We need a UK Constitutional Convention and a Federal government

What happens when your normal existence comes under threat? We seem to alternate between two extremes. One is paranoia. We see this now with Jihadi extremists, where many Britons see the threat of terrorism everywhere, and are happy to vastly expand the surveillance powers of the state so that any plot can be intercepted before execution. I remember a similar paranoia over Soviet Communism in my youth, in the 1970s. But the more common response is denial. We keep going with our ordinary daily lives without thinking about it, dismissing the threat with half-baked arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny. We see that with the threat posed by rampant global carbon emissions.

Perhaps to the  English the possibility that the United Kingdom breaks up, with Scotland ploughing its own furrow, does not have the sort of existential quality of global meltdown, communist takeover or even terrorist attack. That may be so, but we underestimate its significance at our peril. If nothing else, if the Scots vote Yes in their referendum in September, the negotiations over separation will dominate the political agenda for at least four years. The Union is so deeply embedded into our governance that separating the countries will have a host of unforeseen complications. And the complications that are clearly visible are bad enough: membership of the EU and NATO; Britain’s nuclear weapons; managing the currency; spitting the national debt; splitting oil revenues; and so on. Our governing classes will scarcely have time to do anything else, while the publics on both sides of the border will be inflamed by populists claiming that their country is getting the rough end of the deal. And at the end of it all England will be dominate nonsense of a country that can’t convincingly even lay claim to its traditional names of “United Kingdom” or “Great Britain”. It will be left with a tangle of Imperial era commitments, from membership of the UN Security Council, to responsibility for the Falkland Islands, without the joint enterprise of Scotland and the other British nations that brought these about. The loss of international prestige would be incalculable. It is often said that the loss of Ireland was the first step in the break up of Britain’s empire – the point at which Britain’s sense of confidence and authority fatally started to ebb away. The departure of Scotland would end aspirations to be even a second-rank world power, and no doubt poison the country’s politics for generations to come.

And yet the British establishment is taking this threat very calmly. People talk about the referendum here in England, but with little sense of its implications. And when conversation moves to next year’s General Election, the impact of the referendum on our politics is quickly forgotten. The half-baked argument used to dismiss such thoughts is that a Yes vote looks unlikely. But the Yes campaign has all the momentum. The No campaign depends on narrow, conservative arguments, put forward by second-rank politicians. Even if the Noes win, the threat of breakup remains. Supporters of the Union, on both sides of the border, need to recover the initiative. There is no more important issue in British politics.

Let us try to understand were the threat is coming from. It started in the 1970s as North Sea oil was discovered, and gave the Scots a sense that their country could be economically prosperous, even as industrial decline blighted it, along the rest of the UK outside the southern counties of England. The establishment response was Devolution: the setting up of a separate Scots parliament, to which progressively more power has been given. This may have delayed the crisis, but it has not solved it. In devolved Scottish politics the Nationalists field their best politicians against those of the unionist parties of second and third rank. An ambitious Scots politician who belongs to the Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative parties seeks to get elected to the Westminster parliament to make his or (less commonly) her career there. Here they happily take a hand in running England’s affairs. Gradually the Nationalists have come to dominate local politics in Scotland.  Meanwhile at Westminster one of two situations occurs: a Conservative led government is elected that the Scots did not vote for, or a Labour government which does not have a majority of English MPs. This inflames politics, especially north of the border when there is a Conservative government.

At the heart of the problem is the way in which the ruling Westminster elite sees itself. The British Parliament, with especial reference to the House of Commons, is sovereign. It secures the consent of the people at General Elections, but in between times its authority should be unchallenged. It is an evolution of the medieval and Renaissance idea that kings should be absolute rulers. Our elite becomes troubled when authority seeps away to institutions such as the European Union under treaty obligations. But it would rather not think about the idea that Parliament itself lacks the popular consent that its sovereign status implies. The Scots challenge this legitimacy openly, but increasing other British people feel it too, even if they articulate it less well.

There is an obvious solution: federalism. In a federal structure sovereignty is shared between the different levels of government. The higher levels are not self-evidently more “sovereign” than lower ones. The best known example is, of course, the United States of America. There the states are not the artificial creations of the national government, only allowed to do what the national government says. In theory it is the opposite, though in practice it is a jockeying match, arbitrated by a written constitution and the Supreme Court.

In Britain this means that you would have a federal, UK government, with a number of state governments below it. What would those states be? Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, obviously. But what about England? Many people, when first considering the problem, want to establish a series of new regional states in England, of approximately the same size as Scotland, in population terms. But this really doesn’t fly. That is not how the English view themselves; such localised identities could emerge in time. The great conurbations of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Bristol show some signs of developing such identities. But what of the rest? Cornwall, though rather small in size, has a sharp (and non-English) identity and has a strong claim for statehood. But elsewhere it means drawing arbitrary boundaries which, even if they follow ancient identities like Wessex, Mercia or Northumbria, really won’t work. That is not how modern England is.

The English state would have to be England itself, with maybe only Cornwall separate. That presents some big problems of its own, of course, but I think these are more soluble than muddling on as we currently are. I will only say that the critical thing is for the seats Federal and English parliaments should be located in different cities. Only then will the separation between the two be properly credible.

There are two main ways in which such a system might be implemented. The best is for the current British Parliament to become the new English Parliament, with a new Federal Assembly located outside London, operating within a new, written Federal Constitution. But such a step is too revolutionary for our country, that likes to evolve its constitution in small steps. I suspect the number of minor legal complications that would follow would be almost as bad as those that would flow from a Scottish breakaway. I would still vote for it if offered the chance – but grumpy as the British electorate is, I don’t think they are in such a revolutionary mood.

So the other way forward is for the British Parliament to downsize and become the new Federal legislature. The House of Lords might be replaced by a Senate with members appointed by the state legislatures (which would need to incorporate sub-state governments in the case of England, perhaps). A new English parliament and English First Minister would be established, located outside London. The whole thing would be constitutionally protected by a British Bill of Rights, which might, for good measure, establish the limits of European authority, in the way that Germany’s Basic Law does. That is revolutionary enough. But I can’t see any middle way between this and the current muddle.

And how to implement such a radical proposal? The first step must be to call a Constitutional Convention in the wake of the Scottish referendum result if there is the expected No result. And perhaps even if there is a Yes and a backlash as the difficulties emerge (although if that happens, only the first of my two solutions would be viable). That is what English politicians should be calling for.