A British Britain: a new future for a revived, reformed and decentralised United Kingdom.
by The Editor
Stuart Millson analyses the recent Scottish referendum and suggest unionist regionalism as the future for the United Kingdom
Stuart Millson considers the aftermath of the Scottish “independence” referendum, and suggests a few constitutional changes…
In 1985, following the announcement that an Anglo-Irish Agreement would lead to a dilution of British sovereignty in Ulster, I travelled to Belfast, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow countrymen in the province. A great rally was to be held outside the City Hall, and I was determined (as 20-year-old Englishman and member of the Young Monday Club) that the Ulster people should know that the mainland had not abandoned them. It seems a very long time ago, and I am sure that the many thousands who gathered in Northern Ireland’s capital that day, festooned as it was in Union flags, could not have guessed that 30 years into the future, Sinn Fein councillors would be able to remove the Union Jack from the City Hall’s flagpole. And nobody had the slightest premonition that former IRA commanders would be operating within the very government of Ulster – even shaking hands with Her Majesty the Queen at a state visit to the province.
I might also have laughed at a story of fantasy – that in 2014, a referendum would take place in Scotland over the very future of that country’s place within the United Kingdom; and that a Scottish First Minister would stand before a crowd of (what we thought were) our fellow countrymen and declare: “You now have the chance to break the Union.” Fortunately, the Union was not broken, and Scotland voted by 55 per cent to 45, to remain part of the Kingdom – thus avoiding the spectre of border guards at Berwick-upon-Tweed station, and the people of these islands being turned into strangers to one another. On the night of the referendum, it was heartening (and slightly suprising – given the triumphalism that had surrounded the secessionist campaign) to see one Scottish community of SNP-voting Gaelic speakers (Eilean in the romantic Western Highlands) vote to stay part of the British family of nations. It was also heartening to see a determined group of Union Jack-waving patriots in Glasgow – resistance fighters to Alex Salmond and the SNP! – taking to the streets, to show that the British spirit of 1985 still flourishes.
That said, it was profoundly unsettling that so many Scots declared that they no longer had any loyalty to, or affinity for the U.K., and – in some cases – viewed the institution with outright contempt and hostility. Naturally, everyone in these islands has a suspicion about Westminster politicians (although the Holyrood elite is now no longer exempt from our culture of disillusionment); but it was worrying that political cynicism should have been used by the anti-U.K. side to wear down and prise apart the bonds of a general friendship, memory and nationhood. Something has happened within the last three decades: a “couldn’t-care-less” demoralisation, the growth of political correctness, an official discouragement of British feeling and patriotism, a sense that only the personal and the individual matters – that the community and the nation should just submit to global market forces, or to the “inevitability” of what the politicians and social engineers describe as “change”. Little has been done in our schools or by our broadcasting media to promote and engender a communal national feeling, and so, into the vacuum has appeared the alternative “patriotism” of the SNP and the regional breakaway parties. At the last minute, Labour’s Gordon Brown, and panic-stricken members of the Westminster establishment, rushed to Scotland to rekindle the British identity, but it was clear that their task might have been much easier a couple of generations ago. The question is: what can we do to restore a pride in Scottish unionism, and a more general, active allegiance to the U.K.?
Although a lifelong unionist, I now believe that it is no longer simply enough to maintain the status quo – to trust in Westminster and the established parties, or to retain whatever powers we have not given away to the European Union in the centre of London. And I know that if I had voted in the Scottish referendum, to save the United Kingdom, but on the basis that my countrymen would be offered more self-government in Scotland, I would be – at the very least – disappointed that the whole matter has been handed over (by David Cameron) to William Hague and a committee… which meets in SW1. This outcome, which has all the hallmarks of a Cameron worthless promise and a Westminster stitch-up, is guaranteed to melt away the majority which stepped forward on referendum day in September to save the Union.
Without wasting vital time (thus playing into the hands of the separatists), a Scottish and nationwide constitutional committee should have been established, meeting at a public venue – either in Edinburgh, or in another historic city, such as York – to consider how best to ensure the need for good governance in these islands: to enable us all to feel that Britain is being governed properly and fairly. We were told (suddenly) by the Prime Minister, that the “West Lothian question” needed to be solved (the problem of a devolved Scotland still having a say over English affairs); and that “English regions” ought to be recognised and legislated for. Yet England, just like Scotland, is a nation – and not just a collection of regions; although that is not to say that regional rivalry, such as Scotland’s Highlanders and Lowlanders, or the “Northerner vs. Southerner” mentality south of Hadrian’s Wall, does not exist. So what can be done to rescue the constitution?
The answer now, I believe, is clear: the Kingdom must exist as a more federal country. If a Parliament and Scottish Government meets in Edinburgh; a Welsh Assembly makes laws from Cardiff; a Government of Northern Ireland presides over Ulster; then England must have a similar arrangement – and not just a system in which Scottish MPs (and Labour MPs at that) leave the Commons when English business is discussed. An English Parliament must be considered, a body that convenes either permanently in Winchester or York, or which rotates around the country – from Truro, to Northumberland, to Norwich – listening to the people, and looking after the matters which Westminster seems to have forgotten or abandoned. It is an old-fashioned term, associated perhaps with the 19th-century and Gladstone, but “Home Rule” for the home countries is now essential. Westminster should follow the post-war German model: a central Parliament concerns itself with defence, foreign affairs and the general setting of economic and taxation “benchmarks”, whilst regional parliaments govern on domestic, day-to-day policies. A sense of proximity to the people, a sense of history and renewed identity – this is what our country needs. In such an arrangement, no party at Westminster would be at a disadvantage, least of all Labour (which fears exclusion as a result of Scottish devolution), because MPs would still be voting on all-Britain affairs – albeit on a somewhat reduced range of issues.
Only a real constitutional change can guarantee a future for the Kingdom – a nation in which the Scottish saltire, the Red Hand of Ulster, the Welsh dragon, the Cornish cross of St. Piran and the red cross of “St. George for England” fly alongside the Union Jack, the symbol of our common inheritance and bedrock national identity.