The constitutional question has dominated Scottish politics for some considerable time. During the last parliament the SNP minority government tried in vain to get parliamentary support to hold a referendum on independence and since last year’s election of an SNP majority at Holyrood any political discussion has been viewed through this prism. Until recently this debate was largely contained to Scotland with the other nations on these islands contenting themselves with a watching brief and sometimes not even bothering with that. However in recent weeks all this has changed with interventions from the Prime Minister, the First Minister of Wales and First Minister of the North of Ireland.
David Cameron is widely seen as having failed in an attempt to set limits on, or even take control of, the Scottish independence referendum. While this analysis is understandable, and at one level almost certainly accurate, it is also likely Cameron’s motivation was broader and more subtle than it first appears, namely an attempt to set some parameters on the parallel, UK wide debate on the changing nature of the British state and its likely configuration in the coming decades.
The attempt to allow Westminster to set the rules and timeframe for the referendum and rather pathetic threat of court action over any Scottish Government organised poll not only played badly in Scotland it also signalled the beginning of some sort of fight back from UK unionist parties. Carwyn Jones, the Labour First Minister in Cardiff, indicated a willingness to campaign in Scotland against independence and said “From our point of view we can’t simply sit back and think it’s not going to affect us.”1 Peter Robinson the DUP First Minister at Stormont had already indicated his willingness to enter the fray by using his party conference speech at the end of last year to defend the union saying “I think we will play a full part in encouraging our Ulster Scots brethren and sisters to be part of the Union, to reject the notion of separation.”2
These interventions, though very different in tone and impact, are a recognition on the part of the state and unionism of the potential scale and implications of constitutional change that could be triggered by Scotland’s independence referendum. Indeed I would argue these pan UK interventions also indicate an understanding and acceptance that constitutional change (though not necessarily independence) is underway and irreversible.
However unionists are not the only ones to understand the broader implication of constitutional change with the revelation the senior SNP advisers met with campaigners for an English parliament to discuss strategy and of course Alex Salmond’s comments in Dublin at the British Ireland Council that “Many people in Ireland will remember that sometimes people who are in leadership positions in big countries find it very difficult not to bully small countries.”3 Putting to one side the minor controversy drawing such parallels caused in Ireland at the time it signalled a willingness to place Scotland’s independence referendum and the potential breakup of the British state in a broader historical context.
However not everyone has recognised the potential of the current situation, responding to a question from the SDLP’s John Dallat on the matter during First Ministers Questions on 23rd January Deputy FM Martin McGuinness said “The issue could be used to create divisions in this House, within our Executive, or even between the First Minister and me. All of us should resist the temptation to be drawn in to something that will be decided elsewhere.” And if that wasn’t clear enough he concluded by saying “My attitude is that we would be best advised to steer clear of it”.4
So what are we to make of this non intervention? First of all given the contentious nature of politics it is a novel idea that the democratically elected politicians in the Stormont Assembly are only going to discuss issues which do not ‘create divisions’ between them. And if the Executive, a mandatory coalition, only discuss issues they agree on their meetings must have a very short agenda. It is also worth pointing out that First Minister Peter Robinson and the DUP have shown no such reluctance to speak out on the constitutional situation or indeed other issues that ‘create divisions’. However the real problem with this position is not its contradiction, it is that it fundamentally misunderstands what is happening to the British state.
Last year with little publicity former Prime Minister John Major made a speech dealing with constitutional change and Scotland in particular in it he argued “Why not devolve all responsibilities except foreign policy, defence and management of the economy? Why not let Scotland have wider tax-raising powers to pay for their policies and, in return, abolish the present block grant settlement, reduce Scottish representation in the Commons, and cut the legislative burden at Westminster?” 5This should sound familiar because it is the much vaunted Devo Max.
It is also indicative of moves by the British state to seize the initiative and could potentially lead to the recalibration of the British state which would involve ceding considerable powers but stop short of the state’s break up. In recent weeks the DUP have signalled an ’interest’ in further devolution and even Devo Max and in one of the more thoughtful unionist contributions to the debate Carwyn Jones called for a new constitutional convention. 6
All of this makes it clear that Scottish Labour are increasingly isolated in their defence of the status quo and their apparent belief that a No vote in Scotland’s referendum will put the constitutional genie back in the bottle. Such a stance is not only political suicide it is just plain wrong. The state we live in is changing and there is no going back. Irrespective of the outcome of the 2014 poll Britain will never be the same again. The struggle now is about the nature, and extent, of that change.
In a newspaper interview last week Martin McGuinness outlined a possible timeframe for a constitutional referendum in the Six Counties. He argued it should be sometime between 2016 and 2021 arguing “I think, in all probability, the people who have got the power to put that in place won’t even contemplate it this side of the next Assembly elections, which conceivably could be 2015 or 2016.”7 The ‘people who have got the power’ is the British Secretary of State who has sole legal authority under existing legislation to call such a referendum. Following the Scottish example this can no longer be acceptable, irrespective of the legal position. As Scotland has shown any referendum on the issue of self determination in constituent parts of the UK must be within the power of the people of those nations via their elected representatives. This principle has now been accepted by the David Cameron and the state.
In an Irish context the present political and economic conjuncture contains the potential for a truly democratic movement for a new Republic. Any referendum on Ireland’s constitutional future must be made in Ireland. The timing, wording of the question, decisions on who can vote and oversight must all be determined in Ireland and not left in the gift of a British Secretary of State. Such an all Ireland poll would be viewed within the context of a broader move for bottom up democratic renewal throughout these islands which is vital if we are to move beyond the UK state and develop structures fit for the twenty first century.
That Cameron failed in his bid for Westminster control of the organisation and oversight of the Scottish referendum tells us something very significant about the changes that have already taken place in the last 15 years. Namely that the Prime Minister and Westminster, in other words the British state at its centre, cannot, irrespective of the legal details, control the dynamic of constitutional change within the state. The centre of political gravity has shifted as power has silently, seeped away from London to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast for over a decade. Britain’s Ancien Regime is in a state of flux and the current situation is loaded with potential and provides those of us striving for the maximum change in society with a historic opportunity.