Social union in a new era of devolution


On 7 December Angus Robertson MP, the leader of the Scottish National Party group at Westminster, came to The Constitution Unit to set out his vision of social union between the nations of the UK. The full text of his talk can be accessed hereMatthew Rice reports.

The Scottish National Party’s use of the term ‘social union’ is nothing new. Indeed, as a ‘Yes’ campaign organiser stated on the website Open Democracy prior to last year’s independence referendum, ‘the independence movement is in a strong position if it can argue that the social union will be preserved and even strengthened after independence’. Maintaining that Britain’s social union would be preserved was seen as a way of bringing into the fold those who were concerned about the potential loss of the strong economic, institutional, historical and cultural ties between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Angus Robertson developed this line of reasoning in his talk, suggesting that ‘the SNP argument [during the independence referendum] was to break the political union but not the social union’. But how can the term ‘social union’ be conceptualised?

Helpful in this regard is Alex Salmond’s Hugo Young Lecture from January 2012, in which he outlined Britain’s shared economic, cultural and familial ties. Interestingly, both Salmond in 2012 and Robertson in his Constitution Unit talk cited the deployment of Scottish police officers to England at the height of the UK-wide riots in the summer of 2011 as an example of the social union in action. Robertson also alluded to the deployment of RAF Typhoon jet fighters from the RAF base in Lossiemouth against Daesh in Syria as a further example of the different nations of the UK working together – although he questions the legitimacy of such action, given that all but two of Scotland’s MPs voted against military action.

Robertson is both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time about the future for Britain’s social union. Again echoing Salmond’s Hugo Young lecture, Robertson spoke about the possibility of Scottish public policy acting as a ‘beacon of progressiveness’ for the other nations of the UK. What’s more, he argued that this is ‘not a one-way street’: the rest of the UK can also serve as a model for Scotland in certain policy areas and thus a ‘cross-pollination’ of policy is enabled by our social union. Yet Robertson believes that the political elite is not engaged with the issue of strengthening the social union, something he sees as a major stumbling block to the future establishment of a ‘Nordic Council-style’ intergovernmental arrangement between the four nations of the UK.

Inevitably, the SNP’s Westminster leader also spoke about the impact of the Scottish independence referendum. He argued that the referendum has changed the contours of political debate across Britain in that there is now a renewed interest in where power lies. This may be the case inside the so-called ‘Westminster village’, where the present UK government is forging ahead with fundamental changes to the revenue sources of local councils in England that will result in a less fiscally centralised UK, but the public seem less engaged as public opinion surveys demonstrate. For instance, a YouGov poll shortly after the referendum found that the issue of giving greater powers to English regions and councils came 17th out of 18 possible governmental priorities for the next five years.

Towards the end of his speech Robertson maintained the SNP line by arguing that the Scotland Bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, does not deliver on the recommendations set out in the Smith Commission report. When challenged on this, he seemed to accept that the Scotland Bill does deliver Smith; but said that the surge in support for the SNP  in the May 2015 election entitled the SNP to demand Smith plus.  He also criticised the UK government for rejecting all opposition amendments to the bill in the Commons. One such amendment sought to move towards full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. However, a UK government intent on preserving the political union will hardly devolve full fiscal autonomy to one of its constituent nations, for this would be ‘independence-lite’ in all but name. What’s more, the Smith Commission did not recommend transferring full fiscal powers to Scotland but ‘instead to retain the system of shared benefit and pooled risk across the United Kingdom’. After all, as was put to Robertson in the question and answer session that followed his talk isn’t this one of the core tenets of the social union, to retain a system of redistribution from richer to poorer regions, which would not be possible if one region claimed full fiscal autonomy?

As Robertson rightly pointed out, we are living in a new era of devolution where politics has been energised, especially in Scotland, and where there is a renewed interest in where power lies, especially among the political elite. Despite the referendum result, the political union between Scotland and the rest of the UK remains on shaky ground. Indeed, the prospects of the current Scotland Bill bringing about long-term political and constitutional stability are low – Robertson himself stated that the bill will not be the last word on Scottish devolution. Can stability only come about by moving towards a federal system of government, which would involve a radical makeover of the composition of the second chamber? It seems that the future of our social union rests on the stability of our political union.

Angus Robertson’s full speech can be viewed here.

About the speaker

Angus Robertson is the Scottish National Party’s Westminster Leader and has been Member of Parliament for Moray since 2001.

About the author

Matthew Rice is a Research Volunteer at The Constitution Unit.


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