My United Kingdom

Keen (or weary) readers will recall that in my previous post (the second in a trio of related posts) I proposed a game where those with strong opinions on the question of Scottish independence are instructed to look at things from the opposite side and try to propose a scenario that comes as close as possible to making them change their mind.

It seems only fair that, in exhorting others to participate in this game of political contortion, I lead by example and outline my own contribution.

So, in seven snappy(ish) points, here is my proposed outline of what the United Kingdom should look like in order to come as close as possible to persuading me to set aside the desire for Scotland to become independent.

It’s rather heavy on constitutional arrangements and less about the policy – because of course constitutional arrangements should allow for (and protect against) the rights and wrongs of a range of policies, and in a good constitution we will get the policies we vote for.

So here goes.

1. Equal status for the four constituent parts of the UK

Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be recognised as constituent nations of a reconstituted Union. They would be designated in the same way that American states, Canadian provinces or Swiss cantons are: constitutional building blocks of a wider federation.

The four would all have national parliaments with equal powers that comprise all but the most core affairs of state. If any of the four (I’m thinking of England particularly here) want to create other layers of government below that of the nation, then that is a matter for that national parliament. Each would have the power to secede if they wanted (but which they never would, because this would be a strong and respectful union). There would also be the right for parts of each nation to gain nation status themselves if they wished (you could imagine Cornwall or Shetland being the most likely candidates for this, if indeed any are), or for other countries or territories to join the union (maybe the settlement would suit the Isle of Man?).

This would allow for a mutual respect and a recognition that the union is not about London, England, plus the smaller nations bolted on, but about a framework for an equal relationship between the nations.

2. A limited UK level of government

The UK would have powers relating to, as I mention above, only those matters most critical to the functioning of a state. So things like immigration, macro-economic planning, defence and foreign affairs would be decided by the UK government, and everything else would rest with the four nations.

To put two labels on this, I’m envisaging full fiscal autonomy for all four nations, and the overall structure would be federal. In turn, that means firstly that each nation would manage its own budget, raise its own taxes however it likes, control its expenditure alone, and pay a small levy for the central services provided by the UK government. Then secondly the two levels (and perhaps those below it such as regional or local authorities) would be enshrined as constitutionally equal – the essence of federalism.

But there would be a strong link. The four national First Ministers would sit alongside the UK Prime Minister and perhaps one or two others as an inner cabinet. Some executive decisions would lie with them and perhaps require at least three of the four First Minister supporting them for them to happen. You might argue that this could leave, for instance, Northern Ireland and Wales effectively vetoing something that Scotland, England and the UK government all want. But remember, this is a partnership, and so if that means vetoes, then so be it.

Also, the UK legislature would have two chambers with powers of accountability over each other perhaps not unlike the current balance between the Commons and Lords. Like the US model, the lower would be elected by population (so England would dominate), and in the upper there would be a quarter elected by each nation. Neither would be especially large (perhaps two or three hundred?) – remember, most decisions would be taken in the national parliaments.

3. A new UK capital

I think there would be tremendous symbolism – not to mention economic benefit – from splitting the English and UK capitals. London was the English capital long before it was the UK capital, so it should stick with that original job. A different location should be designated a sort of “UK Capital Territory”.

I propose that this should be Berwick. There would be symbolic value here, with a city that has variously been both Scottish and English throughout its history taking on a mantle of something that is truly British (well, truly UKish).

There would also be an economic benefit, because the move would redistribute UK government jobs away from London (though of course not all of them would need to move to Berwick – some could be anywhere). It would also create a strong imperative for east coast transport improvements: the train line and road linking Edinburgh through Berwick to London are pitiful, and this situation would inevitably have to change.

4. Real democracy

The medieval hangovers of the UK’s constitution would be swept away. The upper house of the UK legislature, balanced between the four nations as explained above, would lose its bishops, its hereditary seats and its appointees of political patronage. Anyone over 16 would be able to vote or stand in elections at any level. There would be proportional representation (probably STV) in all elections.

Other weird oddities who have alarming levels of power in our democracy would disappear, like the City of London Corporation. You could even get rid of the monarchy under this particular wave of reform, though it’s genuinely not a deal breaker for me if it remains.

There would, of course, be a written constitution enshrining all of this, and everything proposed in this blog post. Certain things might require not just a majority of people voting to support a change in a referendum, but majorities in two or even three of the four nations all voting for it too.

5. A genuinely ethical foreign and defence policy

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m trying to avoid policy in this list – after all, policies change with governments not with constitutions. But there are a few things related to policy that in my mind should be enshrined in law; and that applies to points 5, 6 and 7 in this list.

On foreign affairs and defence, the UK would be constitutionally committed to promoting peace. The arms industry would be limited, and sales of weapons to other countries would be illegal unless from an independently approved (perhaps through the courts) list of liberal democracies. The constitution would also enshrine EU membership and a nuclear-free military.

6. Fair ownership of common resources

It would be illegal for any one individual to own a certain percentage of land assets or perhaps more than one media outlet. Indeed, workers’ cooperatives could be made compulsory in certain important national (but non-governmental) entities, such as the media.

Public services would mostly be publicly owned, and would be responsibilities of the four nations’ governments.

7. Cultural respect

There would be a bill of rights, again enshrined in the constitution, outlining how each individual should be protected and respected under law.

There would be a major push on languages, to improve the country’s cultural capital, tolerance and international engagement. Perhaps it could be an ambition that everyone is trilingual in at least English, one other indigenous language, and one foreign language. This isn’t merely a matter of education policy, which from a constitutional point of view should not be so fixed – language touches on everything from culture to the economy. The words we speak underpin who we are, and they define a nation. So it is important that the UK respects its and the world’s linguistic diversity.

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So there you go: my manifesto for the UK, a UK I’d vote to stay in. What would your vision be for whichever you oppose out of an independent Scotland or a continuing union? Post in the comments.

In reading over my set of proposals, I’m surprised how positive it sounds, how enticing it is to me personally, and how easy it has been to paint – at least on a very hypothetical, playful level – a sort of union I’d very strongly consider voting to remain in. In one sense it makes me wonder why people don’t do this sort of conjecture more often, and try to sincerely understand each other’s perspectives.

On the other hand though, leaving disagreements about the objective merit of any of my proposals aside, I do accept there are issues of realism here. How credible is it that the UK could ever look like this? With a small pace of change in UK politics that still has hereditary parliamentarians, a disproportional voting system, and a hideously imbalanced distribution of power and wealth, it is almost impossible to imagine my manifesto ever coming into being.

But then realism isn’t part of this exercise. My ponderings over these three blog posts were never about being realistic as an end in itself; but rather about trying to look at politics from each others’ points of view. If we can all start to do that a bit more, perhaps the conversation about the direction Scotland should take will be a more pleasant and productive one for all those involved, all those affected, and all those watching from afar.

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