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.