The English problem

The Scottish SNP government’s pursuit of a referendum on independence has created a constitutional crisis for the UK.  But the real problem is England, not Scotland.

I don’t walk the corridors of power in Westminster, or mix with the great and the good who take in hand the the country’s affairs as an oblivious public goes about its daily life.  But I imagine that something close to panic is taking hold there.  Scotland is moving inexorably towards independence from the UK, while compromise proposals seem to raise more awkward questions than they answer.

The humiliation that beckons for these people – senior civil servants and senior Conservative and Labour party types that I will now refer to as “the British establishment”- can scarcely be imagined.  We get a flavour of it from some of the awkward questions that would be posed by Scotland’s exit from the union.  From the seemingly trivial – like what do we call the country that is left behind?  “Britain” won’t work any more, since this geographical term refers to the whole island; the “United Kingdom” will no longer be true (neither Wales nor Northern Ireland are kingdoms, unlike Scotland) and has no adjective to describe its citizens; “England” does not cover Wales and Northern Ireland.  And then there are more serious questions, like what future does the country’s nuclear deterrent have?

Scotland is a core part of the country’s historical identity.  How on Earth to explain its departure?  There is no precedent, outside the break up of colonial empires and or the demise of the multinational Habsburg and Soviet empires.  What do the British establishment tell their opposite numbers in Germany, Spain, Canada, and so on, countries that have all managed a diversity of identity within their borders of greater historical significance?  The loss of international prestige would be enormous; instead of being up there with Germany and France, the country will be jostling with Spain and Poland.  All this humiliation will be felt most acutely by the Conservatives, who have a romantic attachment to the country’s past greatness.  Where will it fit in Michael Gove’s new history curriculum? David Cameron will not want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who lost Scotland.

But such a prospect is real enough.  The usual levers of power seem to be ineffective.  With the AV referendum – the most recent perceived threat to the British establishment – the establishment could rustle up strong support from Tory grassroots and donors, plus a more or less united press, while neutralising the Labour Party.  None of this will work north of the border, where the British establishment has been comprehensively outmanoeuvred.

To make matters worse, there seems to be no, establishment friendly middle way.  There is the idea of “Devo-max” – where Scotland would take to itself full taxation powers, leaving defence and foreign affairs to London…a bit like Gibraltar.  Except that the Scots will want a say in who the British Prime Minster, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary are and the policies they follow.  But surely it is unacceptable that Scottish MPs could still retain their say over English domestic policy?  This problem has troubled constitutional experts since Irish Home Rule was mooted in the 19th century, and no acceptable solution has been found.

The British constitution is failing, with generations of complacency from the British establishment at last taking its toll.  The problem is England.  The logical, time-tested, way for the country to deal with the Scots desire for more autonomy is through a federation.  There would be a constitutionally constrained federal government, with highly autonomous states operating as a tier beneath.  But in the UK England is just too big to be treated as a single state in a structure like this.  Either it is so powerful that it can force through whatever ever it likes on the other countries, so no real advance; or the tiddler states of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are given such powers over the whole that the English will resent their right of veto.  I can’t think of any successful federation that is so lopsided.  Russia and the Soviet Union had a similar problem, which could not be resolved democratically.

So what about breaking up England into a series of regional states?  But this reverses hundreds of years of systematic centralisation.  Coherent regional identities either don’t cover swathes of the country (where does Northampton fit?), or are too small (Cornwall).  London, Yorkshire and East Anglia may fit the bill – but it gets much more difficult after that.  Worse than that is the total disdain with with British institutions treat the idea of English regionalism, from the Westminster establishment to the popular media.  The English public is indifferent to hostile.  John Prescott’s attempt to push regionalism in the last government was crushed when a referendum to set up an elected assembly in the North was voted down even more overwhelmingly in a referendum than was the Alternative Vote.

And yet the United Kingdom is crying out for a rebalancing of powers between different levels of government, including English regions – and such a rebalancing, across the whole country, is the only way to deal securely with the Scottish demand for autonomy.  It would benefit England too, but most English won’t have it, and that is the real problem.  The British establishment has suppressed sensible debate about the topic for so long that it seems too late to start it now.  The Scots are miles ahead.

The best way of dealing with the SNP’s drive for independence would be to offer a constitutional convention across the whole of the UK, and to ask the Scots to wait for its results before having their referendum.  This would at last allow the unionist side to take the initiative.  This would be a good idea for the Liberal Democrats to take up – since it closely follows the party’s existing policy.  But I can’t see the Conservatives biting.  The English simply aren’t ready for a mature constitutional debate.

If the British establishment are humiliated, as increasingly seems likely, they will only have themselves to blame.