A Very Quiet Kind of Revolution: The Shape of the UK after the Election
The Guardian Comment, November 20th 2009
It has probably escaped the attention of all but the most assiduous Guardian reader, but this week marked an explosion of activity on constitutional reform which is going to continue for the next few weeks.
The Queen’s Speech saw the UK Government announce it would ‘take forward’ proposals to give the Scottish Parliament more powers, drawn from the recent final report of the Calman Commission, which comprised Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives. A White Paper will be published in the next few weeks.
The day before the Queen’s Speech the All Wales Commission recommended that the Welsh Assembly gain more powers along the lines of the Scottish Parliament legislative model and hold a referendum by May 2011. Next week the Scottish Government publishes a white paper on independence as it attempts to win the necessary parliamentary votes to achieve a majority (which looks unlikely) for its referendum bill in the next year.
What you may ask is going on and where will it end? A fair part of this, certainly that emanating from the UK Government is pure party politicking. In particular, the Labour Government’s announcement that it will publish a White Paper on more powers for the Scottish Parliament is, like most of the Queen’s Speech, pre-election manoeuvring in both Scotland and the UK.
Labour is proposing an imminent White Paper with any legislation not arising until after the 2010 UK election. Thus, Labour plan to use these proposals to challenge and undermine two of their main opponents: the SNP and Conservatives.
Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy has learned the lessons of Labour losing the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections to the SNP. Then Labour was seen as the party of the unreformed union versus the SNP as the party of radical change. Now they plan to situate Labour as the advocates of a dynamic, evolving union against a dogmatic, inflexible SNP.
As importantly, Labour have sights on highlighting Conservative divisions. The Calman Commission saw Annabel Goldie, leader of the Scottish Tories and David Mundell, Shadow Scottish Secretary, as enthusiastic participants and supporters. However, David Cameron is significantly less sure to bordering on resistant. He has made clear he does not see legislating for more powers for the Scottish Parliament as a post-election priority, while he remains sceptical of the merits of giving Holyrood significant borrowing powers.
What many readers will note missing from the reforms and nations mentioned at the outset is the issue of England. This is going to become more problematic, contentious and important in the next few years.
One reason for this is that Labour has failed to address any English dimension in twelve years in office, while no popular or viable route to English reform now seems open.
English regionalism with a democratic voice or an English Parliament – despite what its band of supporters claim – does not command much public support or enjoy any salience with voters. ‘English votes for English laws’ – a position which would create two formal tiers of MPs (and once supported by Gordon Brown many years ago) is a recipe for instability, division and the slow dissolution of the UK.
It would be a sad day for Tory unionism if a Conservative Government advanced a policy which would cause great harm to the nature and health of the union.
The current status of the UK as an asymmetrical union is clearly set to change, adapt and evolve. Scotland and Wales were once governed by what was called ‘democratic deficits’ which were characterised by constitutional anomaly. Now in a sense the ‘democratic deficit’ has passed to England, the last part of the UK without its own democratic voice. The current sense of constitutional anomaly and injustice can be found in England, and despite there being no clear solution at the moment, the current predicament will not endure.
Once upon a time there were powerful and popular Labour and Conservative stories of Britain. The Labour version was a people’s story of lifting people up and widening working class people’s opportunities through an enabling, distributionist state. It was a tale that generations of working class families believed and told their children as they grew up in the immediate decades after the Second World War. That story has been diminished, diluted and torn apart by the experience of New Labour and its acceptance of much of the Thatcherite agenda.
The Conservative account of Britain was inarguably an even more rich and potent version than Labour. It understood the need to mediate and balance the competing ideas of Englishness and Britishness and do so without irking the non-English people of these isles. It also had an intrinsic understanding of the importance of the local and of the patchwork, evolving and constantly changing nature of the UK, in a way which Fabian socialists with their centralist beliefs never recognised. This rich Tory tradition hit the buffers with the arrival of Mrs. Thatcher’s abrasive English nationalism.
It seems too late for these Labour and Conservative stories to revive, although there is a chance that David Cameron will attempt to give it his best. What does look likely is a future in which the importance of territorial politics, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with the emerging English dimension, increasingly come to the fore at a time when advocating for limited resources has become more and more important.