Is now the confederal moment?

In my previous post, I commented on the finding in this week’s ComRes opinion poll of 864 English adults that 36% of them felt that: “Irrespective of the outcome of the Scottish referendum . . . England should become a fully independent country with its own government, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom”. I observed that there appeared to be a close correlation between this 36% and the 36% of respondents who said they supported independence for Scotland; i.e. that people felt that Scottish independence would result in English independence. I went on to argue that this view was mistaken and that it was by no means certain that the people of England would be offered any sort of choice about how they wish to be governed in the wake of Scottish independence, but that England would probably just be incorporated into a new United Kingdom (of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) that would inherit the constitutional status and legal personality of the existing UK.

Although it might be mistaken in terms of political realities, I think this popular equation of Scottish independence with English independence does reveal a hidden, subconscious truth: that the Union at its core is the union between Scotland and England – the Union of 1707. English people feel this in their gut: if Scotland breaks away from the Union, this means that England’s situation reverts to what it was prior to the 1707 Union. In other words, England would again stand alone to govern its own affairs and the Westminster parliament would become an English parliament once more.

This is not a logical thing; nor, as I say, are English people’s expectations that they should be allowed to actually choose whether to be independent or remain in some sort of continuing union with Wales and Northern Ireland likely to be fulfilled. But it’s the truth, and one that the British establishment is going to do its utmost to prevent from emerging from the collective English subconscious into national self-awareness. The establishment’s game plan will be to present Scottish independence as something that would seriously weaken the UK (loss of international prestige, including perhaps the UK’s seat in the UN Security Council; ‘stronger together’; blah blah) but not something that would bring the UK’s existence as such to an end. Scottish independence would constitute ‘secession’ from a UK that would essentially continue unchanged – albeit damaged – once Scotland leaves.

But this strategy on the part of the unionists could prove futile if the emerging English-national consciousness becomes strong enough and the English people en masse demand the right to choose their constitutional and national future. As nationalists, we should do all we can to encourage the development of this national self-awareness, and try to translate what the ComRes poll canvassed as support for a “referendum [to] be held in the rest of the United Kingdom before Scotland is allowed to become an independent country” (45% in favour) into the insistence that the English have a referendum on their own governance – whether that means being part of a new UK, an English parliament within a federal state or full independence. So, for example, whenever the subject of Scottish independence comes up in conversation, we should say we think England should also have a referendum on her independence or at least her own parliament. This way, up and down the land, more and more people will be discussing as a realistic and reasonable option what until recently would have seemed outlandish to most people: that England could be an independent country.

But what would become of Wales and Northern Ireland if Scotland opted for independence and then the English people ratified in a referendum the independence for their own country that this implied? Well, just as England has the right to choose between independence or some sort of continuing union with Wales and Northern Ireland, so do those two countries. In Northern Ireland, of course, an independence referendum might include the option of a united Ireland, which would probably be rejected. But is full independence really a practical or desirable option for either Wales or Northern Ireland?

This is where I think confederalism comes in as a fourth option alongside a new UK without Scotland, a federal UK (with or without Scotland) or independence for all of the UK’s nations. The difference between confederalism and federalism is that, in the former, each nation involved is fully sovereign and independent but chooses to transfer responsibility in certain areas such as defence and macro-economics to a common confederal government. The commitment to participating in shared governance in those areas could be withdrawn at any time, as each nation is fully independent and could choose to go it alone. By contrast, in a federal UK (with or without Scotland), it is the UK parliament and government that would retain ultimate sovereignty, even if the powers of each constituent nation in policy areas of the sort that are presently devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were protected by a written constitution. I.e. federalism would differ from the present devolution settlement in that the UK government couldn’t arbitrarily claw back the devolved powers if it saw fit (e.g. in some sort of ‘national emergency’) and, more importantly, self-government would be extended to England.

Subject to this caveat, the present devolution settlement is in effect a form of asymmetric federalism: semi-autonomy and semi-separation of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from the British centre, but none for England, which continues to be governed as the UK. It looks likely that the choice that will actually be offered to the Scots in their independence referendum will be between an extension of devolution (‘devo max’) and a form of independence in which certain links and areas of common governance with the residual UK would be retained (‘independence lite’). These continuing links with the remaining UK are rather like those of independent states within a confederation, except they would apply only to Scotland: a joint ‘head of state’ (the Queen); common defence and security; shared foreign embassies; macro-economics (i.e. the same currency, with policy in areas such as interest rates continuing to be set by the Bank of England); and social union, i.e. common employment, benefit and residency rights.

The distinction between devo max and independence lite is ultimately about national sovereignty: the actual degree of autonomy for Scotland would be similar under both options, but with independence lite, Scotland would have sovereignty rather than the UK state as under devo max. So the confederal option I’m proposing is essentially independence lite for all the UK’s nations, with a confederal government to look after areas of shared interest rather than the present sovereign UK state. This way, the right of the English people to choose independence if they wish could be fulfilled, while the interests of Wales and Northern Ireland would be protected in that they could also be independent but as part of a continuing, confederal, social / economic / defence union with the other countries of the former UK.

I think we should seriously start pushing for the confederal option now. My feeling is that the Scots simply aren’t interested in being bound into some sort of permanent constitutional, federal union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which would fail to satisfy their aspirations to full popular sovereignty and self-rule. It’s already too late to ‘save’ the UK – if indeed it’s worth saving – via the federal route, and the smug British establishment has already missed that boat. Will it have the wit and imagination to put the confederal option on the table – perhaps in a second referendum to ratify Scottish independence, but one in which all the UK’s nations could choose independence lite, not just Scotland?

I think many in Scotland would welcome confederation, because it means full independence but continuing close links with England and the UK’s other nations out of friendship and mutual interest. If unionists want to save some sort of continuing union, this is their most realistic hope. But never mind the unionists: if Scotland has a right to independence lite, so has England – and we should demand it!

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3 Responses

  1. […] Posted by englishwarrior In my previous post, I commented on the finding in this week's ComRes opinion poll of 864 English adults that 36% of them felt that: "Irrespective of the outcome of the Scottish referendum . . . England should become a fully independent country with its own government, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom". I observed that there appeared to be a close correlation between this 36% and the 36% of respondents who said they supported independ … Read More […]

  2. And what of us, the Cornish people, who collected a detailed and verified petition of in excess of 50,000 people calling for home rule which was completely ignored by the Westminster government !?
    Cornwall was England’s first colony and we want our owwn government once more !

    • Rachel, if a majority of Cornish people voted for independence (full or ‘lite’) or devolution (‘max’ or ‘lite’), I’d support that. I have expressed this point of view in other posts, and sorry I didn’t have the room to go into it again here. My confederal vision would of course be consistent with Cornish independence. In fact, I’ve recently been toying with the idea that London should have an autonomous status, separate from the rest of England, which would make six confederal units (if Cornwall were separate) rather than four.

      Indeed, I’m wondering whether confederation would be the way to reunify Ireland, i.e. by bringing the Republic into the confederation and then adding Northern Ireland to the Republic. That would involve a looser participation in the confederation on the part of the united Ireland (membership of the Commonwealth, perhaps, but not the Queen as head of state – or she could be a sort of proxy-head of state for Ireland by being the head of the whole confederation while Ireland also retained an elected president; retaining the euro, although they might welcome the opportunity to get out; etc.). But this could be a means to satisfy both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland: Ireland remains part of / rejoins the ‘British’ sphere but retains / regains full independence from the British state as such.

      Lots to think about.

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