Campaign For a National Referendum (1): A Lifeline For Gordon Brown

This is the first of a new mini-series in which I’ll be putting the argument for a referendum on new constitutional arrangements between the nations of the UK, which should be offered to all those nations not just one or two (e.g. Scotland and Wales).

Below is a copy of a comment I made the other day in a debate around a post on OurKingdom. The full context can be found there:

“When the Union breaks Wales will remain a province of England as it was before the Union”. Try saying that to the Welsh! Actually, an interesting point, though: there may be some parts of Wales – e.g. the more anglophile and anglophone South Wales – that would wish to remain part of the same (British) state as England; while other parts (e.g. rural North and West Wales) might wish to be separate.

“If I was a clever Englishman I’d try and palm NI off on Scotland but if there is uncertainty about who gets it then the population in NI should decide”. I agree with Anthony, here: a bit of a contemptuous way to talk about Northern Ireland; plus rather ironic for a Scottish Nationalist to suggest that the people of that province should decide which state they wish to be affiliated to only if two larger neighbours can’t agree whether they want it or not. Shouldn’t the people automatically be the ones to decide?

Doug’s comments do illustrate a slightly cavalier attitude on the part of some Scots nationalists: ‘it’s our right to decide our own future, and the rest of you can just sort out the resultant mess’. Well, it may be the Scots’ right to decide their national future but not to do so in a way that deprives the rest of the UK of a say in its future after the end of the Union with Scotland. If Scotland gets a referendum in 2010, so should the other British nations: not on whether Scotland leaves – which is Scotland’s decision – but on a comprehensive new constitutional settlement for a post-Scotland ‘Britain’. This should be negotiated between all the UK countries and put to a referendum in each country, whether it involves a continuing UK with devolved parliaments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; a federal ‘rump UK’ with the power mainly exercised by each nation; or full independence for each country.

A single question should then be put to the electorate in all four (or five, including Cornwall) countries in a referendum. For instance, if what was agreed in the pre-referendum negotiations was a continuing UK of three (or four, including Cornwall) nations each with devolved parliaments but with a strong centralised UK state and government, then the question for the electorate in all the nations, including Scotland, could be, “Do you agree with the proposed new constitutional settlement for the countries that are currently part of the UK: independence for Scotland and a continuing union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland with devolved parliaments in each country?” Apart from anything else – and it’s in the interests of the Scots nationalists to note this – it’s actually fairer that the Scottish people should have a say in the post-independence future of the state they’re leaving, because it could be highly material to the import and outcome of an independence referendum whether Scotland had to contend with a continuing UK as its neighbour after independence rather than separate English, Welsh and (Northern) Irish nation-states.

Precisely how the negotiations between the different countries of the UK should happen is unclear, to say the least. But here’s an intriguing scenario: perhaps GB [Gordon Brown, that is] could demonstrate that he really is a visionary leader by seizing the initiative from Bendy Wendy and Alex Salmond, and saying that we will resolve this issue once and for all before the end of his term in office, in 2010. This is perhaps the real constitutional re-examination and debate about Britishness that we should have been having all along. Seriously – and I hope some Labour Party strategists are reading (some hope!) – this could be the way for New Labour to completely outflank both the nationalists and the Tories. GB could argue passionately for his vision of a united Britain, and he’d be bound to regain a lot of support in England for doing so, so long as this Britishness was advocated as one that was in the interests of, and was fair to, all the nations of the UK, and didn’t suppress the very existence of England as his Britishness crusade has attempted to do up till now. The actual constitutional option to be voted on in a referendum would have to be genuinely open and not imposed by the executive. But then, if GB got the result he wanted, he could position himself as a sort of Churchillian saviour of the UK and would surely win a resounding victory in the general election of the continuing, resurgent UK in 2010. Worth a thought, isn’t it, all you Labour guys? Let’s have a bloody good fight about it, and winner takes all!

This comment represents a slight change in my position compared with the post ‘Should England have a referendum on independence?’, where I suggested that if Scotland were going to have an independence referendum in 2010 regardless, then it was only fair for the other nations of the UK to be asked the same question. The only difference here is that the question to be put in a referendum would be the result of negotiation between the four / five UK countries: it would be based on a comprehensive constitutional settlement, probably including the option of Scottish separation but possibly not: it could also involve a redrawing of the devolution deal to include an English parliament or a federal UK.

This sort of scenario is the only chance for Gordon Brown and unionists in general to seize the initiative prior to a Cameron victory in 2010 and the massive boost to the Scottish-independence cause that would provide. Rather than putting their heads ostrich-like in the sand and pretending that Scottish secession will never happen, they should confront the danger head on, have the argument out in the open and let the people decide. The present constitutional arrangements are clearly inequitable, imbalanced and therefore untenable, and they’re contributing to a build up of pressure for more autonomy from the UK in England and not just Scotland. So the issue has got to be resolved sooner or later; and the sooner it is dealt with, the better are the prospects for those who wish to preserve the Union, albeit in a modified form.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the referendum question I suggested as an example would be rejected by one or more of the UK nations – in which case, it would be back to the negotiating table to come up with a deal that was acceptable to all four / five countries. But what can hardly be disputed is that some sort of new deal is needed; and in justice, it should be all the nations that vote on it not just one, i.e. Scotland.

What do you think?


2 Responses

  1. […] would ultimately be down to the British people to determine. This is exactly the position taken by this blog: addressing the English Question now may be the only way the Scottish First Minister for England […]

  2. […] might think Frank Field has been reading this blog. In the first post in this Campaign For a National Referendum series, ten days ago, I wrote: “perhaps GB [Gordon […]

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