LibLink: David Steel…New type of Union needed

The Scotsman carries an extract from David Steel’s Presidential Address to the David Hume institute in which he talks about the need for constitutional reform of the whole UK to give real power to its constituent parts. I was particularly struck by this passage where he talks about distribution, not devolution, of power:

Many of my former constituents would quite comfortably consider themselves a Borderer first and then a Scotsman. And the same incidentally applies for Borderers born south of the Tweed in Northumberland in relation to Englishness. Politicians at their peril dictate identity and culture. People can quite comfortably consider themselves both Scots and British and European, a combination of all. Indeed for the citizen is it empowering to have ownership of their own identity.

A more federal New Union means that this is recognised but is one where we have the real distribution of power, not simply its devolution.

While praising the Scottish Parliament, of which he was the first Presiding Officer, he said that the ability to raise most of its outgoings was important:

The Scottish Parliament is a unique institution in the world. For its procedures and quality of its work it is now one of the strongest democratic institutions anywhere. Rightly, Scotland can be proud. But in respect of powers to raise the revenue it has authority of spending, it is one of the weakest. This now is the biggest question to address for those of us seeking a stable, long term, mature relationship between Holyrood and Westminster within the UK. It’s a question about having the parliament properly answerable to the people of Scotland for the choices that are made, over legislation, and also budgets. For the future I favour what has been described as a “New Union” within the UK – a Holyrood with appropriate powers to raise the majority of its revenue, a permanence of our institutions so that they exist in a union created in a written constitution, not in a tenancy agreement with the Westminster landlord.

He went on to look at how Canada had adopted a federal structure.

We can learn, not only from this process of reform but also how a country with a strong parliamentary tradition can nevertheless move towards a more codified relationship between the centre and nations or provinces. Within Canada this could have been used to describe the Quebec-Ottawa relationship, and do I stretch it too far to say this may sum up the relationship between Scotland and England? We are inevitably affected by decisions made there, regardless of the formal constitutional relationship between us.

It’s certainly something we need to be thinking of across the whole UK and particularly at our Federal Conference in Glasgow this September.

You can read the whole article here, or David Steel’s whole lecture here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in LibLink.


  • Keith Browning 4th Apr '13 - 3:47pm

    It does seem ridiculous that every part of the United Kingdom doesn’t have a vote on this because it will affect the structure and government of the whole group of islands.

    Those south of the border would also have to change our identity if the Scots chose to sail off towards the Arctic Ocean. No longer could we be the United Kingdom, so my vote for a new name would be the ‘Disunited Kingdom’.

  • Whatever happened to the Liberal principle of supporting self determination for nations ?
    Keith, were Scotkand to rise again, the rump state to its southmay well struggle to think of a post-medieval name for itself but the new state in the north would have no such difficulty – says it all, really.

  • Jim Forrest 4th Apr '13 - 5:53pm

    David Steel and Keith Browning might also consider those of us who live in the deep south (Hampshire in my case), and still consider ourselves as Scots. It seems bizarre that a 16-year-old in Glasgow (which is what I was when I joined the Scottish Liberal Party) will have a vote on my future nationality, but the 66-year-old me will not.
    I’m not arguing against reducing the voting age (I suspect the anomaly of young Scots having a vote in 2016 but not in 2017, if a No result were followed by a General Election, will spur the case for a UK-wide reduction).
    But I do strongly resent being disenfranchised by geography on an issue so central to my identity.

  • Jim Forrest 4th Apr '13 - 5:56pm

    Oops – the parenthesis should read “…vote in 2014 but not in 2015..”

  • David Allen 4th Apr '13 - 6:43pm

    “It does seem ridiculous that every part of the United Kingdom doesn’t have a vote on this”

    At the moment, Alex Salmond is losing. However, we could ride to his rescue. The perfect way to do that would be to tell the Scots that they are not allowed to leave the UK unless the English vote to permit it!

  • Ed Shepherd 4th Apr '13 - 10:45pm

    I think I have seen at least one survey that showed that a majority of people in England would like to vote for independence. Tuition fees, social care, prescription fees, the always unanswered West Lothian question….It’s not surprising that so many English people feel that way.

  • The time has definitely come for a rational, thought out, consistent federal structure for the UK which allows regional and home nation aspirations to be met, without throwing out the “baby” of the real benefits of a United Kingdom (history, community, shared culture, institutions and international status) with the ever more murky “bathwater” of resentment, friction and mutual accusation.

  • David Allen 5th Apr '13 - 7:10pm

    One way to enable the regions to gain more independence from the centre is devolution to a growing number of regions. However, the English regions (or at least the north-east when polled by John Prescott) have rejected regional devolution, only to complain when they see how much Scotland has gained from it.

    Would an alternative be to devolve some powers to an everybody-except-London assembly? London is becoming something of a rich colonial power, while the Rest of Britain suffers! If the Rest of Britain were able to demand financial support from London, and use it to encourage local enterprise and employment, we could do something about our overheated centre and out-of-work regions!

  • Ed Shepherd 6th Apr '13 - 7:29pm

    Why not just have an English assembly with the same powers for England as the assemblies for Wales and Scotland? England is a nation just as Wales or Scotland are and should have similar powers over areas such as education and health.

  • @Ed: The problem with that is that it still leaves England with a disproportionally high level of influence. In fact it may even entrench a sense of English dominance over the UK. Due to our wealth, population size, London, Westminster and our infrastructure, we would be able to dedicate the future of the United Kingdom, which would be problematic.

    The other suggestion is to split England up into its regions. The problem with this is that most English people do not wish to see the UK devolved any further than it already is, let alone seeing England split up. As such, they may see England being split up in such a manner as an attack on their county and land. I may be over-reading it, but I think it will not be well-received as an idea outside of a few extreme cases like Cornwell.

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