As the weeks have drifted by and referendum day has drawn closer, the ramifications of a ‘yes’ vote have been dissected ad nauseum. No stone has been left unturned, no policy left unscrutinised. Despite the pro-Union bluster, Westminster has disappointed. The last gasp decision by all three party leaders to personally campaign in Scotland provided Alex Salmond with an opportunity to attack a perceived attitude of self-interest and neglect. Even David Cameron’s impassioned oratory was ridiculed as ‘diffident and dilatory’ by The Evening Standard. What use is an emotional address, so the argument goes, if it smacks of contrived sentiment; words cobbled together to tug at increasingly hardened heartstrings.
Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, the Prime Minister now faces criticism from his own Party for setting the UK up to fail. The array of gaffes include framing the referendum question so that a positive ‘yes’ vote benefited Alex Salmond; preventing the option of further devolution from appearing on the ballot; and permitting impressionable 16 and 17-year-olds to vote under Scottish law. Backbenchers such as Andrew Rosindwell (Romford) and Christopher Chope (Christchurch) are baying for blood in what they see as the concession of more power to an already privileged governing assembly. Matthew d’Ancona has described this reactionary fervour as fear of ‘constitutional bedlam’ and a dreaded ‘lurch towards…fiscal federalism’.
Gordon Brown, whose career has been unexpectedly revived by the referendum, has somewhat sold the Coalition down the river in this regard. By orchestrating the so-called ‘Vow’, he has committed Westminster to ‘the continuation of the Barnett allocation for resources’, and a promise that ‘the final say on how much is spent on the NHS will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.’ Should the Scottish electorate opt for this, there could very well be an English backlash against underrepresentation. Praised for inspiring a lively political debate rarely seen in British politics, the referendum has also been guilty of engendering division and contempt across the country. As Matthew Parris has pointed out, a ‘no’ vote is unlikely to resolve anything. Relations will remain strained because ‘Union [is no longer] an affair of the heart…the heartbeat started faltering decades ago’.
For better or worse, change is coming. If not Scottish independence, then Scottish ‘home rule’. From this must develop some manner of constitutional reform within England, be it definitive resolution of the West Lothian question or full-blown national devolution. After all, of the 650 MPs in Westminster, 533 represent English constituencies. John Redwood, Conservative MP for Wokingham, has proposed that the House of Commons ‘double up’ as an English Parliament: ‘we have a Union Parliament meeting as it does today and on other days of the week English MPs within that Union Parliament would form the English Parliament’. Although it would face considerable legal wrangling over policy remit, a parliament would notionally increase England’s political representation proportionate to that of Scotland.
Yet, The Times has argued that ‘you can’t have an English parliament without an English government…If we are to remain a democracy there isn’t any other way.’ Logic dictates that specifically ‘English’ policies would require additional ministers, civil servants and select committees to uphold scrutiny and ensure effective administration. For federalism to be a workable way forward, the parliaments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would necessarily operate in an overarching system of intricate checks and balances to prevent English dominance. This so-called ‘bullying by arithmetic’ could be easily avoided through devices such as ‘vetoes [and] blocking minorities’. Mr Cameron has candidly stated that he doesn’t think ‘we’re remotely at that stage’ yet, but his opinion will count for less if a vote of no confidence is tabled by the Commons.
For some, however, English devolution must offer more than just a national assembly. The think tank Respublica published a paper this week entitled ‘Devo Max – Devo Manc: Place-based public services’, which calls for the empowerment of England’s northern cities. Using the example of Greater Manchester, it offers a vision of restoring ‘great cities of the north’ by closing ‘the gap between public sector spend and the local tax take raised’. This would be achieved by ‘keep[ing] decision making closer to the ground, to make political leaders more accountable and to allow integrated investment to reform public services’. When it is considered that Manchester’s population is over half that of Scotland but in a much more concentrated area, fiscal delegation is difficult to argue with. Who better understands where to allocate funds within a city than its own governing bodies? There is huge opportunity to alleviate concerns over local representation and maximise the economic output of England’s north by ‘pool[ing] resources and…mak[ing] systemic bespoke interventions that…transform…lives.’
Clearly there are years of debate and deliberation required before the future of local governance at city or assembly level can be decided. However, it is encouraging to see that devolution in its many forms is featuring within the public discourse. Few would argue that London has evolved into a de facto economic city state, with a GDP comparable to Belgium or Poland. It is a model of how a local assembly and greater legislative autonomy can benefit a city region, but it needs to be emulated across England to address the long-standing wealth disparity between north and south.
Whatever the outcome of Scotland’s referendum, there will be far reaching consequences. Although he might not be able to fully appreciate it yet, Alex Salmond has set in motion a process of constitutional change that will dwarf all that has come before it. But this will not necessarily be to Britain’s detriment. Consider the 1832 Reform Act; it instigated a century of gradual change to an unfair system of representation, ultimately preventing revolution and preserving democracy. The Union in its current form is experiencing similar change, but again it will adapt and survive. The referendum has been a wakeup call, forcing the United Kingdom to look in the mirror and really evaluate what it means to be British. Whilst ‘home rule’ may change our identities and the way we interact with our governments, the United Kingdom will live on, even if a little less united.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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