By Philip Johnson
30 July 2019
Tucked away in the Tate Gallery in London is a portrait of a magnificently bewigged 18th century politician, John Smith, Speaker of the Commons. He was one of the Commissioners charged with arranging the Union of the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707 and is shown by the artist Godfrey Kneller holding a scroll inscribed “The Union Act” which received the royal assent on March 6 that year. This was a big moment in the history of the two countries, well worthy of a fine painting to honour one of its architects.
That this happened more than 300 years ago is testament to the resilience of the arrangement that Smith helped to broker. But the passage of time also suggests that it might need to be revisited if it is to survive.
As he continues on his Grand Tour of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson will be followed by the taunt of the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford that he is “the last Prime Minister of the UK”. That is wishful thinking on Mr Blackford’s part; but keeping the Union intact is, as William Hague observed this week for the Telegraph, Mr Johnson’s greatest challenge as he prepares the country to leave the EU at the end of October. Nationalists across the UK see Brexit – especially a no-deal variety – as their best chance for secession.
There are, in fact, three different unions within the UK. That between England and Scotland is enshrined in the document Smith was holding in the Kneller portrait, amended recently by devolution and the reduction of Scots MPs at Westminster, although they remain over-represented compared with England.
In the case of Wales, where Mr Johnson most recently pitched up, its position within the Union is as an integral part with England. The two countries are one legal jurisdiction. While some powers have been devolved, there has never been a serious move in Wales to uncouple from England since the 13th century. Together, they form the constitutional successor to the former Kingdom of England.
Northern Ireland, where the Prime Minister is heading next, is more problematic, not having been a nation but part of one that was previously united to the kingdom through another Act of Union, that of 1801, which remains in place despite the partition of Ireland in 1921.
The relationship is complicated by the Good Friday Agreement and the involvement of a foreign power in its governance. Yet at a time when more devolution is needed, the power-sharing executive in the province remains suspended and there is even talk of a return to direct rule from London.
When Boris Johnson talks about defending the Union – the “awesome foursome” as he called it – all of these complexities need to be considered. Devolution, especially to Scotland since the 2014 independence referendum, has made England’s position hard to sustain without an element of self-government for the UK’s largest component.
We need, in other words, a new Act of Union to pull all these strands together and make some constitutional sense of it all before it fractures under the pressures applied by Brexit and the politics of national identity.
It is all well and good Mr Johnson extolling the Union as “the most successful economic and political union in history”, but some constitutional flying buttresses are needed to shore it up. His predecessor was always talking, too, about “our precious union” as though past glories guarantee its future. They don’t.
What might, however, is a new constitutional settlement. It so happens that there is one ready and waiting for a government that takes these matters seriously rather than just utter platitudes. A few months ago, a new Act of Union Bill was introduced into the House of Lords by Lord Lisvane, the former clerk of the Commons. It was drawn up by the Constitution Reform Group, headed by the Marquess of Salisbury, whose members include Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and non-party figures. It is intended to “stabilise and strengthen” the relationships between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The measure reverses the current position where all powers are centralised unless they are devolved and assumes that they reside with the four parts of the UK to be “pooled” by mutual agreement. The most eye-catching option would involve the creation of an English parliament and the abolition of the House of Lords.
These are radical proposals which would have been required even without Brexit but most assuredly will be needed when it happens if the Union is to hold. They would effectively turn the country into a federation with four self-standing national units voluntarily pooling their sovereignty to a central administration.
Common UK functions might include the constitutional monarch as head of state, national security, foreign affairs and defence, human rights, immigration, the supreme court, the currency, a central Bank of the United Kingdom, some taxation powers, and the civil service. Everything else would be controlled by the nations and regions. This is a reversal of what happens now, where a central government devolves power to the periphery as it sees fit.
Politicians faced with the turbulence of Brexit could no doubt do without more upheaval. They are always tempted to put off constitutional reform because it hardly registers on a list of voter concerns (though Brexit has focused the country’s attention on such matters more than at any time in recent history).
If we are serious about preserving the Union then practical legislative decisions need to be taken or we will lose it by default. On his visit to Scotland this week, Mr Johnson was confronted with the difficulties he will face keeping this unique dispensation from falling apart. He has committed to the task by taking the additional title of Minister for the Union.
If this is to be more than just a stylistic gimmick, he should get hold of Lord Lisvane’s Bill and see what the job entails. He might even get his portrait in the Tate.
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