Opinion: A New Approach to our Union

The current approach to the United Kingdom doesn’t work.

The current approach treats each home nation as an individual, yet this approach leads to everyone pulling the centre in every direction. It leads to infighting, or to one country taking control and dictating to the others how they should be run. Neither result leads to a strong union.

We currently have the Scotland Bill going through Parliament devolving more powers to the Scottish Parliament; Wales passed a referendum giving its citizens the ability to pass primary legislation; and Nick Clegg has set up a commission to address the West Lothian question.

I’m not opposed to more powers being granted to Scotland and Wales, or to the West Lothian question being solved. I am opposed to treating these issues as individual issues and not part of a bigger, more important, question.

The key question is this: How do we govern the United Kingdom in the best interests of the people of the United Kingdom whether they be English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish?

In order to answer that question, we need to come together as a United Kingdom to decide the best system of governance for the UK. How do you balance the interests of the four home nations, I hear you cry? Honestly, I don’t know. I do however think that my insufficient answer, and our collective inability as a country to answer that question of balance, is a great failure of the Union.

If, after 304 years of a Union, we do not know how to balance the interests of everyone in Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland (from 1800) and Northern Ireland (from 1922) then clearly we have not been governing in the national interest. And governing in the national interest means balancing the interests of every part of the country.

That’s why I want to see a UK Constitutional Convention, similar to the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The Convention should be a cross-party, cross civic and political society debate about how the UK should be governed. In order to do it properly, everything has to be on the table.

I want to see a UK Claim of Right that states that sovereignty lies with the people of the UK. It is for those people to decide what form of government is best suited to its needs. If we can do this, we can build a United Kingdom that is greater than the sum of its parts.

* Nicola Prigg is a Lib Dem member in Ayr. She blogs at priggy.wordpress.com.

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26 Comments

  • Bernard Salmon 15th Nov '11 - 4:34pm

    That’s why I want to see a UK Constitutional Convention, similar to the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The Convention should be a cross-party, cross civic and political society debate about how the UK should be governed. In order to do it properly, everything has to be on the table.

    I was trying to work out what concerned me about this piece when I first read it and it’s this – the Scottish Constitutional Convention occurred in response to a very specific set of political circumstances, namely the third consecutive election victory by a party which was only a minority in Scotland and where the people of Scotland had voted in favour of a Scottish Parliament several years earlier, albeit not by a big enough majority for it to be implemented. Where do you see a similar sense of a crisis of democratic legitimacy occurring to make the exercise likely to succeed?
    And lest we forget, neither the Tories nor the SNP took part in the Scottish Consitutional Convention. A UK Convention would need to become something which people across the country could have real involvement in and see how it relates to their lives, otherwise it risks becoming a talking shop of the great and the good.
    None of this is to say that we shouldn’t have a UK Convention, but we should recognise that it’s not a cure-all and there would be significant political problems in getting it set up and running effectively.

  • What an eminently sensible suggestion.

  • Nicola,

    Can’t be done. Westminster is completely immune to meaningful reform. It wouldn’t exist in the 21st century with all its absurdities if it weren’t . The only thing that might shake it up a bit would be something as seismic as the dissolution of the union – the very outcome you seem to want to avoid

    Dane Clouston,
    Something we do not want is separate armies, airforces and navies for parts of the UK, When people talk of an independent Scotland or Wales, they should bear this in mind.

    When I think about an independent Scotland, that’s pretty near the top of the list of reasons I find it attractive.

  • David Pollard 15th Nov '11 - 9:51pm

    The problem with a UK wide convention is that it will be dominated by the English of whom there are lots more than the Celts.

  • The eurozone problem is a failure to balance the interests, rights and responsibilities of the constituent nations. So yes, imbalances can be a huge issue! Our Union isn’t that much better off, as this article rightly indicates. The UK too has gross disparities which are storing up problems.

    Once, we used to hear the words “regional policy”. Then it became fashionable to declare that regional policy was a piece of failed socialism, that trying to move resources away from London and toward the regions had failed to produce regional equality, so we should give up trying. So we gave up trying, and the disparities duly got much worse. Now of course we all have total faith in capitalism, the words “market failure” are in nobody’s language, and we rejoice in burgeoning regional inequality.

    Once, we Lib Dems believed in regional government as a means of making localities – Yorkshire and Cornwall as well as Wales and Scotland – stronger and better able to counteract the pull of London and the South. Then John Prescott got in on the act and adopted a rather similar policy. Being mature politicians swayed by principles rather than personalities, we immediately ran a mile from the idea of regional government and just enjoyed ourselves slagging off Prescott instead. Brilliant stuff….

  • Agreed fully. The Home Rule Commission being headed by Ming Campbell is good, but not good enough – it needs a wider remit to consider symmetrical Home Rule for Wales, Scotland and the English Regions.

    This will answer the West Lothian Question. But more importantly, it would transform the United Kingdom, or whatever is left by the time we get round to doing any of this, from an inefficient centralised unitary state into an efficient, localised federal union. To the benefit of all.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Nov '11 - 11:40am

    Unfortunately, this is an intractable problem. The UK consists of four nations, but one of them is several times that of all the other added together in terms of population. There just does not seem to be an easy way of handling this. A separate English Parliament seems messy because it would cover most of the UK in terms of population, and people would find it confusing to work out which one does what. It’s easier in a nation which covers only a small part (population wise) of the UK, but even then people get confused by it. In terms of balance, a confederation in which one part is several times that of all the others combined just does not work, at least it does not work well.

    As has been mentioned here, breaking England into regions has often been put as the solution. But it breaks down when you try it because whereas most people have a good idea of what constitutes Scotland and Wales (and Northern Ireland so long as you ignore the Irish division issue), no-one has a clear idea of what exactly should
    be the boundaries of the English regions. Also, there is no strong demand for regional assemblies and administration and the like – however much it neatens up how to deal with confederation, and has a superficial appeal to some, when you come down to the detail of it meaning more politicians and more bureaucrats and expensive architectural projects to build new regional Parliaments and … well, I can hear the people screaming “No, no, NO!! we don’t want our hard-earned money taxed to pay for all that”.

    As it happens, many of the things which Liberals in the old day said would be done by regional governments are now privatised: we don’t have regional gas boards, electricity boards etc to give them something to do. If you put it to them superficially, people might like the idea of “devolution to the regions”, but when you put the details, which means in effect raising county councillors to the status of MPs, it doesn’t sound so good. How many English people so love their county council and their county councillors that they want to see this? How many people even turn out and vote in county council elections? This IS how it would be – there aren’t going to be some new brand of people coming along to be regional MPs, by and large it will be the same people who are now county councillors.

    Some here have put it in terms of north-south difference, and pulling money and power from the south to the north. Well, I’m afraid that’s a typical northerner’s way of seeing the south. I really get fed up with this – people from the north move to the south, live and move only with posh people in the south and suppose from that all the south is posh and rich. Some of the poorest parts of England are in London – it makes no difference that they are close to where the UK Parliament is and close to the City – people living in council estates in inner London have no more power and influence than people living in the far north of England. The fundamental division is not between north and southern it’s between rich and poor. How often, how very often, have I heard some way of thinking or aspect of life described as “northern” whereas in fact I am thoroughly familiar with it as a southerner from a working class background? Talking of “north v. south” is often a way liberals can talk about class without acknowledging the existence of a southern working class. Too many liberals take the attitude they don’t like the idea of social class, so they will pretend it doesn’t exist, putting it in terms of “north v. south” is one way of carrying on with this pretense. People living in the south like this actually seem to have developed the ability to look right through poor southerners as if they are invisible. Indeed, they are often treated as such, ignored in political debate, and largely without a voice due to the electoral system which so hugely distorts representation outside London in favour of the Tories. How many people here know what life is like in a small town southern council estate? How many people here even know such places exist? I can assure you, they do, and just because they have a Tory MP does not mean life is all pleasant and fine in those places. Indeed, it is all the worst because the Tory MP never speaks for them, he is part of that conspiracy that makes them invisible.

  • What about holding a referendum in England to ask the English people what system of governance should apply to England? Since the devolution process began, only 15% or so of the kingdom’s population have ever been asked any questions about the governance of their specific countries. Shouldn’t that 15% be 100%? Democracy should apply to either everybody or nobody. I prefer the first option. Most people reading this would say they are liberals and/or democrats, if not Liberal Democrats, so if you have a problem with the idea of universal democracy across the kingdom, what are you doing here?

  • David Allen 16th Nov '11 - 1:34pm

    “Some here have put it in terms of north-south difference, and pulling money and power from the south to the north. Well, I’m afraid that’s a typical northerner’s way of seeing the south. I really get fed up with this – people from the north move to the south, live and move only with posh people in the south and suppose from that all the south is posh and rich. Some of the poorest parts of England are in London …”

    Where to start? I came from the south and moved to the Midlands. I know perfectly well that pockets of poverty in rich areas with Tory MPs – Melton Mowbray comes to my mind as well as the poor parts of London – suffer badly from their invisibility. And yes, it’s a class issue. I have absolutely no intention of pretending that class issues are not important. But…

    But trying to divert attention from regional inequalities by spraying around insulting comments and raising a host of (important but ) unrelated issues is not helpful. Very far below your usual standard, Matthew!

  • HomeRuleforEngland 16th Nov '11 - 4:22pm

    Why do Lib Dems always argue against England? Why do they argue in favour of English regions but not an English National Assembly when they do support assemblies in Scotland and Wales? Why not advocate abolishing the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments to return power to the county councils? That would be real devolution would it not?

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Nov '11 - 9:43pm


    But trying to divert attention from regional inequalities by spraying around insulting comments and raising a host of (important but ) unrelated issues is not helpful.

    No, I’m suggesting that the fundamental inequalities are class inequalties, and putting it in terms of regional inequalities is the diversion of attention from the fundamentals. I’m afraid that, yes, I do get angry when I so often read commentators writing about “the south” as if everyone living in the south is a wealthy worker in a top finance or civil service job.

    I also think that while regional assemblies sound superficialy a nice idea, and if you asked people do they like the idea they might say “yes” initially, it would turn out to be a hugely unpopular mess if there ever was a serious attempt to introduce them – I have given a few reasons why, which are really what I predicty would be thrown at us if we tried it rather than direct;y my own feelings. It would be like the AV fiasco, but a hundred times worse.

    The problem is that too many people just want to throw in this regional assembly idea because it seems a fix of the imbalance between the population size of the UK nations, rather than because there’s much demand for such things. Putting in somethng complex and not particularly wanted because it fixes something else is not usually a good idea.

  • Mathew – I read your comments and was going fine until “The UK consists of four nations, but one of them is several times that of all the other added together in terms of population. There just does not seem to be an easy way of handling this. A separate English Parliament seems messy because it would cover most of the UK in terms of population, and people would find it confusing to work out which one does what.”

    Now come on … how do you think that Australia handles the size of Western Australia versus the size of South Australia and Tasmania ; or the population of NSW and Victoria versus the Northern Territory – or the wealth potential of WA and Qld in contrasts to other states of the federation? Really! such comments merely show your bias rather than the reality.

    It works because each state is autonomous, raising taxes, funding infrastructure and with a fully fledged parliament with full accountability.. It maintains unity by a federal parliament that is responsible for defence, foreign affairs and border controls.

    Now why on earth would a similar structure not work here? It only requires the will, and that it appears is completely lacking in the Eurocentric LibDems. I fear for your future with a party such as UKIP waiting in the wings. The union, my friend, is dying on its feet and only a federation can save it. work for it or lose everything.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Nov '11 - 1:02pm

    Michelle,

    I have checked up the share of population of the Australian states, Wiki gives it as NSW 32%, Victoria as 25%, Queensland as 20%, WA as 10%, Tasmania as 2%, ACT as 2%, NT as 1%. So although the sizes vary, there are big and small states, there is no one state which in terms of population has several times that of all the others added together. The parallel just does not hold. The issue is NOT one of there being big and small states, the particular issue I meant was there being just ONE big state which has well over half the population.

    You accuse me of having a “bias”, but that’s just to close down thinking because it’s just not even considering what I wrote, it’s jumping to an incorrect conclusion. Actually I would very much like the federation idea to work, I would very much like the idea of regional assemblies in England to work, I am not at all opposed to these things in principle. But I am trying to think through and be honest about why it is hard to make it work in practice.

    Your position seems to be that if a fact is embarrassing, we should not talk about it and instead go on fooling ourselves by hiding away from it mentally, and we should shout down and accuse of “bias” anyone who simply raises that fact. I raise it as a fact – in the UK, England has something like 80% of the population. I raise it as a fact – there is no strong support for regional assemblies in England as demonstrated by the fact that there is no string notion of just where the regional borders lie (whereas there is a strong notion of where the Scottish-English border lies, and almost as strong one as to where the Welsh-English border lies).

  • HomeRuleforEngland 17th Nov '11 - 2:00pm

    One argument put forward in favour of English regions is that England is too big to have its own English Parliament. I don’t accept this. However, for the sake of argument, if England is too big to have its own English Parliament within the UK then England is to big for the UK and should leave.

  • Ms Prigg

    You agree that 100% of the population should have democracy (or what passes for democracy in the ‘Union’), but you disagree that the people of England should have their own referendum on governance of England. Well, now that 15% of the ‘Union’s’ voters have been allowed a say in their individual countries, that right should be given to all of us. We can’t go back to the pre-Blair era or put the genie back in the bottle. It’s too late for that now, so we need to square the circle. It seems to me you simply don’t want all the ‘Union’s’ voters to have the same voting rights, even though we all pay the same taxes (taxation without representation is tyranny) and hold the same citizenship. You come over as a hypocrite and anti-democrat, if I may say so. Are you scared that the people of England would vote for their own parliament and that you would lose your Westminster seat? If that’s the case, please be honest enough to say so. You could always run for office in Holyrood or ask your party to poarachute you into a seat in the English parliament (if it happens), as there are quite a few Scots in English Westminster seats.

    As I implied in my first post, if you have a problem with any of the ‘Union’s’ population being excluded from any form of democracy, you shouldn’t be here.

  • Sorry, misread the blurb, “Lib Dem member in Ayr” as “Lib Dem member for Ayr” (it’s still early, and I haven’t had my caffeine hit), but the sentiments for MPs from Scotland still hold true. No MP with an English seat has a say in devolved matters outside England, so no politician from the devolved countries should have a say in those matters in England. The current system is both hypocritical and quasi-imperialist.

  • Bob Walker
    Posted 18th November 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink
    No MP with an English seat has a say in devolved matters outside England, so no politician from the devolved countries should have a say in those matters in England.

    That’s great in principle, the problem is thanks to the Barnett formula many issues that directly affect only English constituencies still have an indirect effect on the devolved assemblies by changing their funding.

  • Of course it would have to be a “UK Constitutional Convention” wouldn’t it. God forbid the English should be treated with the same respect the Scottish were and given and “English Constitutional Convention.”

    After all who would want equality for England and he English with the other Home Nations? C

    Clearly the answer for you Nicola is, ” NOT ME.”

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