British & European Democratic Unity – Politics & National Identity

22 Nov

A yes campaigner and no campaigner during the Scottish independence referendum, at Cromarty Firth in the Scottish Highlands, with a drilling platform towering over them. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian Politics Blog

A yes campaigner and no campaigner during the Scottish independence referendum, at Cromarty Firth in the Scottish Highlands, with a drilling platform towering over them. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian Politics Blog

Before the Scottish referendum on independence I wrote on ‘Fromoverhere’ a short piece entitled ‘TRIDENT & SCOTLAND NOT JUST A QUESTION OF ‘YES’ OR ‘NO’ TO THE UNION‘. What concerned me then, a concern that has been reinforced since, is that the political climate in Scotland is driving the ‘no nukes’ in Scotland agenda not just the independence debate. The national desire for self-government in Scotland attracting a complex mix of politically diverse positions and motivating factors.

Following the September 2014 ‘No’ vote in Scotland, what I previously saw as a threat to UK strategic defence policy now seems in danger of morphing into a threat to traditional unitary British governance more widely. Certainly the latest polls from North of the border – where Conservatism is largely extinct – indicate that the Labour party may now be in for a drubbing by the Scottish Nationalists next May and that independence is back on the agenda. The balance of power, that ability to form a national government to drive the political process, may, ironically, depend on a Labour Party pact with the Scottish National Party (SNP) who are pathologically opposed to rule from Westminster.

As if to emphasise the problem, following precipitate offers by David Cameron, the current Prime Minister (PM), of enhanced devolved powers for Scotland and English votes for English Laws (EVEL), many Scottish Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) have made great play of the uneven demographics that exist between England and ‘the rest’ of UK. Mr Brown, a former PM, even referred to the ‘rest’ as minorities. One worrying interpretation of his remarks is that these ‘minorities’ require special democratic protection from the ‘English’ majority. Indeed, it has also been suggested by the Labour Party that a UK Constitutional Convention is convened, possibly leading to ‘House of Lords’ reform along the lines of the United Sates Senate where there is equal representation by state. It does make one wonder how this could or would translate in a British context and whether this drive for such radical constitutional change is in itself divisive.

So what is driving all this?

Two common denominators seem to prevail: uneven demographics and the political ‘left/right’ divergence between Scotland and England – these two nations traditionally providing respectively a Labour and Conservative power base. So, in parliamentary debates when the question of EVEL is discussed its opponents argue that such a constitutional change will create a two tier MP and undermine the sovereignty of Westminster. In doing so those opposed seemed to be in denial that devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has already created a two tier MP and curtailed Westminster’s writ – the MPs in question just happen to sit in more numerous English constituencies and as more tax raising powers are passed to the ‘minority’ nations the disparity between England and ‘The Rest’ can only widen.

So one can argue that it is a combination of geographic political polarisation linked to the demographic dominance by the English that is the major issue here – not independence or the constitution per se. Arguably this has been the Labour Party position in the ‘post no-vote’ debates where England is characterised as a sort of democratic anomaly within the Union because, ironically, it has the largest population and – although not openly stated – leans more towards centre-right policies than Scotland. This is Power-Base politics by any other name. So it does seem, from this perspective, that true devolved power at governmental level will only be offered to ‘the minority nations’ within the Union thereby neutralising the perceived political imbalance held by more numerous English MPs who hold a geographic and often politically decisive majority. How else to explain the reluctance of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties to reform demographically-uneven- constituency-boundaries whilst supporting ever more power for the predominantly left-leaning assemblies in Wales and Scotland yet opposing EVEL. All parties being implacably opposed to any possibility of an English parliament.

A distinctly political construct rather than a democratic constitutional agenda one might think.

One solution offered by the detractors of EVEL is the ‘regionalisation’ of England. However, the English-regional-assemblies-proposal ignores (is possibly designed to suppress) the inconvenient fact that England is a nation in its own right, and, when asked, the English rejected regional assemblies. In any event, the demographic realities inherent within the proposal fail to resolve the demographic dominance issue. This is because any one of the proposed English regions could have more voting inhabitants than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and quite possibly all 3 taken together. Greater London alone has a similar size population to Scotland and Wales combined.

Therefore, it can be argued that the emerging division in the UK body politic – the threat to the Union – is a direct result of the devolution settlement disrupting the continuity of the historic, if loosely defined, ‘British’ constitution. An ill thought through and politically motivated creation that has backfired and opened up a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of competing intra-national positions. Hence the independence driven and left-leaning SNP, having helped to wipe out ‘Tory’ support in Scotland, is now gaining ground from Labour whilst the right- leaning United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is trying hard to do likewise to the ‘Tories’ and ‘Labour’ in England. The inconvenient ‘elephant’ in this particular room being the up to now constitutionally passive English majority whom, following the Scottish Independence referendum and various devolution votes (from which they were excluded), may now wish to voice their own views on how they are to be governed and by whom.

So has Devolution actually created a paradigm shift? The SNP in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and UKIP in England seem to think so and are prepared to exploit it. Indeed, devolution seems to suit their purposes by undermining the Union and reinforcing disparate cases for independence – from Westminster, each other or from Europe. Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are a tad more circumspect but probably think so too. Labour object to EVEL primarily because a working majority at Westminster will depend on Scottish and Welsh constituencies so they fear that EVEL (even if parliamentary ‘Standing Orders’ can be changed) will restrict their ability to govern when non-English-constituency MPs, particularly Ministers, are excluded from legislating on purely English matters. Hence, Labour prefer a long-lead-time review which looks into all the constitutional ramifications for England whilst ploughing ahead with devolved powers beyond English borders – some say kicking the problem into the long grass and hoping that the English pachyderm remains passive in the meantime.

Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), mainly in the form of the ‘Tory’ party, not so their Liberal Democrat partners, are convinced that EVEL is the solution. Such a policy is presumably thought to placate English desires for self government and quiet latent resentment at exclusion from the devolution process. EVEL might then consolidate conservative political support in England by shooting the rampant UKIP fox at the same time Labour support in Scotland is haemorrhaging to the SNP. However, such a policy does little to re-enforce the ‘Tory’ party’s one nation credentials or to consolidate or reinvigorate national unity. Indeed, the way things are going will there be any political party left post 2015 that can claim, with conviction, that it is ‘one nation’ speaking-up for and defending the Union?

However, there is another divisive element in the Constitutional evolution of UK – not so much waiting in the wings as taking centre stage – EUROPE! It can be argued that the issue of a UK vote on continuing EU membership crosses the political divide with both the pro and anti Europe camps not just garnering support from left and right but wishing to excise the ghost once and for all. If there is a clearer division on the issue – one that is certain to add fuel to the democratic legitimacy fire – it is the SNP/Plaid Cymru pro-EU minority.

The recently appointed leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson, have both said that in the event of a national majority vote on the United Kingdom (UK) leaving the European Union (EU) this, in their view, will require ratification by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A view that has been echoed by Plaid Cymru in Westminster. This effectively means that they believe that a minority Scottish population (8.4%), or Welsh (4.8%), or Northern Irish (2.9%) – 16.1% of the UK total – should be granted a veto over the potential wishes of the majority 83.9% who live in England. The English will surely have something to say about the democratic legitimacy of this demand whichever way the vote goes or whatever their views on Europe.

The public might reasonably ask; if the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, cannot govern for the majority in circumstances so profound without the consent of the leaders of the minority nations, what mandate does he have. Where does this leave the English majority in the democratic governance process? What other vetoes over UK domestic and foreign policy will the leaders of the minority nations expect to exert? Whilst England remains under Westminster central control will Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland become de-facto self governing with major tax raising powers leaving only foreign policy, defence and the governance of England in the hands of an emasculated central administration? How would this work and play to emergent English nationalism? Will the PM at Westminster be able to conduct foreign policy without reference to the minority leaders? What would be the position of the UK in relation to membership of the United Nations, EU or North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – each of these organisations having its own criteria for entry, membership and leadership?

Albeit straying from the purely domestic UK political arena, I do wonder if the future of British constitutional democracy and the unintended consequences of devolution will impact, not just the unity of nations within the UK, but Europe more widely. For beyond our shores there are extant nationalist tensions in Europe. In parts of the EU Russian speaking peoples are expressing loyalty to the Russian federation and all these nationalist groups have aspirations and desires for some form of self-determination and/or governance. In the case of Russian speakers, many are looking Eastward for cultural reassurance and security, and this may test EU and NATO security severely if not addressed.

Finally, can national identity and cultural heritage ever be fully reconciled to the concept of Federation or will the urge for self-determination based on ethnicity, culture and language always dominate. The latter, based on historical and contemporary evidence, perhaps pointing the way that UK and the EU must evolve – or most assuredly dissolve?

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