Whether Scotland votes for or against independence on Thursday, the constitutional genie is now out of the bottle. If Scotland votes for independence, the West Lothian question will not longer apply as there will no longer be any Scottish MPs in Westminster but if it’s a no vote and further powers are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it remains unresolved. What the Scottish debate has highlighted is the increasing disenchantment of the public with Westminster politicians and the need for fundamental constitutional change.
The problem lies in the existing unitary constitution. Although there have been constitutional crises over the last thousand years—the reform crisis of 1830-1832 and the crisis between Commons and Lords between 1909 and 1911—there has only been one truly revolutionary moment—the English Republic between 1649 and 1660. It is evolution rather than revolution that has been the primary feature of our constitutional structures and the problem with evolution is that it can look like tinkering with things or cosmetic change. The British state evolved over a thousand years from the separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into the centralised English state that then by a process of coercion, conquest and often disreputable ‘persuasion’, in to the United Kingdom. More and more power has been concentrated in Westminster and, until the acceptance that devolution was a necessary development, it jealously guarded and maintained that power. Devolution has led to this unravelling. The unitary constitution, if not already dead, is in terminal decline.
So where constitutionally does this leave the United Kingdom? The question of an English Parliament has recently been revived as one solution to the problem—English MPs for English issues. But is again tinkering…it fails to address the critical issue that what Britain needs is a federal system of government in which its constituent parts are responsible for governing themselves while the federal authorities are responsible for issues such as defence—so small federal government and bigger regional government bringing power closer to the people, a shift from representative to participatory democracy.