Brian Monteith: Imagine devolution for all

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Britain could be better governed if regional devolution extended South of the Border writes Brian Monteith

Alistair Carmichael is correct. The No campaign could yet lose the referendum; nothing is by any means certain in politics.

The inevitability of Britain joining the euro never materialised and that prospect is now so unlikely that rather than scare the voters with a stand-alone Scottish currency, the SNP clings to the hope that a sterling zone will be possible. For now, such a proposal can be nothing more than wishful thinking, but such are the twists and turns of politics that it may yet be that policy assures voters it is safe to vote Yes.

Mr Carmichael is right to warn the Better Together campaign not to be complacent, but it is undoubtedly handicapped by the fact that it is composed by the three main unionist parties and their views of the future of the union remain diverse.

What is clear is that few of the British political elite believe the current devolution settlement should remain the status quo, even though it has yet to be subject to the changes made by the latest Scotland Act of last year.

All the more surprising then that little attention is given to the idea of reshaping the political governance of the whole of the United Kingdom rather than attending to its constituent parts piecemeal.

What we have at the moment is an asymmetric form of devolution; a situation where different parts of the country are governed in different ways, with different levels of authority and financial powers. There is a parliament in Scotland and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland – and crucially nothing in England except the continuing Westminster rule – but with politicians from those three jurisdictions still having a vote on solely English affairs. A symmetrical form of devolution would balance these three institutions with a parliament for England or its regions, but ever since the referendum in the North East of England rejected the idea of a local assembly, the whole concept has been abandoned. The English just don’t seem to have any appetite for regionalised devolution.

But what about an English parliament; could that offer a solution?

The idea could be about to undergo greater consideration. A book just published in Wales gives full consideration to the possibility of creating a federal solution for the UK and it is the work of the Deputy Speaker of the Welsh Assembly, David Melding AM.

I’ve known David since his days as a Tory student in Cardiff and must establish straightaway for Scottish readers that he is a moderate and thoughtful politician of the Tory Reform Group school. He’s no reactionary Colonel Blimp, nor is he a headline seeker.

His book, The Reformed Union – The UK as a Federation, is not a party political polemic but is published by the non-aligned Institute of Welsh Affairs and as such is a serious contribution to a debate not just about Wales or indeed Scotland (although both have certainly provoked much of the thinking) but about the future of the United Kingdom as a whole.

It is a book that all unionists of whatever colour would do well to consider, for it seeks to wrestle with what Great Britain and Northern Ireland should be like after the referendum of 18 September – for Melding believes it remains in mortal danger if we persevere with the status quo after a No. For that matter it should be of interest to nationalists too.

“Only the most sanguine would conclude that Britain’s current constitutional arrangements are likely to endure without substantial reform. Devolution has usually been viewed as an alternative to federalism, but it is now surely apparent that it is one of its more volatile variations. It is certainly no safe constitutional haven” he says.

His own conclusion is that a Federation – a system that Britain applied to its Dominions and helped shape for the new West Germany after the war – could yet become an attractive solution. Having England, rather than its regions, as a constituent makes most sense, although he does not rule out the emergence of City-regions around the model of a more powerful London Assembly as an alternative.

The problem is that such local developments take time and so lax have English members of the British political establishment been in considering these issues that the rest of the UK may not be prepared to wait. Melding proposes that a UK-wide convention should consider how the UK goes forward – rather than parties being left to fumble about, delivering unstable temporary fixes. For unionists such as myself that wish to see localism maximised whilst maintaining a constitutional balance that does not put the very amalgam of institutions at threat, federation it is highly attractive. Yet I still have troubles that give me doubts.

In particular I am concerned about how the nature of British politics would change under the dynamics of having a First Minister for England together with a Prime Minister for the UK. If an English Parliament were to be located in the House of Commons and the Federal parliament with representation from the constituent members located in the House of Lords (with a new name) then how would they each be viewed? A move a way from London for the former would, I suggest, be vital.

Otherwise, would an English first minister with great economic weight come to dominate the British political scene? Would the British prime minster become the equivalent of a presidential figure focusing primarily on foreign and defence affairs? And if this were so what would this mean for the constitutional monarchy in what would become a post Elizabethan period? Would the King not be seen as redundant?

Melding’s book shows there is still much to discuss before and possibly after the 18 September. Constitutional politics will not disappear in my lifetime, I fear.

• Brian Monteith is Policy Director of ThinkScotland.org