The Future Of The UK, The Question Of Devolution, By Lord Soley

I was born and brought up in London and I now live in the Highlands of Scotland. Like most people on these islands, I am a mongrel with a family history drawn from all parts of the British Isles – mongrels are good survivors!

I have lived, worked, and studied in England and Scotland. I do not want the UK to break up. I think it is one of the most successful political and economic unions the world has ever seen so why is it now threatened and how do we save it?

It was not devolution that caused the present uncertainty about the Union. If we had not devolved power, there would still have been a challenge to the legitimacy of the Union. Why? Because modern life and government has become so complex that the UK could not have continued as a centralised state. This is an important assumption in my argument, and I leave you to form your own opinion about its accuracy, but I do not think modern states can exist for long with a very centralised structure unless they become increasingly authoritarian. Interestingly the SNP government in Scotland has become more centralised and has been taking powers away from local authorities. They are not good supporters of local devolution.

The question of devolution is an English problem too. Why? Because England is too big to have a devolved Parliament without it dominating the other three parts of the Union. I recall speaking at a meeting in Oxfordshire and being asked ‘Why are we were letting these Scots govern us when we can’t have an English Parliament?’. This was when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. It was a fair question and we didn’t have a satisfactory answer to it.

If you think back to the Act of Union in 1707 the UK was created with aspects of federalism before modern federalism was invented. Each part of the Union has their own church state arrangements, and each have a variation in legal structures and other distinctive identifying aspects of culture and organisation.

It is not just the size of England that complicates matters it is also the fact that close to one third of the total UK population live in the south east corner. So creating devolved assemblies that represent England is not easy.

Fortunately, the creation of powerful, locally elected mayors indicates the way forward. With the creation of devolved assemblies across England it is possible to envisage a settlement where the UK can be brought back together in an institution that represents the devolved assemblies and which can engage with national government in a more constructive way than we have seen so far. Gordon Brown has been promoting the case for this and is getting support from across the political spectrum.

The argument in Scotland is presented as two extremes. Either total separation or more of the same but what a large section of the population are calling for is a more nuanced settlement that enables Scottishness to co-exist more constructively with Britishness. In the modern world people should not be forced to choose between two identities – it is possible to see yourself as both. Identity is now more malleable than it has been in the past in large part because it is so much easier to travel and live in different parts of the world. You can identify as black British or British Indian so why not Scottish British? Narrow nationalism should not be allowed to set the agenda.

The SNP has made the question of another referendum a central part of their re-election strategy and it would be foolish to ignore that but all the polling and certainly my own experience suggests that people who voted SNP were rejecting the other Political parties but not necessarily signing up for another referendum or for breaking the link with the rest of the UK. Scotland is seriously divided on this issue and if the outcome of another referendum came down in favour of separation then I strongly suspect it would be even more difficult and messy than BREXIT – and it certainly wouldn’t be quick.

As the debate develops some of the contradictions and potential problems begin to emerge. Would an independent Scotland join the EU? If it did, there will have to be a hard border between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The currency would have to be the Euro maybe not immediately but certainly over time. If it continued with the pound while waiting to join the Euro, it would lose any real influence over British monetary policy.

If the newly independent Scotland chose not to join the EU, then it would have to work out a free trade agreement with other countries including the UK. But over 60% of what would become Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK. Along with the currency question that risks increasing dependency on the UK – that is not what those calling for independence want.

I do not argue that Scotland is too small to be a successful country. It could be but the question is how prosperous would it be? And would it become more dependent on the UK with less influence on the British government? It is difficult to give a clear answer to this question but what is clear is that it would take a long time for Scotland to establish itself with the same standard of living as it has now because it benefits so much from redistribution from the Barnet formula. There would have to be a period of public sector expenditure cuts together with significant tax increases. This might even out over time but it would depend on the policies of the newly independent government.

Then there is the question of defence and foreign policy. Breaking up the UK would weaken British influence including our well-respected soft power. The SNP is committed to closing the Trident base to become a non-nuclear power in NATO. But how long will that take? If the UK moved the base, it would take some years. You can easilly see a situation developing over time where a new Scottish government would hesitate at such an action especially as it would alarm some key allies. I think it is quite likely that the new Scottish government would end up leasing the base to the UK and meanwhile the RAF bases that currently intercept Russian aircraft would also be allowed to continue under British control. Independence in the modern world is often a chimera.

Within this complex argument there is a question of the future development of the EU. I voted remain in the BREXIT referendum but was not surprised by the result. BREXIT can be successful. The jury is out on that.

The EU has been a remarkably successful war prevention structure that has kept the peace in Europe after centuries of conflict. Almost all Continental powers with the major exception of Britain have experienced the disaster of military defeat and occupation and they are, I suggest, more willing to accept the concept of a united Europe than the British who did not have such experiences.

Britain fought its wars on the continent – not on British soil but the EU was never sold to the British public in that way. Membership of the EU was sold to the British public as a supermarket not a super state. In continental Europe there is, I submit, a far greater awareness of the importance of having the EU as a stabilising and peace-keeping organisation than is the case in the UK.

The reality has always been that with a single market, a single currency, a single supreme court and a Parliament it is only a matter of time before the EU becomes a super state. We should note there is now an EU Ambassador to the UK. I don’t have a problem with these developments but recognise what it means.  Eventually there will be a single foreign and defence policy and it is no accident that since Brexit, EU moves in that direction have accelerated because Britain was always the drag anchor on such developments, fearing a separation of Europe from the US and the wider English-speaking world.

So where would Scotland be in such a super state? And where would it have been with the roll out of the Covid 19 vaccine? These arguments do not mean Scotland cannot leave the UK or be a separate country, but they do mean independence of the type hard line SNP campaigners want deserves much more detailed explanation before it is sold to an unsuspecting public.

The painful reality for all nations in the modern world is that genuine independence is not available even for the largest states. And that brings me to the core of this argument. It is not about economics; it is essentially about identity.

I regard myself as British and that is a useful identity for someone like myself who is a mixture of these islands, but it would not stop me having a strong Welsh, English, Irish, or Scottish identity if I so choose. Neither does it stop me from identifying as European. The modern world is a highly mobile one where we are, fortunately in my view, able to see ourselves in a more multinational role but the narrower view of nationalism is playing a dominant role in world politics at the present time and overlaps with populism. It can, and sometimes does, also overlap with racism.

If I am forced to choose, I will identify as an internationalist not a nationalist, but I recognise that is unrealistic in everyday politics and society. The world-changing industrial revolution began a process that makes it impossible to live in a truly local way any longer. We are all part of the global market and a global society, but we still seek local roots, and nationalism is one of those larger local roots.

What we must do in the UK is recognise that our constitution must change. More of the same is not a viable option. We have been very successful at changing our constitution over the years and there is no reason why we cannot change it again now. What would be the shape of that change? The change needs to recognise the desire of people to have more control over their lives and that includes the governing structures in the area they identify with.

There is no reason why the key roles of the nation state cannot be more clearly reserved to central government while maintaining and advancing devolved powers, but two things are necessary for this to work. Firstly, a continual development of English regional groupings and mayors and secondly a clear co-ordinating role for the central government – is that not a clear message from the management of the pandemic and the vaccine roll out? I think it is.

Then we need a chamber where the nations and regions of the UK can be brought back together to address the matters of common concern. That could be a reformed House of Lords although we should not lose the important role the Lords have in improving and refining the laws passed through the House of Commons. The quality of British legislation is highly regarded around the world and that in large part is due to the refinements made to the laws by the House of Lords who have a more analytic approach than the House of Commons.

I believe we are on the cusp of major change in all societies and we must find new ways for people to cope with these changes – technological, scientific, economic and political. The world we recognise today will look very different a few generations from now.

Britain is an island. We should not find it difficult to accommodate our separate identities within new governmental structures that preserve the differences we value while ensuring we continue to prosper from the strength we gain from unity.

Clive Soley