In a recent post (here), I looked at the future of the Union in the context of the proposed referendum on Scottish independence. This new post does not examine those aspects which are being well-aired by others, such as the mechanics of a referendum (timing, question, franchise, legal basis etc) and implementation of its result (either way) or the economic or political viability of an independent Scotland. What I want to develop briefly from the issues raised in the previous post is the nature of the Union, if Scotland should become ‘independent’ of the UK as presently constituted.
The last few weeks of the constitutional issue being at the forefront of media and political debate have exemplified all the problems and potentialities that have been raised over the years. The debate has ranged all the way from mature, technical examination of the constitutional legalities to what may be characterised as little better than latent prejudice (especially in some reaction ‘south of the border’). But the core contradiction remains, and is being peddled as furiously as ever. That is, the parallel arguments that Scottish independence would ‘destroy’ the Union and that the Union would continue even if Scotland was no longer a part of it. This is muddled by the constant confusion/conflation of ‘England’ and the ‘UK’, and the related problem of the Union question too-often being ‘simplified’, or, more accurately, wrongly described, as a Scotland-England issue. All these unfortunately cloud the serious constitutional debate, both in theory and in practice, eg who should be able to vote in a referendum on Scottish independence, and examination of the various aspects of the ‘West Lothian Question’.
For all in the current Union, especially those outside Scotland, the nature of this Union now, and what it may or may not be after Scottish independence, is a vital issue in informing the current debate. Will it be – as seems to be generally assumed almost by default – a Union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, carrying on ‘as normal’ save for the absence of Scotland (much as happened re Southern Ireland in last century)? Will the Union break up completely into four separate, independent countries, and if so, how is that achieved – somehow legally automatically as a consequence of Scottish independence (extremely unlikely), or as a result of further constitutional change, such as further referendums in some or all of the remaining parts of the UK? Will there be a constitutional and political redefinition of a post-Scotland Union, perhaps in some form of regional/federal direction, to take account of the even-greater asymmetry that would result (in all sorts of West Lothian, Barnett and other contexts)?
The options’ or ‘solutions’ cannot really be considered in any informed way without considering the nature of the current Union, in ways including those raised in my previous post, such as whether the 1707 Union may arguably be so much the defining and necessary component of the Union such that its severing must lead to the dissolution of the Union and negate the option of a continuing Union of the three remaining countries. In that sense, it is very different consitutionally from the relationship of Wales to the Union, and of Northern Ireland to the Union (the latter even having existing statutory arrangements for leaving the Union).
For example, others have commented on the narrowness of the remit of the new McKay Commission on the ‘West Lothian Question’. On the face of it, it will not be able to contemplate the possibility of Scottish independence and its impact on the Union and the Union Parliament. While this may seem constitutionally ‘proper’ from a ‘Centre’ perspective, is it politically wise, especially now that we are entering a period where we are, or should be, openly ‘thinking the unthinkable’? For this high-powered Commission to spend its valuable time devising schemes – after, apparently, only consulting ‘experts’, rather than having a full, online public consultation – that may prove redundant, or in need of fundamental reframing, because of any external change such as Scottish independence, is wasteful and short-sighted. Much will depend on whether the Commission looks at each country’s relationship with the Westminster Parliament discretely, or on the basis of a common system with necessary adaptations for each case (much like the 1990s issue of whether we were creating one devolution with three variations, or three individual devolution schemes). Even if Scotland remains in the Union, there may be a situation of , say, ‘devo-max’ – will the Commission be able to create arrangements that can encompass not only variable devolution across the nations, but also potentially different degrees of devolution within each nation?
Similar considerations apply to other aspects of the Union, such as financing/Barnett. Will analysis on the basis of a three-nation Union be different from that of a four-nation one?
So let us get on with some real discussion within and between all parts of the Union, such as what Wales or Northern Ireland think of what their positions in a smaller Union or post-Scotland arrangement might be, or what England (and its various sub-divisions) thinks in so far as that is different from what the present Union ‘Centre’ thinks. We need to hear from the political parties both at UK and national level, for example. The issue is greater than ‘saving the Union’ or ‘losing Scotland’ or whatever. A Scottish independence referendum should not be treated by the political classes as a one-off event, to be dealt with and then to move on, with any ad hoc responses as may be seen to be required, if any (much like the 1975 EC or recent AV referendums). The opportunity should be grasped for a ‘no holds barred’ examination of the whole constitutional system in these isles.
For Unionists, this could mean not merely a Union saved, but a better, more acceptable and viable Union, with some of the anomalies and frictions – West Lothian, Barnett etc – diminished or removed. For others, it may mean an amicable departure of one consituent component of the current Union, or even dissolution of the current Union. At the very least, a full and frank, informed debate could ‘clear the air’ of much of the tensions and confusions that have grown up over decades and especially since the late 1990s, making any future constitutional development, in whatever direction(s), more not less practicable.