By Nick Timothy
3 July 2019
Brexit has shown that where power lies matters. Half-hearted reform will no longer do.
Can there be any doubt that the Union is in danger? England and Wales voted for Brexit. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain. In Scotland, a second independence referendum looms. In Northern Ireland, devolved government is suspended. The Irish border is the roadblock to Brexit. English identity is on the rise.
Tomorrow, Theresa May is in Scotland, where she will make a sincere case for the Union. This Friday, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt will take part in Conservative leadership hustings in Perth. Both candidates will endorse the review established by the Prime Minister to work out how to strengthen the Union. Both will be quizzed on their plans to keep our family of four nations together.
The approach to the Union has been muddled for too long. Devolution was supposed to kill Scottish and Welsh nationalism, but since the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, support for separatism has grown stronger. The Union barely survived the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.
Powers have been devolved not in a structured and thoughtful manner, but in an ad hoc fashion and a state of panic, often driven by party politics and fear of nationalists. Almost every decision that affects Scotland and Wales descends into an unseemly struggle against Westminster, as politicians play the blame game rather than taking ownership of their responsibilities.
And the constitution is now dangerously unbalanced. Scotland’s Parliament has powers the Welsh Assembly lacks. England has no parliament or assembly at all. Instead, England is ruled by the government of the United Kingdom, and its laws are passed by MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That means MPs from Scottish and Welsh constituencies can vote on matters affecting England – such as schools – while English MPs have no say on the same matters in Scotland and Wales.
At the same time, it takes more votes to elect MPs in England than it does in Scotland and Wales, where constituencies are smaller. And the Barnett Formula – which is used to determine public spending across the four nations – is skewed away from England and towards Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, spending per person on services is 20 per cent higher than in England.
If it is consistent with similar efforts in the past, the Government’s review is likely to be cautious and piecemeal. More responsibilities might be transferred to Scotland and Wales. Powers returned to the UK after Brexit might be passed straight on to the nations. There might even be a “devo-lock”, giving the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland some kind of veto over the UK’s future relationship with Europe.
But we have had enough piecemeal reform. We need to work out how to keep the Union together for the long term. In particular, we need to satisfy Scotland’s desire for more control of its own affairs. We need more focus on – and more political accountability for fixing – the vast disparities of income, wealth and opportunities across England’s regions.
Instead of more devolution – unbalancing the constitution further, and feeding the insatiable beast of separatism – the UK should consider adopting a fully federal structure. Foreign policy, defence, aid and international trade, security, immigration, citizenship and extradition, fiscal, economic and monetary policy, the constitution and the UK single market would remain reserved responsibilities. Everything else would be devolved to governments and parliaments representing the four nations.
Some will say constitutional reform is a distraction, but as we have seen with Brexit, how we make big decisions affects what those decisions are. Technocratic policies – like English votes on English laws, or bit-by-bit devolution – are not working. Where power lies matters.
Others will say we must not play with English nationalism. But the English identity is every bit as moderate as the Scottish and Welsh identities, and as recent research shows, Englishness is based on an inclusive civic, not ethnic, identity.
Some complain England is too big, compared to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to fit into a federal structure. It accounts for 85 per cent of the UK population, after all. But by that logic, the Union itself would be unsustainable. And right now the constitutional imbalance caused by devolution makes it harder, for example, for an MP from Scotland to become Prime Minister than an MP representing an English constituency.
A fully federal system does raise several questions. A written constitution would be needed to settle the relationships between Westminster and the national governments and parliaments, but it need not become a wider charter of rights. A UK government and parliament sitting in Westminster could bring about the chance – at last – to reform the House of Lords. An English government and parliament could sit in a regional city, rather than London, which would help to rebalance the economy.
Of course, moving to a federal model would be a big change. But the very future of our country is at stake: half-hearted reform will no longer do.
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