Can muscular unionism save the Union?

Several UK politicians have been described as embracing a ‘muscularform of unionism, which includes taking a hard line against the possibility of constituent parts of the UK leaving the Union. As Iain McLean warns, muscular unionism can look like ‘know your place unionism’ and history has shown that such a muscular approach can backfire and hasten the very secession it seeks to prevent.

The phrase ‘muscular unionism’ is new but the concept is not. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson called Scottish devolution ‘a disaster north of the border’. Liz Truss said while campaigning for the Conservative leadership that she would ‘ignore’ the ‘attention seeker’, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She was true to her word, never contacting Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, during her premiership. Lord (David) Frost, who served as a member of Johnson’s Cabinet, recently wrote:

The Scottish “government” is not the government of a state in confederation with England. It is a subordinate entity within the UK, with powers granted to it by the UK government and Parliament, and ultimately subject to the supremacy of that Parliament.

It does indeed sound muscular, but it ended in tears and self-contradiction last time, and there is no reason to expect differently this time. The UK government would be well advised to become a little weedier than PMs Johnson or Truss. Rishi Sunak contacted Sturgeon and Drakeford on his first full day in office as Prime Minister. Is this a hopeful sign?

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Understanding English identity and institutions in a changing United Kingdom

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133image_normaliainmclean200pxThe current devolution settlement has left England as the only UK country subject to permanent direct rule from Westminster, which has the dual role of governing both the UK and England. In their new book, Akash Paun, Michael Kenny and Iain McLean have been exploring some of the key arguments concerning the status of England within the Union, who speaks for England politically, and the concept of an English national identity.

Governing England, a new volume published today by the British Academy and Oxford University Press, explores whether, why and with what consequences there has been a disentangling of England from Britain in terms of its governance and national identity. The book concludes that the English have grown dissatisfied with their constitution and relationship with the wider world (as reflected in England’s decisive vote in favour of Brexit), and less content for their nationhood to be poured into the larger vessel of Britishness. But England’s national consciousness is fragmented and embryonic – unlike the other UK nations, it has yet to engage in a reflective national conversation about how it wishes to be governed – and, as Brexit unfolds, England is struggling to reshape its relationship with the other UK nations and the wider world without a cohesive national narrative to guide the way.

England, alone among the nations of the UK, has no legislature or executive of its own, and remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is ruled directly from Westminster and Whitehall by a parliament, government and political parties that simultaneously represent the interests of both the UK and England. Correspondingly, at the level of identity, the English have historically displayed a greater propensity than the Scots and Welsh to conflate their own nationhood with a sense of affiliation to Britain and its state. As Robert Hazell noted in 2006, writing for the Constitution Unit on The English Question, ‘in our history and in our institutions the two identities [of English and British] are closely intertwined, and cannot easily be unwoven’.

As a result of devolution to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, Westminster and Whitehall frequently oversee legislation that applies entirely, or predominantly, to England. But the government and most politicians at Westminster tend to elide these territorial complexities, talking of setting policy or legislating for ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’, whatever the precise territorial application of the announcement in question. Governing England is rarely considered as an enterprise separate from the wider governance of the UK. Continue reading

Estimating the costs of independence: An independent Scotland is unlikely to be a land flowing with milk and honey

There has been an interesting debate between Patrick Dunleavy and Iain McLean about the costs of Scottish independence. Jim Gallagher adds his voice to the debate to outline the context of the different costs and highlights why these numbers matter.

It’s not surprising that the Scottish government tell voters in a referendum that an independent Scotland would be flowing not with milk and honey, but with low taxes and high public spending. Business tax would be reduced, and public spending increased to produce a more equal society. This particular argument about numbers, however, has its roots in a UK government publication that suggested Scotland’s fiscal position would be markedly less idyllic. One reason would be the additional costs arising directly from setting up a separate state. Iain is surely right to say that the £200 million suggested by Patrick won’t pay that bill.

Different kinds of independence costs

In principle it should be possible to split these state-building costs into 3 categories:

  1. One-off, non-recurring, costs of transition (this is where Patrick’s work was first referred to). These matter a lot in the short-term, but, amortised over decades, are not all that significant.
  1. Additional costs from setting up new Scottish institutions to discharge functions currently managed at a UK level. Obviously Scotland would need a Treasury, Foreign Office and other core national government functions. But as Iain rightly points out the big money is in the main non-devolved functions of government–tax collection and benefit payment. Patrick says these are not ‘set up’ costs. Iain disagrees. But regardless of what they are called, they will have to be paid.

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“We the people of Scotland do ordain and establish this constitution”

Last week the Scottish Government published the Scottish Independence Bill outlining the constitutional arrangements for an independent Scotland. Iain McLean explores the significance of the new emphasis on ‘people’s sovereignty’ and considers the strengths and weaknesses of the draft interim constitution.

Image credit: stuant63

Image credit: stuant63

Where the Scottish Government’s independence manifesto Scotland’s Future was long and evasive, the Scottish Independence Bill and accompanying notes published on June 16 are short and to the point. This is the best document on independence yet released by the Scottish Government. The bill, which the Scottish Government proposes as the first draft constitution should Scots vote Yes in September, is no longer than that masterpiece of Enlightenment lucidity, the Constitution of the USA. It also shares a deep intellectual history with the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The bill opens with ‘In Scotland, the people are sovereign’ (cl. 2). It thus junks parliamentary sovereignty. The Explanatory Notes make obeisance to the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) and the Claim of Right Act 1689. However, this is really the work of the late Lord President Cooper (MacCormick v. Lord Advocate 1953 SC 396 at 411), and the late Neil MacCormick, son of the 1953 petitioner. Lord Cooper was responsible for destroying the intellectual coherence of parliamentary sovereignty and Sir Neil drew the attention of his SNP colleagues (and everybody else) to the importance of that. The UK’s leading jurist of his generation, he was an SNP MEP and drafted an earlier Scottish constitution for the party.

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