

    Comment by Brian Barder — 28 November 2013 @ 6.41 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for your comment, Brian. My difference in approach from you is related to the fact that my primary objective – and that of English Commonwealth – is asserting the right of England as a nation to govern itself. I note that you essentially agree with that, and indeed, your proposals are more far-reaching, I feel, than your previous federal ideas. Effectively, you’re now advocating a confederal model for the UK, with each of the four UK nations being sovereign and pooling their sovereignty in areas of mutual interest.

      I think this is an attractive proposal, but I think the chances of it coming about in the measured, rational way you outline are nil. Westminster only cedes power when it is forced to do so by popular demand and by circumstances. So my view is England will be listened to and dealt with seriously as a nation in its own right only when the people of England insist that this happens and force the pace. Hence, the urging for an English Constitutional Convention, which would be a popular process, hopefully with mass participation.

      Comment by David — 29 November 2013 @ 10.47 am | Reply

      • Thanks. In fact I envisage a federal constitution, not a confederal one — more like Australia than Switzerland. I continue to believe that it’s futile to plan for England in isolation from the rest of the UK. To do so would entail the disintegration of the UK, leaving England isolated, diminished and without any influence over international and continental policies and events that deeply affect it.
        I agree that our highly conservative (small c) public opinion would run 100 miles from the kind of blueprint I have set out, but I think the logic of devolution plus the fact that we are now three-quarters of the way to a federal state could get us there in slow and gradual stages, if we had a party leader with enough vision, imagination and courage to steer us in the right direction. In practice I believe that only the Labour party is capable of it.

        Comment by Brian Barder — 29 November 2013 @ 11.19 am

      • I think we’re in agreement about the desirable outcome: better to have some sort of federation of friendly British and Irish nations than complete fragmentation. But we’ll have to agree to disagree about the process and, in particular, about the Labour Party. I don’t believe the British Labour Party has any imaginative, emotional or ideological investment in England as a nation, with a few notable exceptions. But Ed Miliband isn’t one of them, for all his rhetoric, and he certainly isn’t the visionary leader that would be required.

        But then again, I’m not an old Labourite like yourself!

        Comment by David — 29 November 2013 @ 12.51 pm

  2. This comment is off-topic but I’m leaving it here because this is the most recent post. My company does a good deal of telephoning people all around the world to obtain information, and a new colleague of mine today explained that he was having trouble communicating with some French-speaking north African contacts. He was trying to explain that he was phoning from the United Kingdom – “Je vous appelle du Royaume-Uni”, or something like that – but they didn’t understand what he meant. It was immediately obvious to me what the problem was – to most people outside the Anglosphere, and indeed many inside it, “the United Kingdom” or its translations are almost devoid of meaning. Many people simply don’t know what this bland pair of words refers to. I told him to say “I’m calling from England”, and assured him that this would be immediately understood by everyone he spoke to. His reaction was strange – he looked slightly uncomfortable and mumbled something about “I’d better not say that to my Scottish friends.” I was bewildered by this. Our company is based in England and I don’t believe that any Scottish person (with the exception of (mostly Labour) unionist politicians) would object to an English person saying as much. Very few Scottish people would hesitate to say “I’m calling from Edinburgh, Scotland”, and very few would think of saying “I’m calling from Edinburgh in the United Kingdom”.

    But in this (well-meaning) guy’s mind, even using the word “England” when it is both justified and necessary is fraught with potential offence to our non-English near-neighbours, and should be avoided lest it upset them. I think this mentality may be rather common among English people. Using the E-word is vulgar, could be construed as nationalistic and threatening, and it is always preferable to refer to “the UK” or perhaps “Britain”, even if no part of Britain other than England is being referred to. The more I think about this little episode, the more annoyed I am by it. If anything like it arises again I’m going to be a little more forthright about some of the points above.

    Comment by Rob — 14 March 2014 @ 1.57 am | Reply


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