Clem Sunter

Constitutionally, will the UK become more like the USA?

2014-09-22 07:33

For me, the results of the Scottish referendum, or at least the promises made by the Better Together campaign and especially towards the end by ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are a real game-changer.

I know some pundits believe the vows made can be dismissed as a political gesture.  They were triggered in a moment of panic when the pro-independence vote moved momentarily in front according to one poll leading up to the referendum. The feeling is that all will return to normal now that the majority of Scots have been sensible enough to keep the union intact. By contrast, I see it as a huge flag in no way resembling the traditional Union Jack but rather one that is in favour of much more devolution.  Simply put, the devolution revolution is now the new game in town and could in the next few years completely change the way the UK is governed.

Meanwhile, since the referendum, all parties have recommitted themselves to the pledge given to the Scots. David Cameron has announced the formation of a committee to propose changes to the rules governing the relationship between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster in order to fulfil the principle of maximum devolution to Scotland. This review by its very nature will also lead to changes in the scope of the House of Commons and House of Lords. William Hague, the recent Foreign Secretary, is to be the guiding light behind the process.

The programme suggests that the group will have to come up with a formal paper before the end of October this year, followed by heads of agreement between the parties in November. The intention is that draft legislation will be submitted to Parliament early in 2015 ahead of the next general election in May. Then, the new government will be tasked with implementing a new Scotland Act during its first year of office.  Politicians will be very busy bees for a change!

But will it be that easy? If the Scottish Parliament is to have further powers, what about the English, the Northern Irish and the Welsh? And maybe you should add the Cornish as well. In Westminster will non- English MPs be able to debate and vote on laws that only apply to England or will they be barred from doing so? Will there have to be a separate English legislature to deal with these matters at great additional cost to the English taxpayers? Does home rule mean that you have a First Minister of England like the one in Scotland in which case does the Prime Minister become more like the American President? Will there then be a Federal Parliament in the shadow of Big Ben with Federal Agencies picking up the administrative burden? Does Scotland Yard, for example, become the FBI?

Tax will be a tricky issue to handle as there will have to be a division of tax-raising powers between the centre and the regions? Defence and most other government departments will have to go through a huge overhaul as the devolution principle is applied to the management of those departments. The question of whose responsibility it is to finance welfare grants and other government assistance including education and health care will have to be tackled too.

In a funny way, I think the Scottish referendum may go down as one of the biggest events in British history even though Scotland did not opt for independence. It will cause all the political parties to go through a major bout of introspection, not least the Labour Party because they will lose the most power nationally from a more devolved system of government. A major part of their support base sits in Scotland and therein lies the rub.

Some Labour MPs are already revolting against the more generalised interpretation of the concept put forward by the Better Together camp and calling the idea of home rule in England a gimmick. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has joined the bandwagon because he knows how many Scottish and Welsh MPs he has in his party. They would not be allowed to vote on English legislation under home rule. Of course, David Cameron will use the opposition’s unwillingness to cede power to the English region, along with Scotland, as his trump card in the next general election. He will argue that no socialists want to cede power to anybody anywhere as a result of their centralist tendencies. But he will have to admit that Tony Blair, the founder of New Labour, kicked off the whole initiative.

Nevertheless, Cameron’s support of devolution for the English may be a master stroke in heading off the electoral challenge posed by the UK Independence Party. It may even make him appear to be more pro-English than Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader who wants Britain out of the European Union.

Even though Alex Salmond has resigned as leader of the Scottish National Party, I suspect that his name will be mentioned in despatches for hundreds of years to come. He may have lost the referendum, but he may go down as the guy who, with his brash and confrontational style, set in motion a transformation of the manner in which Britain governs herself for the rest of the millennium. He kicked English backsides at just the right time. Now that is something to leave as a legacy.

 Send your comments to Clem


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