Sunday, July 27, 2008

The UK- the country that died of indifference?

The previous piece I did on whether the UK might not survive until 2012 (see below), was greeted with some interesting reactions. Jonathan Calder makes a point that many have said to me: summarised as, "Yes, the UK might not survive, and No, we don't care". Others, more sanguine, have suggested that Britain is not in immediate danger and -again to paraphrase- that "there is an awful lot of ruin in nation".

I note that those most complacent about the future of our state are not Scottish. Just to make full disclosure: I am a multi-lingual European by culture, British by heritage, inclination and choice, and Scottish by descent, education and sporting support. I am also English by descent and -since I live in London- by current residence. I also have Welsh (and Dutch, French and probable Danish) descent too.
I freely admit to being shocked by the indifference with which the prospect of the dissolution of Britain is being greeted. In my view, the end of the United Kingdom will impoverish all of us- quite literally, since the credit ratings of both projected successor states would be lower than the United Kingdom. It would damage the security, not only of the inhabitants of Britain, but by reducing the military effectiveness of NATO as a whole: Alex Salmond has already said that he would no longer permit American nuclear armed or powered ships to use the facilities at Dunoon and Holy Loch, and would reserve the right to withdraw from the NATO alliance altogether.
In my view, the future of this country should not be a matter of indifference, but rather it needs to be urgently tackled now. In my view the question of balance and fairness within the UK constitution now needs to be addressed.
Denis McShane has written on some of the same themes in the Daily Telegraph. I find myself in broad agreement with his thesis: the problem of the UK is the growing sense that England is not getting a fair deal within the Union. However, the solution that some Conservatives have suggested- that Westminster should very largely be transformed into the central Parliament of England- seems more likely to put the Union at greater risk. By making the Westminster Parliament essentially the English Parliament, there is no common authority for the whole of the United Kingdom, and therefore any dispute where Westminster voted as an English Parliament against the interests of the Scottish Parliament would create Union threatening implications.
There needs to be a separate common British Authority that can act to resolve disputes. Since the constitutional authority lies in Westminster, it can only be Westminster that can take his role. It would, therefore, be dangerous to blur the Authority of the British Parliament by making it an English Assembly for some things and not for others.
The Liberal Democrats have suggested a model, like that, for example, of Spain, Australia, Canada, the United States and Germany: that is to say a Federal State. Of these, Spain is probably the most relevant, since it is both the most recent creation and it was a transformation of a previously highly centralised state. It is also analogous since, despite the intense national feelings of Catalans and Basques, the majority of Spanish citizens had only a vague sense of local identities different from that of Spain. However, had the majority Castillian speaking population remained as a single political unit, the disproportionate power that unit would have possessed versus the others was, at the time thought to be highly undesirable for a harmonious state. Indeed all federal states tend to try to create a rough balance of equality between their components. A state with nearly 90% of its population in one federal unit looks pretty unbalanced.
However the fact is that regional government in England is not particularly popular. This, despite the fact that it is generally agreed that the UK is far too centralised. The reduction in the powers of local government over the past forty years has been quite remarkable. the responsibilities for health and education have gone, as has provision of water and many other services. The freedom of action of a council has also gone- with strict budget limits and personal liability for councillors. Yet even as the power of local government has fallen, the bureaucracy involved has multiplied- to the point that most councillors are making an essentially full time commitment, which -amongst other things- increases the gap between the governors and the governed. Meanwhile the number of people who are able or even wish to be involved in local government has fallen dramatically. Once, in England, there were Parish councils, District Councils and County Councils. Now this has largely given way to Unitary Authorities. The result is that across the UK, Britain now has fewer elected representatives per capita than virtually any other country in Europe or North America. Nevertheless the idea of "a new layer of bureaucracy" remains unpopular.

Of course one suggested solution is that MPs from each region sit as a local assembly, only coming to Westminster when the Parliament of the United Kingdom was summoned- and since the regional assemblies would be primarily responsible in their own areas, that would be far less often than now. However, once again, the blurring of authority between the MPs sitting in Assembly and in Parliament creates constitutional problems. I have, in the past, put forward the view that English counties are sufficiently large to be able to take the primary role, and that they also carry a strong loyalty- as the growing popularity of many of the county flags you see at the top of this story has shown.

One thing is clear, however, the solution to the British constitutional crisis will be quite slow and by no means clear-cut. It will take clear headed political decision making. I do not share Denis McShane's optimism that Scotland would become the British Catalonia or Quebec. In both Spain and -especially- Canada there was already in place a flexible federal constitutional arrangement. Britain will face its separatist challenge while struggling to put such an arrangement in place.

The fact is that, apart from those who are perhaps rather complacent about the future of the UK, there is already a significant number of people who are indifferent. That such a level of apathy exists is a profound concern. If it is the case that the United Kingdom falls, then many will take the opportunity to leave altogether- that many emigrants would be young and highly skilled has not escaped the eyes of- ironically- the Canadian immigration department.

Perhaps because of my mixed heritage I feel loyalty to Britain as a whole and I would refuse to make a choice between any successor states that emerged. I- with many others- would have lost my country.

10 comments:

Wyrdtimes said...

I dare say there are plenty who feel the same way as you. Not as many as there used to be though.

For myself - I'm English and feel no loyalty to your country.

The UK oppresses England and the English - in my own small way I shall fight it every day.

Newmania said...

I do not believe you have any loyalty to "Britain", if you did you would not have been plotting its reduction to a statelet of the European Empire. Would you? You would also not have been denying there were any such people as the British and flooding the country with immigrants (telling the British they had no country just a car park) would you? Now you are surprised no-one cares ? What have you progressives left to care about except a set of legal entitlements available to Poles .This is your fault with your sneers and superiority about loyalties men are born to.
I can only assume you have not read the very mild redress, to Holyrood , recommended by the Conservative Party which is far far less than is being demanded and was drafted by Clarke a good European and anti nationalist.( Yeuch)One of the things that has contributed to apathy about the UK is its use by those who care nothing for any country as a convenient gerrymandering tool. Brown’s blather about British values is revolting.
As ever the answer is to break up England and the English as if they are not a country as valid as Scotland which they bloody well are. England does not wish to be broken up how many times do you people have to be told. I suggest that instead of blaming Conservatives, vastly the largest party in England ,you start blaming the Scots who have operated a racist policy of excluding the English from Scottish life for about 20 years. It could not go on asymmetrically forever and now you will see Scots like you excluded form our decisions.

Counties in revolt =Cornwall and that movement is financed from the EU with our taxes. It is quite infuriating.
First we have the new tax cutting Liberals and now what, Patriotic Liberals ? This is as plausible as piping hot ice.

PS People are already leaving in droves and as for NATO at least the US would have one solid ally . England.

wildgoose said...

It's not "indifference". It's because the British State has decided on a deliberate policy of making the people of England second-class citizens.

Why should I support a state that thinks that my children aren't worth as much as those born north of the border?

Why should I support a state that gives extra votes and self-determination to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, but when the English ask for equal treatment they are howled down as racists and a "threat to the Union"?

Congratulations. You (and I include you seeing as you have expressed support for the breakup of England) have succeeded in making the most Unionist people of the British Isles so disenchanted with this so-called "Union" that we now truly are a threat to its continuance.

Either the Union is predicated on equal rights for ALL its citizens, or it is time to consign it to the dustbin of history.

And yet our politicians and media still oppose an English Parliament and a federal solution...

Cicero said...

wildgoose- I think you have got rather the wong end of the sick. I am advocating a federal solution, but I tend to think of federal units as being essentially local. Scotland (5 million) Wales (3 million) and Northern Ireland (1.2 million) are all about the right size for local solutions, England (50 million) is probably too big to be a local government unit- but if the Enlish want an English parliament that is their right. It shhould not, however, be the Westminister, British parliament for the reasons I set out.
I would also suggest that England is too centralised anyway and it is time to give back powers to the counties.

Jack said...

It seems to me there is little answer to the English question at the moment. On the county issue - I don't think counties - many of which are very small indeed - are capable of an even remotely similar level of self-government to what the devolved nations have at the moment.

Personally I'm beginning to become of the opinion that there should be three Assemblies in England: one for the North, one for the South and one for London as a UK Capital Territory. After all, all have a distinct identity, yet none are overwhelming as a monolithic devolved England would be. The North of England, particularly, may benefit - having long been the most sidelined and ignored part of the United Kingdom. The South may be rather apathetic - but I think that's broadly inevitable with any major constitutional change.

Bugger them, in short.

wildgoose said...

I'm not against empowering local communities - far from it, I would actively encourage it.

But Devolution explicitly took place on a national basis.

You can't have national devolution (including primary law-making powers) for Scotland, Northern Ireland and soon Wales, and then try and pretend that some glorified County Councils are in any way equivalent. And, I might add, the proposed artificial bureaucratic regions involved removing yet more power from local communities - in other words precisely the opposite of what you suggested.

The first act of an English Parliament should be genuine devolution of its power. But if the Union is to survive the first act should be to treat the English with respect by acknowledging our nationality and giving us our own national body for our own national interests.

Anonymous said...

Merger of the Scottish Tory Parties


Labour could team up with the Tories at Holyrood


Cathy Jamieson


Published Date: 18 August 2008
By Hamish Macdonell
Scottish Political Editor
IAIN Gray, the frontrunner in the Scottish Labour leadership race, raised the prospect of a groundbreaking pact with the Conservatives yesterday as a way of taking on the Nationalists in the Scottish Parliament.

Anonymous said...

Having a federal system in the UK based on counties in England would be bizarre. You cannot seriously be suggesting that counties should be accorded the normal trappings of states within federal systems (legislatures and governments), nor for that matter powers approaching those of the Scottish Parliament and Government? It would be ridiculous. Every time I passed a county boundary by car I would have to wonder about the extent to which the county government had changed the laws relating to road traffic.

If you had in mind passing over the functions of health authorities to county councils, and transferring back the planning functions appropriated to regional assemblies, whilst eminently sensible that would not comprise devolution in any real sense, and would certainly not comprise federalism.

I cannot see that, because of the UK's peculiar make-up, federalism has any future in the UK except on the basis of an English Parliament. Whilst it may come to that over time, I think it would be fraught with difficulties and dangers. Therefore, I think the Liberal federalist agenda is hopeless. I think the Liberals realise that as well, which is why it is nearly impossible to really pin down their policies on England.

Two overviews of my own: first, I do not think that the union is in any serious danger, provided that the nightmare scenario of a UK government having a different political complexion from the majority in England and Wales does not arise (see more below). I do not believe those in Scotland will vote for secession, and I do not think Alex Salmond's attempts to give some shape to the general background sense of unfairness to those in England and (to a lesser extent) Wales will work either.

Secondly, whilst I gather you are opposed to it, the obvious solution to the West Lothian question, which is one of the issues I assume your proposal for counties is intended to address, is to provide that no Bill or separate part of a Bill may pass its third Reading in the House of Commons unless it has the approval of the majority of members for the countries to which it applies. That would still give all members in the whole UK, and so the UK government, a say on the text itself.

And what if the the political complexion in England and Wales is different from that in Scotland you ask (my nightmare scenario above)? Well under this proposal the UK government would need to come to arrangements with the majority parties in England and Wales. But that is what federalism is like.

The alternative in this unfortunate scenario of electoral outcomes (which of course is one inevitable potential effect of the current arrangements for assymetrical devolution) - in which laws might be passed at Westminster only for England and Wales (that is, on devolved matters in Scotland) which are as a matter of routine consistently contrary to the wishes of the majority of members in England and Wales - would be the surest road to the end of the UK: frankly the union would not last to the end of the Parliament in the event of a UK government acting in this way. It is no doubt the electoral outcome that the SNP are most hoping for. The potential effects are so horrific that, were this electoral outcome to occur, the unionist parties would simply have to come to something like the kind of arrangement I have described.

We have some time ahead of us - it seems unlikely that the 2010 election will give rise to this problem. So let's sort it out before we are in a constitutional crisis and not when we are in it.

Anonymous said...

"And what if the the political complexion in England and Wales is different from that in Scotland you ask (my nightmare scenario above)?"

I meant of course:

"And what if the the political complexion in England and Wales is different from that in the UK as a whole you ask (my nightmare scenario above)?"

kiki said...
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