Sunday, 20 August 2017

State of the Union

THE National Liberal Party supports the right for everyone to determine the future of their respective nations without any outside pressure or influence.

In our article State of the Union – A Federal vision of 22 November, 2011, we noted that, for the United Kingdom, we currently favour a federal system based upon Liberty, Democracy and Independence.

However, in the spirit of free speech – and to promote a genuine debate on subject – we’re more than willing to host guest articles relating to the future of the UK. Thus we’d like to invite readers to submit their ideas. Do you support our federal idea – or are you in favour of the union, a confederacy, some form of autonomy or self-determination? No matter what your preference, just e-mail your article to natliberal@aol.com

Our first guest article is from Glasgow-based Andrew Hunter. He gives a potted history of Scotland and asks the question “Do Scots want to leave the UK and is Federalism the answer?” Andrew’s views are broadly in line with ours and he sees federalism as heralding the “further decentralisation of authority and giving the British public a real say in the running of the country.”

-Do Scots want to leave the UK and is Federalism the answer?

THE STRAIGHT answer to the first part of the question is a fairly resounding “No”. According to opinion poll figures published in The Daily Telegraph of 22 November 2011 only some 28% of the Scottish electorate favour full-blown independence with a majority of 53% against and a further 17% “undecided”.

The process of the formation of the United Kingdom took a little over one hundred years to complete and at the current pace of political sentiment in Scotland it could take another hundred years to dissolve. In 1603 James VI of Scotland, (and I of England), ascended to the English throne after Elizabeth I died without an heir, thus uniting the crowns through his legitimate succession to both thrones. In 1707 the Scottish and English Parliaments united. The reasons for this were greater in number than for the uniting of the crowns and can be briefly summarised thus: Scotland’s economy had suffered a hammer-blow through the failure of the ill-conceived Darien scheme and the country needed the 18th century equivalent of a bailout, England was keen to secure its northern border by eliminating Scotland as a possible jumping-off point for a foreign invasion, Scottish merchants were keen to access English markets and the English were keen to avoid any questioning of who should succeed Queen Anne. As a result of this union both England and Scotland ceased to exist, becoming “South Britain” and “North Britain” respectively. At the time there was little unrest in Scotland over the union as Scotland’s Parliament was never as active in the life of the country as was England’s and for most of its existence was little more than a rubber-stamping operation. Assurances over the continued independence of the Scottish legal system and the Church of Scotland were enough for most Scots of the time.

For the next two hundred years Scotland joined England with gusto in the great adventure that was the British Empire. Scots were among the most prominent administrators, soldiers, engineers, doctors and educators helping to colour the map red. Scottish nationalism as a political concept had little life prior to the formation in 1928 of the National Party of Scotland, forerunner of today’s SNP, and scant electoral success until the early 1970’s.

The casual observer of Scottish politics could be forgiven for scratching their head over the fact that if only 28% of Scots want independence then how come the SNP is now in its second term of government in the devolved Scottish Parliament and commands an overall majority which it did not in its first term? This can perhaps be put down to four factors. Firstly, there is obviously a hardcore pro-independence vote that may well be better organised and motivated than the other parties’. Secondly, as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have failed to present themselves as credible political alternatives a two-horse race situation has developed between Labour and the SNP with the SNP benefiting from a rejection of the New Labour era. The Tories have gone from being a party that commanded half the vote in the post-war period to little more than a rump, cursed with the legacy of Thatcherism and kept afloat by some wealthy donors. Thirdly, sadly in common with the rest of the UK, political apathy abounds and so only a politically engaged minority even bother with the issues involved and so perhaps many who vote SNP do so with only the vaguest thought of independence being a good idea. Most Scots would be hard pressed to name more than the headline policies of the main parties. Fourthly, Alex Salmond is somewhat of a giant amongst pygmies when it comes to politicians in Scotland. He is seen as a competent pair of hands and thus the SNP attracts votes from people that are not necessarily supportive of their independence agenda.

So will the marriage of convenience that is the union end in a divorce? As only 28% of Scots in the recent poll cited at the start of this article support full independence it is unlikely that a referendum on the issue is going to a result in a break-up of the UK any time soon. This is no doubt why the SNP administration is reluctant to name a date or even a specific question to be put to voters. A new term has entered the political vocabulary north of the border of late: Supermax Devolution. This is the possible third option that will be put to voters as an alternative to the status quo and independence and consists of more powers not currently devolved to Holyrood being transferred from Westminster.

Looking at the wider situation in the UK is federalism the answer to keep the British family of nations together? The anomaly of Scotland, Wales and Ulster having their own devolved parliaments or assemblies while England does not must be addressed. Once such a federal structure is in place it would most likely move the likelihood of a break-up of the UK a good bit further down the political agenda than it even is just now. Establishing an English parliament need not be the end of the process. What about invigorating local government to break the party political stranglehold and encouraging ordinary people to become involved in the decision making in their towns and cities? Could the roles of community councils and residents’ associations be strengthened to give local people a real say over how money is spent in their areas? Would people be more inclined to get involved with such bodies if they felt that it could actually make a difference?

From the debate over the future of the union could flow many new ideas about how Britain could become more of a participatory democracy. True federalism with all the nations of Britain having their own government could be the first step to further decentralisation of authority and giving the British public a real say in the running of the country.

Sources:

Lottery winners give £1m to help SNP’s bid to break up Britain by Austin Cramb, the Daily Telegraph 22/11/11.

A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 by TC Smout, Fontana, Glasgow 1975.

Scotland A New History by Michael Lynch, Pimlico, London, 1996.

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