Watching Newsnight yesterday evening, I was struck by a discussion of whether or not London could seeks independence from the United Kingdom. It could, one of the participants suggested, become a city state like those of the Hanseatic League, the medieval commercial powerhouse of northern Europe. I was surprised that he did not mention the Athenian polis as well. The argument was essentially that London is different from the rest of the UK…it is wealthier (anger at the mansion tax proposals from Labour as it will particularly hit Londoners), more diverse ethnically and culturally and less concerned by immigration and more pro-Europe than the rest of the country. Well, yes. Could London survive as a separate ‘state’, probably yes. Is it an appealing idea for Londoners, almost certainly yes. Should the proposition be seriously considered, definitely no. That the idea of London as a city state is being touted as a constitutional solution is indicative of the mess we have got ourselves into since the Scottish referendum.
For good or ill, one of the strengths of the British constitutional system has been its centralised nature. I remember being told by a medieval historian several decades ago that one of the reasons why centralised constitutional solutions worked in Britain but not in other countries was that Britain was just the right size. This combined with responsive local government meant that the writ of central government ran effectively across the country. Before the twentieth century and the emergence of the massively centralised welfare state, Parliament reflected this bifurcation of power in spending much of the time discussing local legislation rather than, as it does today, pondering national policies. While it is certainly the case that constitutional change is now unavoidable, there seems to be no consensus on what that change should be and the mechanisms through which change should be accomplished. The danger we have now is that different political groupings for different and often contradictory reasons seem intent on fragmenting this constitutional settlement.
There are three issues that need to be resolved. First, what should the relationship be between the four parts of the United Kingdom? For this we need to look to a federal solution…what may be called home rule for the nations. This means that everything that is not a union issue, such as defence, should be devolved to the four nations. We already have this in several areas: in education, for instance, policies in Scotland and Wales already diverge from those that apply in England. Each nation would have its own parliament or assembly to deal with these issues…it would be simply wrong not to have an unicameral English parliament to deal with English laws. Secondly, within the nations there are also calls for greater regional autonomy. Though the debate has focussed on England, the same pressures are evident in Wales and Scotland…the Shetland Islands, for instance, are as far from Edinburgh and Edinburgh is from London. Finally, there is the question of Europe. I agree with David Milliband’s statement today:
I have this residual faith in the common sense of the British people that generally they don't do stupid things. And it would be unbelievably stupid to walk out of the European Union.
By focussing attention of the question of the free movement of labour within the EU…something that concerns other EU members as well as the UK…there is a danger that we will forget the benefits of membership. Much better p…..g out of the tent than p….g in!
The problem with my neat solution to the constitutional mess we’ve got ourselves into is that it requires the different political parties to agree even if they are disadvantaged by the solution. So Labour has to accept that the West Lothian question has to be resolved and that, in future, Scottish MPs should not vote on English issues. Similarly, the Conservatives need to accept that an element of proportional representation is necessary in electing members to the four national parliaments even if first past the post remains the norm for elections to the UK Parliament. Above all we need to have a constitutional settlement that all political parties can buy into whether they like all its elements or not. Only by doing this can a constitutional referendum be won…in reality you probably wouldn’t need a referendum simply a General Election with all parties committed to the settlement meaning that whoever won, it would be implemented.
Not doing this leaves the danger of further fragmentation as a potent threat and a further weakening of Britain’s global position. Little Englands is not a viable option in the twenty-first century.