What is evident from the populist debate on Scottish independence is that David Cameron is probably rueing the day that he said no to ‘devo-max’ when he had the opportunity. The result is that the debate is not over whether Scotland should be given what is effectively Home Rule—probably what most people wanted even some in the SNP—but on whether or not the country should secede from the Union. The response from Westminster has been the hastily presented proposals made initially on Sunday and firmed up in the following two days…not a panic response according to No campaigners but, when a demonstrator ironically yelled ‘Don’t Panic’ as David Cameron left his emotionally charged f…ing meeting in Edinburgh, he was undoubtedly right. By not including ‘devo-max’ as the third question in the referendum, those unhappy with the status quo find themselves with only one option…voting for independence and belatedly making promises and a timetable for greater powers to Scotland may not be sufficient to alter the seemingly inexorable stampede to the constitutional door.
The reality is that most people in the United Kingdom do not wish to see the break-up of the Union—and probably a majority in Scotland—but such is the opprobrium in which Westminster politicians are held, it is a real option. And even if Scotland votes ‘No’, the constitutional genie is out of the bottle. Why, people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland ask, should Scotland be given extensive powers to rule itself but not us? Such is the remoteness of politicians in London from the lives and aspirations of ordinary people that there will be demands for greater regional autonomy within the Union—power needs to be brought closer to the people if our democratic system is to retain popular support. Unitary constitutional systems ultimately unravel when faced with demands for devolution; in fact, I would go further and argue that unitary structures are incompatible with devolution. What we need is a United States of Great Britain and Northern Island within the EU…in reality the only solution to the current constitutional impasse. This recognises that there are supra-national priorities, while some things, such as defence and fiscal policy, that are best done at the level of the state; others things, such as education—this is already the case—that are best organised on a national basis; while others should be regional and local…what is essentially a federal constitutional network. It works in other countries, such as Germany, and there’s no reason why it should not work here.
Now I’m certain there will be many politicians and civil servants in London who will argue that we don’t need to move away from the unitary system that has served us well—debatable—for so long. This, of course, neglects the evolutionary way in which the constitution has developed over past centuries despite the warnings from those keen to preserve their own power or the status quo bleating that change will be a disaster—and for them perhaps it was. The question is whether the British Constitution is ‘fit for purpose’ in the twenty-first century and clearly it is not as the response to the independence debate has made very clear. Whether it’s yes or no next week, radical constitutional change is now inevitable.