‘We’re all in this together’, the mantra expounded by George Osborne relentlessly over the past five years…though aimed at justifying the reduction of the deficit and the government’s austerity measures, it can also be seen as the Westminster view of the United Kingdom. The reality, however, is far more complex than this simplistic view. The development of the United Kingdom took centuries—the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the tenth century, the conquest of Wales in the thirteenth century, the Act of Union of 1707 and finally Act of Union that finally brought Ireland under the centralised control of Westminster. Yet it has taken less than two decades—since 1998 in reality—to unravel this constitutional settlement. By giving devolution to Wales and Scotland and then to Northern Ireland (the rump of the 1801 legislation), the government created a constitutional momentum that led to the narrowly lost Scottish referendum in September and the precipitous statement by David Cameron about resolving the ‘English question’ in tandem with further devolution for Scotland. This, combined with Britain’s increasingly fractious and tenuous membership of the EU, reinforces the concerns of many that we are going back to a ‘little England’ scenario, a fragmentation of the United Kingdom which though constitutionally still ‘together’ is increasingly splitting apart and that the usual approach of muddling through or tinkering with things won’t do.
Yet that, it appears is precisely what Westminster intends to do. Scotland will get more devolved powers—too little I suspect for those calling for independence and too much for many in England who argue that they do not have the same freedoms. There will be a movement of power from Westminster to the English ‘regions’, something already presaged in proposals to give the bigger cities their own mayors. The West Lothian question will be ducked yet again as the Labour Party has a vested interest and future governmental necessity of keeping Scottish MPs voting rights. The House of Lords will not be abolished. The question of the EU will be fudged with the Prime Minister, if he wins the 2015 election (something many people think unlikely), like Chamberlain bringing back a ‘piece of paper’ from Brussels offering repatriation of powers but no solution to the unfettered immigration from the EU. If he loses then Labour are not offering a referendum anyway. This might have worked a decade ago…even five years ago…but it won’t now. Tinkering is no longer something that the public will countenance. There is a constitutional momentum building across the United Kingdom that favours something more radical, more fundamental.
Do nothing and things will simply implode. Scotland will gain its independence in a decade after a second successful referendum. Northern Ireland and Wales will in effect be given Home Rule. England will become even more fragmented as Westminster fails to curb regional aspirations in, for instance, the North and Cornwall, while its regional policies devolve more and more power to the new mayoral regions. UKIP will gain in power and MPs and the government will be compelled to give the in-out referendum people want and it will lose. What we will have is a fragmented, disunited kingdom; in effect a failing state of no global influence or significance especially when we lose our permanent place on the UN Security Council. Preventing this, as I see this now inevitable process, requires rapid constitutional change and a written British Constitution. It means the creation of a federal structure with a unicameral English Parliament in Birmingham, something that will inevitably lead to a diminution in the powers of the Westminster Parliament so we can get rid of the House of Lords, elected on the same terms as those in Scotland and Wales combining first-past-the-post and proportional representation. We are better together than apart but cosmetic change to maintain the status quo no longer cuts it.