The end of the UK or the start of a new federation?


by Ed Targett

The United Kingdom is falling apart.  And nobody seems to have really noticed.  It’s not the riots and the burning buildings, nor the stumbling stock markets.  Those fill every front page.

At a slower, less alarming pace, something more profound is happening: the United Kingdom may well be on the verge of breaking up; actually disuniting its disparate parts.

The word “secession” conjures up images of splinter groups, fringe corners of far-flung states agitating for the independence of their often imaginary fiefdoms: bomb blasts in the Basque region; guns in Grozny.

But in generally less dramatic fashion, Scotland has voted for a Scottish National Party (SNP) government, committed to an independence referendum; a long-cherished dream.  Signs of a rift were also on display when Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond complained bitterly about broadcasters heading coverage of the riots as “UK riots” when they were, in fact, English ones alone.  Claiming the footage would damage Scotland’s reputation as a tourism destination, he told BBC Radio Scotland: “We know we have a different society in Scotland, and one of my frustrations was to see this being described on BBC television and Sky as riots in the UK.”

But the friction and current constitutional confusion between the two countries harks back much further, to the Jacobite uprisings of the 18th century; the Culloden massacre and 1747 Act of Proscription, a law that banned the wearing of traditional dress, use of Gaelic, bearing of arms or even enjoyment of traditional music in an attempt by the British government to pacify the “unruly” Scottish clans.

It was a process that author Alastair MacIntosh describes as the final internal colonization of the British Isles; one that saw some half a million people forced off their land in what became known as the Highland Clearances, while remaining clan chiefs were incorporated into the British aristocracy, which MacIntosh characterized as “remnant symbols of ‘noble savagery’ that could safely be repackaged into a shortbread tin mélange of British identity.”

That same tin is currently being rattled.  And when it is opened it looks set to reveal as many worms as any can.  For England without the appendages of its empire – of which Scotland is in many senses the first and last part – is a curiously blank slate; a country without a memory that also, uniquely and alone in the UK, exists without its own parliament and government.

The Union, meanwhile, functions as an incoherent and unacknowledged semi-federation. With both Scotland and Wales having been gifted their own limited parliaments by Tony Blair as part of a devolutionary package intended to quell the increasingly vociferous nationalist voices in those countries, fractious separatists were meant to soften their calls for independence.

The decision by Blair’s government however raised more questions than it answered.  For with powers for education, health, agriculture and justice handed pretty much wholesale over to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood and the increasing popularity of the Scottish National Party (SNP), a taste for self-rule has turned into a rude good appetite.

Meanwhile back in England, students set to pay through the nose as university fees are “liberalized” are growing increasingly agitated at the free education gifted to Scottish higher education students by their more progressive government.  One, 19-year-old Jennifer Watts, has launched a legal challenge against a system whereby Scottish students pay nothing for their university courses, while English students, who share the same UK passport, pay the full fees – some £36,000 ($60,000) for a four year degree.

Describing the system as “fees apartheid”, she told the Daily Mail that: “I’m absolutely not anti-Scottish but the system is totally unfair.  It’s wrong to create such a discriminatory regime that disadvantages English students in this way.”

It’s a plaintive call likely to find an increasingly sympathetic reception from the English public, who must already accept the so-called “West Lothian Problem”, whereby MPs from constituencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can vote on matters that only affect people living in England, while English MPs with neither their own discrete parliament, nor powers in the devolved parliaments, cannot reciprocate.

Former diplomat and ambassador Brian Barder says the answer – and perhaps the only way to save the UK – is outright federation: “Devolution has moved us half-way, but only half-way, into a federal system, with the Westminster parliament trying vainly to function both as an all-UK federal legislature and simultaneously as a parliament for England, with no definition or restriction of its powers in either capacity.

“The only durable answer to the many questions this raises is a separate second-tier parliament for England, with the Westminster parliament becoming a first-tier, all-UK federal body exercising defined and limited responsibilities, mainly for foreign-affairs, defense, human rights and regional policy, plus any other powers voluntarily ceded to the centre by the four national bodies.

“This transfer of full internal autonomy to Scotland and the other three UK nations should satisfy most Scottish and other nationalists, meet the demand for an English parliament, bring government much closer to the people, definitively answer the West Lothian Question – and, best of all, preserve the Union.”

It would also raise some serious questions about what it means to be English, as opposed to British.  An increasingly splenetic English nationalism (whether represented by the violent anti-Islamic marches of the English Defence League or the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the English Democrats – who would also repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights) suggests “Englishness” as an identity or historical narrative is in danger of becoming the sole preserve of the right.

Perhaps the most important question for the English to ask is: what is the problem exactly, that Scottish independence is the answer to?  Commentator Gerry Hassan, writing for the Our Kingdom blog, says from Scotland at least, the answer is clear:

“Scots would list the fact that Britain is the fourth most unequal rich country in the world, London that splendid ‘world city’ the most unequal city; and the fossilised, ossified, bankrupt politics of the British state.  There is a powerful sense in Scotland that Britain doesn’t work effectively for most Scots, or indeed for most English … but that Scotland has a clear way of doing something about it.”

It’s a debate, or series of questions concerning historic power, national identity and distribution of wealth that will be catapulted into motion when that independence referendum is held.  And with little grown-up discussion being held about the issue south of Hadrian’s Wall, few policy makers in Westminster seem prepared for the seismic changes that might soon be taking place to the very fabric of the UK.

This article first appeared on the American news site Nation of Change and appears here with kind permission of the author.

Ed Targett is a reporter for a series of local titles in South East England.  He has a long standing interest in international affairs and environmental issues.