If you look at the ‘national’ newspapers you really would not know that the referendum on Scottish independence is only a year away and yet it is perhaps the most important decision that will be made in our lifetimes. Certainly it is more important than the proposed referendum on the European Union about which everyone has an opinion. I’m reminded of how ‘British’ history is taught in many schools—for ‘Britain’ read England or, more accurately, England south of the Watford Gap. It is hardly surprising, given the enormous condescension of history, that Scotland is calling for independence. The assumption appears to be that the Scots will see sense and vote to remain in the Union but that’s a hell of a gamble. The polls suggest that most people are against independence so we just need to build on that…again remarkable complaisance. Think again…a recent poll in the Herald shows that a majority of Scots favour ‘devomax’, the further devolution of powers short of independence that is not on offer…so the choice is between independence or nothing for this majority and ripe for picking by those who want independence.
Do I think Scotland could make it as an independent country…well actually yes. It has the resources—natural, social, cultural, economic and political—to do so. Devolution has given it a revived experience of governance and it is rightly believed that successive Scottish executives have done a good job. It already has its own legal and education systems. So there are strong arguments for an independent Scotland at a practical level. There is also a persuasive historical case for restoring the independence of the northern kingdom, a process that devolution inevitably set in train. There is a strong tradition in Britain’s history for local and regional identities that frequently transcend any notion of national feeling. I come from the Fens and have always regarded myself first as a Fenman and still baulk at being seen as an East Anglian. Individual identity does depend on place and space. In Scotland, the distinction between lowlanders and highlanders or whether you were born in Glasgow or Edinburgh makes a difference and has long been a feature of Scottish cultural identity. What holds Britain together is its union of disparate and different people.
The problem with union is that it was the result of a long evolution and, other than being unitary, has little logical structure at all. It was the consequence of conquest, cajoling, bribery and corruption…a constitutional structure based on decidedly unconstitutional foundations. Until recently, the relationship between the centre and the peripheries was decided in Westminster and the degree to which the peripheries achieved political influence was dependent on their ability to influence politicians in Westminster. It had been a very unequal union in which being English or being seen to be English has been its determining characteristic. I happen to think that the four elements of Great Britain are better together than apart…but then I’m English and would say that anyway wouldn’t I!! But not under the current union….what we need is a new federal union to replace the bankrupt unitary one.
This would not be as difficult or radical as it sounds. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales already have devolved powers that could be extended by applying the principles of devomax. In effect they would have independence to make most of the decisions about domestic policy simply developing what already exists. England would need its own parliament to make decisions…again this is not a difficult proposition as currently Parliament makes decisions about education and the NHS, for instance, that apply to England rather than the United Kingdom as a whole. There would need to be a peripatetic federal Parliament to decide issues that affect the union as a whole—foreign policy, defence, security on so on—that could sit in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff in existing parliamentary or assembly buildings for say six months at a time. This would modernise what is increasingly a creaking constitutional structure that is not ‘fit for purpose’ as far as many people are concerned.