Writing on the Scottish referendum, Tom Carty looks at the broader question of the UK as a recent construction and the changing nature of the political landscape.
The rapidly approaching independence referendum is already transforming the political landscape, and not only in Scotland. It goes without saying, or at least it should, that the Scots have the right to dissolve a union freely entered into. The modern, Social Democratic character of the ‘Yes’ campaign and its priorities should be recognized and welcomed by everyone on the left and its political context respected. It is not the responsibility of Scottish voters to save England from the consequences of voting Conservative.
The UK needs reinventing. Indeed the very name of the state both illustrates and contributes to the constitutional confusion about its identity. Established in response to the Irish uprising of 1798, the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ failed to maintain British rule over Ireland, lasting only from 1801 to 1921. The current name is therefore an afterthought, revealing the greatly diminished status of the Irish element after the departure of the Irish Free State: the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. Unfortunately the first element in the title is also unhelpful: ‘Great Britain’ refers to the union of England and Scotland of 1707 (preceded by the union of the crowns in 1603.). It therefore fails to recognize Wales, which had been incorporated into England under the Tudors in the sixteenth century. The omission is reflected in the absence to this day of any representation of Wales in the flag. Even if Scotland remains united with England, a new name is needed which takes account of the post-devolution status of Wales and of its relationship to the other parts of the UK.
Whichever way the Scots vote in a couple of weeks, there will have to be a new constitutional settlement to take into account either Scotland’s departure or the further devolution promised in the event of a ‘no’ vote. In either case this will demand a readiness to restructure the UK from the ground up, which raises the question of England. Its disproportionate size means English MPs dominate any unitary parliament, and yet with more devolution to the other countries, which is bound to come about whether or not Scotland is one of them, there would be even more matters from which they were excluded. The only satisfactory solution to this structural anomaly is federalism with a UK parliament alongside devolved parliaments for each country, including England or regional parliaments, which would certainly be welcomed in the North of England, in line with the current cross-party consensus on rebalancing the economy through developing the regions. We are living in interesting times.
Tom Carty is a writer and editor. He blogs at ‘Seek First the Kingdom’ and is the author of ‘The Jesus Reader: The Teaching and Identity of Jesus Christ’ (Columba Press, Dublin 2013).