What now for the United Kingdom

by frankbeswick

The United Kingdom survived the independence referendum, but major constitutional questions are rising.

Last Thursday night was a tense time, as the votes were counted.What was happening was that Scotland was deciding whether or not to quit the United Kingdom. I had contributed to the No campaign, having paid for some phone calls, so I obviously had a stake in the outcome, but the tension was running high. Would the kingdom survive as a united entity? At six am I arose and immediately went downstairs to check the results. The no campaign were ahead. Shortly afterwards the Fife result came through and the No campaign had won. Jubilation, but the work is just beginning as problems in the United Kingdom's political arrangements were highlighted and the ensuing discussion has been intense.

How the UK is Governed

The United Kingdom is a very centralized state, with the majority of power focused in London. Until the 1990s there was no layer of government between the central government and local councils, and the dominant political class were unwilling to devolve it. But tensions were arising. Scotland was unhappy, and there were tensions in Wales, while Northern Ireland was suffering endemic violence.Tony Blair managed to bring in devolved governments for Scotland and  Wales. Northern Ireland had already a devolved government, but at the Good Friday agreement it was reformed as part of the peace process. Blair, however, was not really focused on Scottish devolution, as he was at heart a centralist who believed in big, authoritarian government to such an extent that at the end of his period of office many British people were talking about threats to liberty and an incipient police state developing. Fortunately, Blair is gone and the present government is no threat to liberty. 

The problems began to become serious in Thatcher's time. Thatcher had a limited grasp of constitutional issues and was blind to the developing tensions. Her main strategy was the word No, asserted with an absolute conviction that the system would last as it is for ever and that taking a firm line with the lower orders was all that was needed. She allowed a head of pressure to build up in Britain, especially in Scotland.

Here is the problem. The U.K. electoral system is a national embarrassment. It works by first past the post, so the candidate with the most votes is elected, even if he has only a small percentage, below fifty per cent, a situation which can be achieved when there is a large number of candidates. This situation can produce anomalies. Under Thatcher the Conservatives enjoyed 60% of the seats with only at most 43% of the vote. The Conservative vote is mainly southern English. Scotland, which is mainly Labour voting, was governed by a party that it did not support. Yet when Labour was in power the situation was reversed, with Scots dominating England. Both parties were content to be running a defective electoral system because it was in their partisan advantage. Only the minority Liberal Democrats wanted a change to the voting system, but their power is limited. 

Eventually, some devolution did occur, with Scotland and Wales getting their own state governments to add to the devolved government in Northern Ireland. England got nothing, and the government in Westminster [London] continued to exercise all power over England. This led to a situation where Scottish and Welsh members of parliament could vote on health and education in England, but not in their own countries, as these were matters for the devolved governments, but English members could exercise no similar authority in Scotland and Wales. Labour has been quite content with this, as the injustice to England means that they can use their Scottish votes in the Westminster parliament to control England. There were rumblings of discontent in the Conservatives, but no change to the historic injustice to England occurred. 


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The Referendum

Let us be clear. Forty five per cent of Scots voted for independence, but fifty five per cent rejected it. The independence vote consisted of a minority of dedicated nationalists, but a large group of others who had different motives. Many had been convinced by an unjustifiable claim that the National Health Service in Scotland could only be kept safe by independence, though Scotland controls its own health service. Others were hoping for a socialist society, and some claimed that independence would enable them to create a just society. It is noteworthy that the referendum galvanised many voters from poorer classes to vote for independence, as many hoped that their deprivation might be ameliorated by becoming free of England. 

National politicians offered Scots more devolved powers if they voted no. The no voters made much of the economic dangers of independence, which are quite real. There were genuine economic threats that might arise if independence happened. 

Yes and No were distributed across the country, but the proportions varied according to area. The yes vote was strong in Glasgow and Dundee, but the strongest no vote was in Orkney. This is not surprising, as Orkney and Shetland only became part of Scotland in the fifteenth century, when Denmark ceded them as payment for a Queen's dowry. The people are more Norse than Scottish. The second and third strongest no votes were on the borders with England, which is not surprising, as the voters live next to the Auld Enemy and realize that the English are not the enemies that some nationalists think they are.[Never think that English hate Scots. We don't.]  My son, who lived and worked in the Scottish  borders in agriculture, pointed out that the farmers there need to criss-cross the borders all the time, so a new,harsher border made no sense to them.  Remember also that cross border, English and Scottish marriages are common, so racial identity is not as strong there as it might be elsewhere. 

Women voters were more skeptical about independence than males were, and it has been noted that men were more "Braveheart" about the prospect. Women were often quite wary of the prospect of economic dangers and social disruption. Yet there were men and women on both sides.   

Many opponents of independence were driven by the idea of a family of nations sticking together, and I belong to this group. Identity plays a part in this. I am aware that I have a complex identity. I am English and British, but with Irish blood and a wee bit of Scots in me. I love living in the British Isles and feel strongly for the constituent nations. I have dwelt in Ireland and loved it, and who knows, I may yet finish up in Wales? But some people reject complex identity and are either English or Scots, etc.

Even in my family there were differences of opinion. Peter, my second son, will not call himself British, but insists that he is English, though he a very Irish looking man; Andrew, my eldest lived in Scotland for a time and insists on calling himself English and British, but he is aware of his kinship to Ireland [and is marrying a Portugese woman of Angolan ancestry.] Andrew is less Irish looking than Peter is. So even here in England sides have been taken in families, though there has been no acrimony; and this situation seems to prevail across Scotland. 


There is relief in England that the family of nations has kept together, and most English do not begrudge the Scots their extra devolved powers. Yet the sleeping giant of English grievance is wakening. Many English are saying "It is fine that the Scots get stronger devolution, but what about us?"  They [I can say we] want a constitutional change whereby English issues are decided only by English members of parliament. Some want an English parliament, as we are the only one of the four nations not to have our own. Others simply want a change where English issues are decided only by English members of parliament. This is simple fair play. We want equality, and so far we have been refused it. 

Some Conservative politicians have jumped on the bandwagon and are demanding  a resolution of the English issue. The Scots are not objecting. But the Labour leader is prevaricating, as he wants to wait until after the next general election, which Labour should win, where many suspect he wants to stall the issue out of existence. Why  does Mr Milliband want to stall it out of existence? Easy, he will be relying on Scottish Labour votes to control Conservative voting England, as he is not likely to have a big enough majority from English constituencies. But many of his party members, including senior figures are convinced that change must happen; and the pressure from England is rising. The Welsh too are saying that they want the same powers that Scotland has.

There is also the problem of the Barnett formula, which allocates money across the regions of Britain. Scots receive more per head than the English do, as they have to deal with widespread rural communities,which are more expensive to run than towns are, and a population with an age profile higher than England's. David Cameron promised the Scots that this formula would continue, but some right wing Conservative politicians are rebelling. One, Owen Patterson, recently sacked as environment secretary, is demanding that the prime minister, Cameron, break his promise to the Scots. The response to this is that a promise made must be kept, but others are attacking the fact that Scotland gets more per head than England does.  

The issue will fade out, as the powers promised to Scotland include the right to levy much of its own tax, so there will be less coming to Scotland from the rest of the UK than before. But in the meantime politicians with an agenda, some of whom are Right wing Conservatives out to unseat their leader, are making the most of the situation. They are doing this because they object that Mr Cameron established a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, whose influence has been to neutralize the Conservative right, denying them the opportunity to turn the UK into a land fit for exploiters to live in. 

The prime minister and other party leaders have promised to expedite the change before the general election next May, but the Conservative right might stall for time, knowing that any bill still in passage when a general election is called becomes null. But the party leaders are keen to get the new powers for Scotland bill through before May. This may necessitate using a device known as a guillotine [metaphorical] where debates are kept short to ensure that emergency measures are quickly passed. The Right want English powers included in the same bill as increased Scottish powers, but Labour wants a longer process for a national conversation [for reasons not entirely honourable.] The right knows this and sees the opportunity for stirring up dissension and possibly blocking the increase in powers offered to Scotland. 

Just to increase the pressure, certain Cornish nationalists, whose county, Cornwall, the most south westerly in the island, was recently acknowledged as the fifth nation, are demanding their own assembly.  

It all sounds fun, doesn't it. 


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Democracy won in Scotland, because there was  a massive electoral turnout, one of the largest in British electoral history. The United Kingdom won. We managed to resolve a troublesome issue that in some countries would have caused bloodshed in a peaceful way. We showed that most of us prefer the ballot to the bullet. 

The four nations have come out well. Scotland debated intelligently, and there seems to have been little acrimony from the other nations. There is little resentment to Scots, and most of the discussion is how to share powers with the other nations. The Irish nationalists, who have no cause to love Britain, maintained a dignified silence and refrained from exploiting the tensions for their own interest. 

After the referendum the country will change, but it has focused thoughts and discussion on issues that have been simmering for years. There is a constitutional journey ahead of us. The road will be rocky, but on the strength of this experience  it will be peaceful. 

Updated: 09/21/2014, frankbeswick
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Telesto on 09/24/2014

I have it on very good authority that Boris is very "hands off" in his mayorship of London. I'm not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing, taking everything else into consideration. But I agree with you Frank, about his broken promises to London voters.

frankbeswick on 09/24/2014

My thoughts exactly. He plays the slightly gauche and lovable schoolboy, and some people think him funny, but he is ruthless and cunning. I don't think him funny. His previous constituency don't want him back, as some say that he was a neglectful constituency mp, and he has been cavalier in his promises to the voters of London about not standing for parliament during his mayoral office. Then there is his womanizing. If he were single, that's one thing, but he is married and has left mistresses pregnant. That's just not responsible. He cannot therefore be trusted.

JoHarrington on 09/24/2014

Boris is far more intelligent than he makes out. He does that bumbling fool thing so well.

frankbeswick on 09/22/2014

There is some scheming by right wing politicians. Owen Patterson seems to be leading the Tory right, and his demands that the prime minister break his promise are execrable and should render him ineligible for office ever again. I suspect that he wants revenge on the prime minister for sacking him as environment secretary. For those of you in countries other than the UK this is the environment secretary who did not think that he should turn up to inspect the Somerset Flooding until he saw the criticism of him on the media.

Boris Johnson is making noises of objection to Scotland's deal as he schemes his way back into parliament, despite promising the London electorate who made him mayor that he would seek no other office during his term. Boris sees himself as a future prime minister, and only his supposed friend Cameron stands in the way. Not that friendship will stand in the way of the superficially charming Boris.

JoHarrington on 09/21/2014

It's certainly opened up the debate throughout the Isles, which is what I was hoping to see. People keep asking me what's going to happen next, but we hardly have any of the pieces on the playing board, so it's way too soon for any predictions. I have refreshed my memory on the Irish Home Rule Bill in 1911 (got through in 1914) though, as there are some resonances there.

While you were getting up at six, Ember and I were sleeping in the back of my car, in a foggy service station rest area somewhere between Edinburgh and Glasgow. We couldn't keep away, so had already spent the day in Edinburgh.

Right now, I'm experiencing a strange sensation regarding politics, which I haven't felt since Labour swept the board that time. Then turned out to be more Tory than the Tory. I think a tiny spark of hope might be flickering behind my inherent cynicism.

Thanks for your take on this. We might have been on opposite sides of the debate, but that's democracy in all its glory. Particularly when we meant in the middle after said debate and take the next part together.

frankbeswick on 09/21/2014

Thanks Ruth.

RuthCox on 09/21/2014

This is quite an in depth look at constitutional politics in the United Kingdom, thank you. And yes, it is a sign of strength that the 'ballot over the bullet' won the way for all.

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