This positive campaign is even more important at a time of constitutional uncertainty across the UK. The three of us do not agree on Brexit. If the UK does leave the European Union, then change to the devolution settlement is inevitable. Over 80 powers will be transferred from Brussels to Holyrood. That is on top of the Scottish Parliament’s new powers over welfare. Being a member of the European Union protected the UK Single Market, while delivering a wide range of powers to Holyrood, because some powers were reserved in Brussels. If these powers return to the UK, we must have a mechanism to protect the UK Single Market whilst defending and enhancing the devolution settlement which we all care passionately about.
The SNP has – once again – reheated its campaign to break up the UK and wants to establish citizens’ assemblies to plot the pathway to independence. Unlike the SNP, we believe that the starting point of any constitutional discussion should be about how to bring people together, not about how to divide them. That’s why different political strategies with regards to constitutional change – such as the Conservatives’ idea for “progressive unionism”, Labour’s idea for a “constitutional convention” to look at federalism, or the Liberal Democrats’ long-term aspiration for a federal UK – must involve the entire UK. Only by involving the whole of the UK can we finally answer the West Lothian question.
Few would deny that the devolution of 20 years ago has been a success. Only a handful of diehards would now try to turn back the clock. It is, however, the case that to strengthen the Union as a whole we will need to finish the job. The English must now revolutionise their own overly centralised system of governance. It is for the English to decide this for themselves, but they can always look to the constitutional conventions of Scotland as a blueprint for how this might look.
We must be creative in finding solutions to modernising the Union. As a result of our asymmetrical devolution, one challenge is that with many of the powers which may come back to the UK from the EU we will find that some ministers in Westminster will be responsible both for UK common market cohesion, as well as the specific policy framework for England. It creates a conflict of interests, to which federalism is one solution. The other would be the creation of a Department for the Union to act as an arbiter. This could be part of the constitutional jigsaw that would solve some of the problems the country will face in the future if they are not addressed. This department would be of such importance that we suggest the leader of it should be one of the five great offices of state: joining Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. They would be supported by a group of senior ministers representing Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
A Department for the Union at Whitehall would be responsible for maintaining and enhancing the regulatory and governmental framework of our United Kingdom. Hearing the voices of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish ministers, businesses in each sector, and civic bodies would allow for a regulatory framework which works for our whole United Kingdom. Within this framework, devolved governments would be able to adjust policies to suit the individual needs of each country of the United Kingdom whilst protecting the cohesion of the single market of one of the largest economies in the world. This department could work closely on future constitutional change and make informal arrangements such as joint ministerial committees more formal and effective. One of the SNP’s arguments for independence is that the Scottish Government is not treated with respect by the UK government. We reject that claim, but a Department for the Union would put it to bed, and would encourage a better working relationship between the two governments in the interests of all the people of Scotland.
One of the wonderful and unique features of the British constitution is that it is uncodified. This allows us as a country to adapt to new times while maintaining the benefits we all enjoy. The creation of the Department for the Union is the natural step to ensure that our United Kingdom prospers in the 21st century and the divisive ideology and grievance of nationalism is not allowed to rip apart our country.
Alistair Carmichael MP (Lib Dem, Orkney & Shetland), Stephen Kerr MP (Con, Stirling) and Ian Murray MP (Lab, Edinburgh South)