Amid all the renewed discussion of ‘Scotland & the Union’ – inc referendums and West Lothian Commission – one core issue still remains almost unasked, never mind unanswered. What is this Union that is being fought over?
Put aside all the current legal/political/constitutional arguments, such as the confusion/conflation (whether by deliberate policy or ignorance) about whether an independence referendum would be ‘legal’ and/or ‘binding’. What it all boils down to is a relatively simple matter – should what we know as ‘the Union’ (calling it the ‘United Kingdom’ adds an extra and unnecessarily complicating layer of argument) continue as it is, and as it has been developing for 300 years, or should it be significantly altered or even dissolved, primarily because of a decision over Scotland’s place within it?
From a realpolitik perspective, this has always been overshadowed by the one, determining geo-political fact of England’s huge dominance within this Union of 4 nations/territories. To much of the outside world, the UK is ‘England with some other bits added on’, ie a kind of (if it can be so described neutrally) ‘Greater England’, or even to many, ‘England’. More importantly, this is how the Union is also perceived by many internally – whether by nationalists as an argument for ‘independence’, or negligently by the dominant English. Hence, much talk in political and media circles of ‘losing’ Scotland, in much the same way as Southern Ireland was ‘lost’ last century.
These confusions breed the contradictions that bedevil this whole question, politically and constitutionally. It allows, for example, claims that the Union is little more than England’s last, domestic Empire. Is there a distinction between ‘Britain/Britishness’ and ‘England/Englishness’. The feeble and unsuccessful attempts over recent years to identify and define ‘Britishness’ as something distinct from ‘Englishness’ suggest not. England’s dominating place, due to population etc, makes it difficult for institutions to be established that reflect and represent it alone. Most such institutions – from the Parliament at Westminster to the BBC’s ‘National’ services – tend to have to double-run as UK and English (or sometime English/Welsh) bodies. Devolution (especially since the late 1990s) has made this much more complex, whether for good or ill. The Westminster Parliament and Whitehall Government have to act for the UK, GB, England/Wales/NI, England & Wales and England in various guises – not in itself an insuperable task, but one which doesn’t lend itself easily to public understanding., especially when the Union itself is the issue.
Neat, rational attempts to ‘solve’ these issues – by English regionalism or by some more formal form of federalism – have either failed or not been attempted, because they do not solve the basic asymmetry of the Union – that, in a Union of 4 nations, one is overwhelmingly large and dominant, which has either to be accepted as such (even if creating parallel institutions for it may seem both financially and practically wasteful) or ignored. So, we have the problem or conundrum of what the Unit calls ‘the English Question’ – how to recognise and represent England within this asymmetrical Union.
Another conundrum or paradox is how to treat the 3 ‘smaller’ parts of the Union. This seems to be through a Centre policy of keeping them sweet, so that they remain part of the Union, especially through perceived financial advantages (Barnett etc) and ‘disproprotionate’ political means (devolution, Commons ‘over-representation’ etc). This sends the message that the Union is not one of genuine voluntary members and partners, but rather one where one or more of them have to be ‘kept in’, lest they want to leave the club. This both undermines the Unionist message of a mutually advantageous and supported Union, and breeds resentment within England of favourable treatment of the ungrateful periphery, raising the more fundamental question within England of whether the price of Union is one worth paying – and, if so, why?
That the Union is one of ‘nations/countries’ rather than of regions is clear, otherwise economic and related questions would apply as much to the disdavantaged areas of England (and their own asymmetry vis-a-vis London and the South-East of England) as they do to Scotland, Wales or NI. So any constitutional issues appear to be soluble only at the nation/country level, unless some more compelling arguments are made for a viable form of regionalism or regionalised federalism. The idea of a pan-European solution somehow making the problem go away in some form of ‘Europe of the Regions’ or otherwise – much like the fantasy talk some decades ago about ‘solving’ the Irish Question througfh the virtual withering-away of the Irish border within a developing Europe – seems off the table for now at least. Ideas of a wider ‘These Isles’ solution that somehow combines the present UK and Ireland in some post-modern not-quite-confederation seem to have receded too, if they were ever really considered.
So, the current real debates on the Union, largely driven by the Scottish aspects, need to focus on what the Union is, and what is wanted from it or from a reshaped version of it, or even from its dissolution. The contradictions – deliberate or otherwise – in the current debate need to be addressed. For example, will Scottish independence ‘break up the Union’ or will it mean that a ‘smaller UK’ carries on regardless much as it did after most of the island of Ireland left it? The immaturity of the current debate, sadly, is such that both arguments can be propounded by the same people at the same time.
Suppose Scotland did ‘leave’ the current Union, is what remains really the Union, however diminished? The difference between Scotland and Ireland is both historical and constitutional, in terms of the nature of the pre-existing ‘partnership’, with the Scottish Union with England supposedly (depending on your view of history) a far more genuine and voluntary one than was Ireland’s conjunction with the rest of the British Isles. In that sense the 1707 merger is what fundamentally defines the Union, and so its dissolution must be more than a mere diminishing, but logically must be a dissolution. Yet, in the absence of any genuine debate of a post-Scotland Union, the conventional assumption seems to be that a Union of England, Wales and NI carries on, with the focus not on it but on the constitutional implications for an independent Scotland, esp in relation to this continuing Union and to the EU and other international/supranational bodies.
And what is the Welsh and Northern Irish perspective on all this? Have they been surveyed on their views of a future post-Scotland Union? This argument, if discussed at all, seems to be stuck at the level of UK-wide referendums on Scottish independence, which is really another way of saying ‘England should decide’. That doesn’t really assist anyone. Would a Scottish departure prompt some rethink within this Union-Lite for further constitutional realignments, both internally and re Scotland, Ireland, Europe etc? Would it really be a continuing Union or a dissolved Union that somehow nevertheless carries on without Scotland? Does anyone really think that ‘losing’ Scotland solves all the constitutional anomalies within the current Union, rather than making them worse, by making English dominance over the Union-Lite, and especially its remaining two other members, even greater?
Lots of questions. Time for some of them to be asked and seriously discussed.