An Unstable Union

Scottish independence or no, something needs to be done to save the UK


  I’ve said before that decentralisation away from London is essential if we are to prevent the disintegration of the United Kingdom as we understand it. The forthcoming referendum over the future of Scotland is testament to the damage to a country’s cohesion that extreme and extraordinary concentration of wealth and political power in one place can do.


The Questions of Independence

  We stand at a crossroads, in terms of the UK’s future. Whether Scotland chooses independence or not, the next five years will have to see huge changes in the economic and political balance of our country. In the case of Scotland’s departure, we will of course have to face the question of how to manage the divvying up of resources, currency and other assets, as well as the country’s debt; but we shall also have to look at the question of what level of political union between the new Scottish Kingdom and the rest of the UK shall remain – for to sever all ties would be almost unthinkable.

  Questions would also be raised about the stability of ‘rUK’, as it has been stylised – if Scotland goes for independence, what of Wales, Northern Ireland, the Crown Dependencies? What about Cornwall, or Yorkshire, where support for greater autonomy within the UK is already significant? The thing is, though, that even if Scotland chooses to remain part of the UK – as the polls currently suggest it will – these questions still need answering. The temptation in Westminster and Whitehall, should Better Together claim victory in September, will be to palm the Scottish Nationalists off with a few extra tax-varying powers, breathe a collective sigh of relief and prepare the laurels for resting.

  This must not happen.


The Challenges of Union

  The reason this referendum is being held, the reason there is such significant support for it (39% in the most recent poll at the time of writing, when ‘don’t knows’ are excluded), the reason Scottish Nationalism was ever able to grow beyond a minority of dewey-eyed nostalgia-merchants clinging to the memory of Bannockburn like a comfort blanket, is this: Scotland IS being marginalised, because the whole of the UK outside Greater London and (to a lesser extent) the rest of the South-East of England is being marginalised.

  It is clear that for the UK to continue to function, not only the Scottish Parliament but also the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies must be given not just token powers but a real ability to pursue their own policy programmes within the UK. It is a clear and well-documented fact that political preferences differ within the constituent countries – Scotland and Wales tend towards the centre-left, whilst England has since the 1980s been firmly right-wing and Northern Ireland is torn almost in two between the centre-left and the hard-right. It makes little sense, therefore, to force these nations to live under one rigid set of common rules. Far better to adopt the principle of subsidiarity – what can be done by individual constituent countries, and indeed by regional authorities, should be, with the central UK government acting only where it is more effective to do so.


A Programme for the Future

  Fixing the UK’s constitutional crisis will not be easy, and there are many details which need to be addressed, but there a few things which need to happen before any real progress can be made:

  • An English Parliament, with powers equivalent to the Scottish Parliament
  • The Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies to be given equal powers to the English and Scottish Parliaments
  • All four constituent countries to raise their own revenues through individual rates of corporation and income tax, with a separate UK-wide tax to fund the central government
  • Strengthened County Councils, with powers over health and education within their borders
  • Central government infrastructure projects to focus on bringing all transport links up to the standards of South-East England
  • Provision made for County Councils to offer financial incentives to businesses to relocate away from London in order to boost regional economies
  By spreading political decision-making and economic wealth more widely and evenly, the foundations can be laid for a more equal UK which does not disadvantage geographic distance from the capital. The problem is, none of the established parties are willing to support such measures – they gain too much from the London-centric status quo. Without reform, however, Scotland – even if it chooses to stay this time – will be having another referendum within a few years, and other parts of the UK will follow. No matter if Scotland stays or goes, if nothing is done to rebalance the UK, there will be trouble.
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