The Anglo-Scottish union is on the brink. A combination of the first-past-the-post system and the crystallisation of increasingly sharp attitudinal differences between England and Scotland has led to starkly divergent political systems across the two countries.
A revitalised Conservative Party will form a government with a mandate to pursue further reductions in public spending, a radical reorientation of Britain’s place in Europe and an agenda of constitutional reform which will enhance the legislative influence of English MPs – although, with a Conservative majority in the Commons this goal is, in the short term, an issue of principle rather than practical relevance. The new government will however be challenged in the Commons by an equally assertive block of Scottish nationalists.
The SNP will claim the political legitimacy to fight austerity, demand implementation of its own constitutional priorities – Smith plus, plus, plus – to deliver radical new tax powers to the Scottish parliament and reserve the right to reopen the issue of independence if these powers are not ceded or if Scotland’s place in Europe is, as they see it, undermined; the EU in/out referendum now looms as a threat to two unions not just one.
Federalism: a realistic dream?
Federalism is now fashionable as a possible way to save the union. But is it realistic? This morning there is another, ostensibly more attractive option open to the Conservatives, namely to cut Scotland adrift, handing over full fiscal powers, massively reducing Barnett funding and effectively creating a country within a country. With a majority in the Commons, the Conservatives can govern for the rest of the UK, mainly England, while also drawing the sting of the 56 nationalists across the chamber, who – it is hoped – will be placated by fiscal autonomy for the Scottish parliament.
We seem now to be at a junction offering two directions: towards a UK where Scotland is treated as a separate entity in some kind of quasi-independent, confederal arrangement where its influence on the rest of the country is further marginalised; or towards a UK where devolution is reconfigured to include not only the dynamics of autonomy but also the imperative of integration.
The Smith process which followed the referendum promised the devolution of more and more powers to Scotland and, by implication, to the other devolved territories. There has been no attempt to set out a vision of the state as a union of peoples, far less any attempt to institutionalise such a vision by way of a coherent set of central institutions to bind them together.
The post-referendum trajectory of devolution has always been a pathological one; the cession of seemingly never ending levels of autonomy without any new areas of “shared rule” seem likely to make the union more and more irrelevant to Scots. Now with two power blocks – an English nationalist Conservative Party and a Scottish National Party bent on independence – both of whom have an interest in such a diminished role for Scotland at the centre of the state, the risk to the union is clear.
In other words, is it already too late to forge the political will across the union for a “holding-together” model of federalism? And let’s not forget Northern Ireland – where a federal solution would surely be viewed with deep suspicion by Irish nationalists for its integrative dynamics.
The issue of a federal future is not in fact about whether it is possible under the constitution. Both the UK constitution and federalism as an idea for government are sufficiently flexible and adaptable to arrive at a new solution for Britain, albeit a jerry-built federal system, uniquely British in its anachronism.
The real question is that such a solution does not appear to be in the political interests of either of the two solitudes which “won” the election. Federalism could work for Britain, indeed it may be the only constitutional system which can now hold Britain together, but the irony is that we have two rival political forces vying for power in Westminster, neither of which is likely to think it worth the candle.