Scottish referendum no ordinary political moment

David Melding says the people of Wales and Northern Ireland will face immediate existential challenges if the Scottish people vote to secede

The people of Scotland will determine their own constitutional future and that of the whole British people on 18 September 2014. This constitutes a fiduciary duty of the highest order. While there is little doubt that Scotland could sustain the weight and cost of a state apparatus, Wales and Northern Ireland would have little choice but to remain in a reduced and perhaps dysfunctional Union with England. Even finding a plausible name for that state formerly known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland might prove difficult (some have mischievously suggested ‘Little Britain’, others ‘Greater England’). More ominously, the peace process in Northern Ireland would be further tested by any fundamental reconfiguration of the UK.

The Reformed Union

This morning David Melding will be launching his new book The Reformed Union: the UK as a Federation at an IWA London event. He will be debating the issues with former Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews, and leading Plaid Cymru thinker Adam Price at an IWA event chaired by Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute of Governance. The event takes place at 6pm -8.30pm at the Welsh Government Offices, 25 Victoria Street, London SW1H OEX.

The Reformed Union: the UK as a Federation is published by the IWA as an E-book and is available for download here.

Tomorrow on ClickonWales

Geraint Talfan Davies reports from Barcelona on Catalonia’s national day when 400,000 Catalans will join hands the length of their coastline in support of independence.

On Thursday: David Melding argues that if the UK is to survive unionism needs to speak the language of bilingual nationalism.

The Scottish referendum will be the most critical decision on state formation since the Supreme Court of Canada’s judgement in August 1998 on the permissibility of a Québec secession. The Court ruled that Québec could not secede simply as a result of a referendum vote in favour of independence. It further held that the right to national self-determination in international law only permitted secession for a people suffering oppressive subjugation. Nevertheless, the Court did rule that a referendum in favour of independence would generate an obligation for the rest of Canada to negotiate with Quebec. There was, to summarise, neither an absolute right to secede nor an absolute denial of such a right. In his reflections on this moment Peter H. Russell, Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians become a Sovereign People? (1974) Peter H. Russell wrote:

“In going where no high court in a constitutional democracy has gone before – namely to the legal rules governing secession – it was also a landmark decision for worldwide constitutionalism”.

Should the people of Scotland vote for independence it would set a dramatic precedent. It would promulgate the principle that nations and states are ideally coterminous and multi-national states are something of a compromise because the potential for national flourishing within them is limited. That indeed would be a “landmark decision for worldwide constitutionalism”.

The demise of the UK would strike a far heavier blow against the concept of multi-national states than the dissolution of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. Britain is the world’s oldest liberal democracy and has set the benchmark for much constitutional practice in the English-speaking world and indeed beyond. If a multi-national state cannot endure in Britain, where can it prosper?

Even if we consider these thoughts over anxious, they should remind us that the referendum on 18 September 2014 will be no ordinary political moment. Although no guns will blaze, its impact on unionism and the coherence of multi-national states could be greater than any event since the American Civil War. The different visions Scottish nationalists and British unionists have for political life after the referendum must be shaped in the long shadow of this fiduciary duty. Let us briefly consider the alternative outcomes and their likely consequences.

A YES Vote

It would be incumbent on the Scottish and UK governments to conduct the necessary negotiations to secure separation with the maximum of goodwill and co-operation. Matters relating to defence and the sharing of the National Debt are likely to be the most difficult to resolve. However, the most productive development would be an agreement to form a confederation of sorts.

A confederal Britain may share a common currency, a head of state, and a defence agreement. It could conceivably even extend to a transfer union. Alex Salmond has already advocated a social union which seems confederal in its essentials, and unionists should take care not to dismiss this concept in an attempt to up the anti. Here the fiduciary duty incumbent on nationalists and unionists seems clear. Nationalists should temper independence with confederal arrangements so that the risks involved in secession are minimised. This would surely reassure much of the international community (although by no means all of it). Unionists must acknowledge that a sense of Britishness would continue in a Confederation.

Northern Ireland and Wales would face immediate existential challenges if the Scottish people vote to secede. The whole peace process in Northern Ireland would need reappraisal in the light of Scotland’s secession from the Union. Constitutional options would range from a new union between England, Wales and Northern Ireland (presumably on some federal basis) to preserve the nearest thing to a status quo. Patently awkward options might have to be considered, from a Northern Ireland state or condominium (with some form of involvement from the EU, Britain and the Republic of Ireland), to perhaps an Irish union (presumably on some federal basis). Sketching out these options is itself an unsettling experience – but some response would be necessary to Scottish secession and need to be robust and expeditious.

A NO Vote

While it is probably the case that any YES majority, however small, would be seen as irreversible, a NO vote has to be decisive if the question of Scottish secession is to be resolved for a generation or more. To maximise the NO vote unionists need to tap the middle ground of Scottish opinion which seems to prefer more devolution to independence.

The path to a new Union with enhanced Scottish autonomy on domestic affairs needs to be clearly marked out before the referendum campaign, and then advocated sincerely throughout the campaign itself. This approach would also have the advantage of being more positive in tone than simply urging outright rejection of independence.

It is more important to promote a new Union rather than obdurately defend the old. Such a settlement, developing rather than simply preserving the UK and its devolved institutions, would also send an optimistic signal to other multi-national states facing demands for greater national autonomy within their borders. In my view, any coherent settlement to develop the UK post 2014 needs to use more explicit federal mechanisms.

There is a danger that those with long memories will recollect what happened in Scotland after the 1979 referendum. The Conservative Party – on the cusp of government – had stressed that a NO vote would not close the devolution question. In fact it did, at least for the Thatcher and Major administrations. Any hint of similar equivocation now is only likely to increase the YES vote in Scotland. Voters in the middle ground who favour more autonomy but not independence wouloduse the referendum to send the unionist parties a ‘signal’.

Of course, one way to resolve this and offer an adequate assurance of a new settlement would be, of course, to announce the establishment of a Constitutional Convention if the Scottish people vote ‘NO’. Whatever is done, the Scottish people must be reassured that the parties of the Union are sincere in wanting further development and reform. Otherwise, in sending the unionists a ‘signal’, the Scots may inadvertently vote for secession. This would surely be the worst of all outcomes.

David Melding is a Conservative AM for South Wales Central and Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly.

14 thoughts on “Scottish referendum no ordinary political moment

  1. The closest to this was the split into Slovakia and the Czech republic where within a few months they neded a different currency for each country also if Scotland applies to join the EU and Spain or Italy does not veto its membership then it will as a new joiner have to enter the Euro. The nightmare scenario for Scotland is voting for separation and the Orkney and Shetland Islands opting for a channel islands type arrangement.

  2. David Melding makes some good points, as he is the foremost Conservative Unionist pondering these issues. Having recently spent time in Scotland it is obvious that change is in the air. Whether it is a Yes or No result next September, people in Scotland (and England) will demand significant change in the years ahead. The UK, in its present form, is moribund. Only ardent British nationalists – mostly Labour Party loyalists – are now defending it. Even UKIP is looking at constitutional options.

  3. David Melding comments: “It is more important to promote a new Union rather than obdurately defend the old.” Such positive promotion seems unlikely so late in the day given the inability of the London-based parties to reform the House of Lords, reduce the number of MPs and reform the voting system. Add to that the tone of the London government’s submission to the Silk Commission and Chris Grayling’s recent comments on a Welsh legal jurisdiction and I think “obdurate defence” is the order of the day.

  4. British nationalist parties are the ones who need to send a “signal” ie they sincerely want or convincingly pretend to want further development and reform. The “inadvertently” lies with them.
    Without this signal from British nationalist parties the Scots would vote in the knowledge that the British Nationalist parties do not support a “new settlement”.

    The -but think of the children – is a cliche often used by one partner when divorce is on the agenda. The children in this case being Northern Ireland and Wales. It’s the sort of plea to emotion made a number of times already by the NO campaign.

    The – but think of the neighbours – plea made in this article seems to be of a similar type that used to be made historically by Labour ie a vote for Labour is a vote for international socialism.

    Scotland Vote NO! The future of the world order as we know it is in your hands.

  5. I’m rather disappointed that David hasn’t elaborated on responses to the existential challenge facing Wales other than “a new union between England, Wales and Northern Ireland”. I suppose I shall have to buy his book.
    It also seems premature to suggest that a No vote of any magnitude would settle the constitutional status for ‘a generation or more’. Clearly the only way to resolve constitutional uncertainty is either to vote ‘Yes’ or to vote for unionist parties in a Scottish election, thereby depriving the SNP of the ability to seek a referendum.

  6. Mike Hedges you’re talking through your hat!

    The closest likeness to Scottish Independence from England would in fact be Ireland which retained a union of the crown and currency under the Irish Free State. Indeed the “Currency Union” effectively only ended when the Irish broke the connection with the Pound to join the Euro.

    As for the rest David Melding continues to talk as if Unionism is not nationalism. In fact it is VERY nationalist. It’s the WORST type of nationalism standing for Oppression, Subjugation and Injustice.

    A Unionist understands English Identity, Values and Nationalism but there’s no place for Scottish or Welsh Identity or Culture in their very narrow views. You only have to look at any conference of the Conservative/Labour Alliance to see that Welsh and Gaelic are opposed and barely tolerated.

    A Unionist would support European Political Union if it was on the same basis of the way England rules the UK. That should tell you all you need to know about how they love oppression and hate co-operation. Indeed, Churchill even tried to impose English Unionism on France during WW2. Thank god De Gaulle (whatever his other failings) put a stop to that. Churchill hated him for it.

  7. We, the sovereign Scots of Scotland, aren’t voting for a Confederation. We are voting for Independence. If the Tory Party or any other party had considered a confederation to be a jolly good idea, they’ve had centuries to argue the case. They obviously haven’t argued the case successfully enough for such a question to be put to the sovereign people of Scotland. The SNP who have argued for Independence for decades on the other hand have.

    Be gracious, rather than acting like a child who didn’t get mummy to buy sweeties and is now arguing crisps, rather than the fruit mummy is buying.

  8. A very interesting article, so it’s a shame that Mike Hedges used it to launch the Cymru branch of ‘Project Fear’.

  9. Helen, you are voting for ‘Independence’ but according to Mr Salmond that apparently means retaining the Queen and the existing currency, which will necessarily involve some sort of co-operation with the rump UK. The best argument for a yes vote is that it will strengthen Mr Salmond’s hand in negotiating the arrangements for continued co-operation. Complete autarky is an impossible dream in the world as currently organised.
    Gwyn, I am sure you would get very irritated if people kept telling you what nationalists really wanted or said nationalists were really all chauvinists like Hitler, instead of addressing your arguments on their merits. So why not try addressing unionist arguments on their merits instead of telling them what they ‘really’ think or just insulting and blackguarding them. Lets at least try and have a proper discussion.

  10. If Scotland votes Yes, as I would expect them to do, I cannot foresee a new ‘State Union’ between Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Scotland is both the official partner and the counterbalance in the current Union, without which it’s just England plus neighbouring possessions/dependencies. Likewise a ‘State Union’ between England and Wales; that’s just Serbia and Montenegro writ large. I believe our constitutional futures are firmly in the hands of the Scots, and Welsh self-confidence and ambition too well developed by now for anything other than a 4 state solution in the longer term.

  11. Currently Labour in Scotland sends 41 MPs to Westminster, compared to the Tories’s grand total of 1. If Scotland does go for independence and doesn’t require any representation at Westminster, I wonder how the loss of Scottish Labour MPs will play with Welsh Labour? How tempting will Westminster be for them if the loss of Scottish Labour MPs makes the likelihood of obtaining a majority an uphill struggle to say the least.

    To think that it will probably involve coalitions and making Labour even more palatable to Middle England may make some think again as to what is the best way for Welsh Labour MPs to serve their communities. Will they continue with a class based approach to politics, sufficiently watered down to please the Daily Mail et al, or will they take a more ‘national’, ‘Welsh’, position?

    Interesting times beckon.

  12. Welsh Labour MP’s serving their communities? With one or two exceptions, they are pretty much self serving.

  13. Having lived for thirty-odd years in a federation I should be in favour of it, but Germany shows the elaborate mattress of conventions that is necessary. In 1989 I favoured a confederal settlement between a (truly) Democratic Republic and West Germany instead of the smash-and-grab raid that was the ‘Treuhand’. This would have been a much better educator of the states to the east – who instead tended to lurch back and forth from ‘sell your granny’ neo-liberals to postcommunist oligarchs. We must remember that under Union-devolution or Federation the ‘United Kingdom of London’ will remain: in essence a ‘plutocracy’ , with tenuous connections to any sort of constitutionalism, let alone to the rest of us. If Confederalism spawned powerful ‘Benthamite’ joint task forces planning, say, arterial rail transport and ending the charmed lives of financial criminals – not to say an Edinburgh-Dublin state-treaty overseeing Northern Ireland (as with Rome-Vienna in Alto Adige) then all the better.

  14. Gwyn: when Ireland split there were fixed exchange rates. Ireland created the punt and linked it to the pound. Today we have floating exchange rates and that is why Slovakia and the Czech republic could not maintain parity.

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