The ever challenging pan-UK Unionist Dilettante doesn’t think so but English Nationalist David Rickard does. As ever, Dilettante’s is a well argued piece, but it doesn’t convince me – I’m no English Nationalist, but I find it hard to counter the case that it is federation or separation.
I am appearing in a debate on this subject at Queen’s University on evening of 18th.
I have been increasingly of the view that Federalism and Unionism (both in the very broadest sense) need to be the same thing if the Union is to survive at all (I am not stating a particular preference for it to survive, merely my views on how it can).
Firstly, my judgement is that Unionists in England (and occasionally elsewhere) too often make the mistake of trying to present the Union as some sort of “Greater England”. This may or may not be intentional – in Dilettante’s case I have no doubt it isn’t – but it is the outworking of most English “Unionist” logic.
Secondly, following on from this, English Unionists have been distinctly discomforted by devolution. Yet the opposite of devolution, implicitly advocated by Dilettante, is centralisation in England – with 85% of the UK population, that means English rule, intentionally or otherwise, with people in England prepared to justify it on numbers alone if necessary. English rule only gives ammunition to Scottish, Welsh and Irish Nationalists to present their case in national and even anti-colonial terms.
(As a peripheral but perhaps noteworthy aside, where I agree with Dilettante is that the case for centre-right groupings in Scotland and Wales to split completely from the Conservative Party is ridiculous if they are all to be taken seriously as Unionists. The Union – whether centralised or federalised – still requires parties to operate in all four corners of it because there will always be policies and legislation passed in a single parliament for all four corners of it; indeed, no party serious about governing the UK should enter an election with that objective without running or at least clearly endorsing candidates in all four countries. The CDU/CSU parallel is often invoked but, as discussed before on this blog, it is not remotely relevant, applying to a different set of political relationships which have no equivalent in the UK. The “Canadian Model” of having specifically separate provincial and federal parties – and freedom to be a member of any combination as long as it is only one provincial and one federal – is much more appealing and should be discussed more widely as an option, in Northern Ireland particularly.)
The only chink of light for the Conservatives post-devolution was in Wales, where the party – unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland – moved quickly to embrace devolution and the opportunities it brought about, and backed subsequent yes-campaigns for more powers. This is not a coincidence. The social trends are towards greater devolution, a great sense of English, Scottish, Welsh and even (unmistakably in recent years) Northern Irish identity. That doesn’t stop anyone being British any more than being Bavarian stops someone being German, or being Norwegian stops someone being Scandinavian, but it does have implications on where people expect decisions over the laws and policies which affect them to be made.
The world is full of countries which fell apart despite widespread desire to keep them together, because of the failure of those advocating Union genuinely to think and feel for the whole country – which is why the West Indies only now exists as a cricket team, and Czechoslovakia only as a tie-breaker in spelling competitions. After all, best laid schemes gang aft agley, as one Scottish patriot (nationalist?) once famously wrote…
Britishness has evolved; indeed, it has devolved! Deepening devolution – thus, in fact, a form of government within spitting distance of federalism – is the only route seriously open, and any party unaware of that aspect of contemporary Britishness has no right to call itself British. Or to call itself Unionist, for that matter.