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Blogs

The British constitution has never made sense or been fair. Why expect it to do so now?

11 March 2014

9:49 AM

11 March 2014

9:49 AM

Well, yes, Hamish Macdonell is correct. A coherent devo-max option could win the referendum for Unionists. Some of us, ahem, have been arguing that for years. There were, of course, good reasons for insisting that the referendum vote be a simple Yes/No affair. A single question cuts to the heart of the issue and, notionally, should produce a clear outcome. Nevertheless it also greatly increased the risk – or prospect, if you prefer – of a Yes vote. A multi-option referendum would have killed a Yes vote.

But if Hamish is correct I am not, alas, so sure the same can be said of Comrades Forsyth and Nelson. James writes that:

The lesson of devolution is that we tamper with the constitutional framework of the United Kingdom at our peril. But all the major political parties seem intent on continued tactical constitutional tinkering. It is hard to see how this doesn’t end in disaster. ​

Well, perhaps. Devolution – or, rather, parliamentary as distinct from administrative devolution – has queered the constitutional pitch but let’s not pretend it was flat before the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly were established. Britain’s constitution has always been a magnificently illogical, Heath Robinson contraption. It remains so today and it is only the precise nature of its anomalies that has changed.

It may well be that if you were designing the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements from scratch you might find a way of answering the West Lothian Question more effectively or logically. Bully for that. But you’d probably also ask if Church of England bishops or hereditary peers should really have guaranteed places in the legislature too. You might even ask some questions about the Royal Prerogative.

Of course a fully federal United Kingdom is problematic since, as we all know, more than 80% of citizens – or subjects – live in England. The Union’s asymmetry has long been troublesome; it’s only that people in England, by and large, have been unaware of the problem.

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But are the demands from the periphery – geographically speaking – that outrageous? Hardly! Or to put it another way, it is not Scotland’s fault that the people of Yorkshire evince no enthusiasm for a Yorkshire parliament. If England’s provinces wish to remain thirled to a centralised government in London that is their right but it’s no reason to deny the entirely legitimate aspirations of peoples in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

The essence of conservatism is the recognition that if things are to remain the same they must change. If London – that is, Westminster – wishes to “keep” Scotland it must learn to let go. And what, in any case, is so scary about that? All Scotland wants is the power to do its own thing (even if that may often be a stupid thing). In that it is no different from the Basque Country or Texas. Other countries manage just fine with what one might term a mixed constitution. There is no necessary reason why the United Kingdom cannot do likewise.

In any event, the British state has adapted to changing needs and aspirations in the past. In its present form it is less than 100 years old. I know some English readers tire of the Jocks endlessly banging on about the constitution. Plenty of Scots are fatigued by it too. Nevertheless, the issue cannot be wished away. Perhaps there will be an English backlash – as James suggests – but if there is it seems possible that answering the West Lothian Question is as likely to prod Scotland towards leaving the UK as it is likely to actually solve the matter in a way that is fair or logical.

It’s not fair, of course, is the great complaint of our times. Such is life. Perhaps it isn’t fair that the Scots appear to have their cake and eat it. Perhaps it isn’t fair that minorities – such as the Scots and Welsh and Northern Irish – enjoy certain anomalous privileges apparently unavailable to – or undesired by – their English counterparts. Viewed from the periphery, however, such privileges are a means of countering the unavoidable imbalance of a Union in which the periphery is massively outnumbered. The English don’t have to like this but if they wish the Union retained they may have little choice but to lump it.

Absent a fully federal UK the best answer to the West Lothian Question is to cease asking it. I appreciate this is unsatisfactory but so is life.

I heard it suggested yesterday that devo-max – or anything like it – might require a Royal Commission or something of that sort. Well, perhaps. But, again, if such a commission produced recommendations broadly unacceptable to the Scots it would do more harm than good. Not least because it would represent an insistence that Westminster must dictate terms. That dog doesn’t hunt anymore.

Much more than in the past support for the Union is conditional these days and, in large part, transactional. What have you done for me lately and what will you do in the future? In this respect Scotland is to England rather as England is to the European Union. Think of it in those terms and you begin to gain a sense of the Scottish perspective.

As for Fraser’s suggestion that Gordon Brown’s emergence from his tent is another blow for Unionists? Well, again I am not so sure. The Great Sulker is less unpopular in his native land than in England. There are plenty of folk in Scotland prepared to believe that at least some part of English antipathy to Brown rested on the former Prime Minister’s irreducible Scottishness and this – not altogether unfounded – suspicion wins Brown some sympathy north of the border. He suffered at the hands of John Wilkes’s heirs.

Moreover and whatever one may think of him, Brown is inescapably a heavyweight figure. The SNP’s rise in Scotland has been at the expense of, to put it kindly, Labour’s B-Team. It is long past time for Labour’s A-Team to return to the fray. That means Brown, John Reid, Douglas Alexander, Alistair Darling, George Robertson and others. Given the choice between facing Johann Lamont or Gordon Brown most nationalists, I think and contra Fraser, would prefer to take on Ms Lamont.

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