UK-wide referendums

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by Hazel Lewry

An issue raising its head again, but being somewhat downplayed in the media, is a proposal for a UK-wide independence referendum across four nations instead of just being limited to Scotland.  Commons backbenchers are threatening action while Lords are tabling Scotland Bill amendments, clamouring for this franchise expansion.

Although inconceivable it will be allowed, any advocate of democracy must accept this as a superlative suggestion.  England, Wales and Northern Ireland all deserve to have their individual voices heard as to their preference of the status of this current Union and their places within it.  Do they want out, more devolution, or in England’s case any devolution, or are they simply content with the status quo.

The question of Englishness is in part achieving a higher profile recently after Westminster was warned by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) that it faces a backlash in its Home Counties and shires because it is ignoring English sentiment.

The IPPR report simply confirms the findings in other polls taken over the last few years that “Englishness” now far outstrips “Britishness” in the way our cousins south of the Border view themselves.

The dilemma presented to the UK government from an expanded franchise referendum is basic.  Until now Westminster has successfully denied the English a representative democracy at national level, but is now seeing its denial in jeopardy.  This arises from both media fed perceptions and Union scaremongering as a consequence of the debate about Scotland’s, and thereby the UK’s, constitutional future.

When this is coupled to Cameron’s own Eurosceptic back benchers, a group flushed with success after forcing the PM to play their veto card, the tide of English democracy may ultimately be hard to deny.

Scots should encourage this voice, which we can be certain Westminster will try to silence.  We can work towards and hope for an expansion of democracy in England.  It is to everyone’s benefit that Westminster’s suppressive tendencies fail.

A rebel group led by Conservative Bill Cash, MP for Stone in Staffordshire, and reportedly supported by fellow Eurosceptics John Redwood and Bernard Jenkin, appears to be readying to launch an all-party group on “preserving the United Kingdom”.  This focus group is reportedly arising from widespread anger, particularly on the Tory back-benches, that the referendum will be limited to people living north of the Border.

What’s interesting is that the United Kingdom itself is under no present threat, just the Union of Parliaments, something we might all do well to remember.

Mr Cash said the new group at Westminster aiming to save the Union would look in detail at issues such as defence, the economy, North Sea oil and energy, as well as international treaties. The principle point in this statement is that Westminster is now beginning to either understand or perhaps simply acknowledge it is in actuality dealing with international treaty law.

These backbenchers have already been somewhat pre-empted by the House of Lords where former Labour chief whip Baroness Taylor of Bolton, born in Motherwell, has inserted an amendment to the Scotland Bill calling for expat Scots to get the vote.  She is not the first and will undoubtedly not be last to seek to expand the enfranchisement of the referendum.

International law and Scots opinion are reasonably clear on this point, she doesn’t have a hope. At least she won’t be able to expand the franchise with regard to Scotland’s vote, but she can certainly call for one in England.

Then there was the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who had to publicly slap down his own party’s deputy leader at the time of the IPPR report “The Dog that Finally Barked”, after Simon Hughes also called for English devolution.

Possibly the most significant yet underreported aspect of the IPPR paper is that support in England for the constitutional status quo has fallen to just one in four of the electorate.

That figure needs highlighted; just one in four in England want the status quo, but 75% are being denied any input whatsoever.  David Cameron is effectively disenfranchising 75% of our English neighbours.  Over 30 million voters are being denied democracy.

Why are we Scots not seeking to engage this massive suppressed support for constitutional change?

The concern over the possibility of a divided Union was additionally highlighted when Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Scottish Secretary and Edinburgh Pentlands MP dismissed the idea of a UK-wide vote as “absurd”, and averred that “It should be a vote for people in Scotland only.”

Former Liberal leader and Holyrood presiding officer Lord Steel is also on record that Westminster politicians should keep out of the independence debate. Cameron and the Scottish Office are others singing from the “Scotland only” hymn sheet.

There’s a very clear division at Westminster, primarily between party leaders and backbenchers.   The backbenchers appearing to have the backing of the electorate.  Scotland should exploit this in an attempt to benefit the English people.

Party leaders at Westminster are trying to walk the only narrow path that gives them any possible hope at all in maintenance of the status quo.  However, as Richard Wyn Jones, professor of politics at Cardiff University and co-author of the IPPR report argued, attempts to promote Britishness by former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as by Mr Cameron, had failed.

With the self-evident failure of the ‘Britishness experiment’, the current Holyrood stance can appear to be somewhat baffling to an unbiased external observer. While the Scottish government’s view that it is Scotland’s referendum is completely accurate, it appears rather inappropriate for Holyrood to be setting aside the fact that three other nations also have a stake in the UK government.

It may be of far greater benefit to the Scottish government, which has full autonomy and complete restoration of sovereign rights as its primary goal, also to peripherally engage an area that Westminster’s leadership is determined to avoid.  Holyrood already appears to have willing foot-soldiers amongst Cameron’s back benchers, ready to go for an expansion of the referendum franchise.

Let Scotland have her poll, but let England also have one, independent of the Scots. Perhaps Westminster would expand the franchise to the other nations who were not signatories to article 3 of the 1707 treaty but who will be undeniably impacted by events.

That each nation should vote on its own future is without doubt the right and proper thing to do. It is called democracy.

Holyrood should argue for all those impacted to have a voice, to be enfranchised. Each nation should be given the options, autonomy, devolution max (constitutionally defined) or the status quo. Let the entire peoples of these islands who are presently bound to Westminster make a choice.

Each land should decide for its own nation – it’s called democracy.

Westminster will be firm in its determination to prevent this; the powers in London are very well aware they can’t fight and win four simultaneous battles in four nations, all of which have every appearance of requiring separate and frequently contradictory messages from the current establishment.

Westminster politicians know they can’t broadcast “subsidy junkie” to one populace while hoping the so called subsidising nation won’t hear it and will still vote to keep up its fictitious subsidies.  Human nature is simply not that benevolent.  Such contradictory messages will fail.

With four nations involved perhaps each one will have a reasonable opportunity for a fairer, less biased debate.

Westminster knows the individual peoples may just wake up and smell the coffee, and all it would take is another scandal at just the wrong moment to make any one nation decide that enough’s enough.  London is well aware it will take only one nation to demand change through democratic means to end its diktat across these islands.

It would mean 2015 dawning with only those preferring London rule voting for a new parliamentary union, under probably new federal rules.  Westminster knows even the English regions might start demanding devolution after that.

London is rightly terrified of an expanded franchise.