With Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon both posing threats to the Union, federalism is now essential to save the UK – Menzies Campbell

Less than a week from Boris Johnson’s first visit to Scotland of the year, the Union of which he has appointed himself “minister” has rarely looked in such poor shape.

Nicola Sturgeon is planning an independence referendum while Boris Johnson seems either content with or oblivious to the risks of separatism, says Menzies Campbell (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Nicola Sturgeon is planning an independence referendum while Boris Johnson seems either content with or oblivious to the risks of separatism, says Menzies Campbell (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

If we are to believe SNP minister Mike Russell, there could be a second Scottish independence referendum – legal or not – before 2021 grinds to a close, while polling suggests that support for Irish unification has risen. Even in previously staunchly unionist Wales, flickers of separatist sentiment have emerged.

It will take more than a few flying visits from a divisive Prime Minister to restore harmony to our house of four nations. It is time to fix the foundations on which this house stands.

It is a conventional assumption that, in times of trouble, societies are motivated by cooperation and selflessness. But in the medical, social, and financial crisis which envelops Scotland it would seem otherwise.

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Referendum fever

Day-after-day the First Minister uses the podium the virus has given her to take pot shots at the Prime Minister. The divisive political issue which continues to rival coronavirus is that of independence.

This is most readily evidenced by the clamour for a referendum by leaders of the SNP, including the logic-defying notion that one is needed soon whatever the state of the health of the nation or the stage of the recovery.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is among those arguing for constitutional reform of the UK (Picture: Duncan McGlynn/Getty Images)

The idea of a referendum while the scars of the virus remain raw finds little support outside the most fevered of nationalists – but so long as that fever infects many of the present SNP leadership, it remains a threat.

If the current First Minister and the Prime Minister will not handle the Union with care, others must rise to the challenge.

The Liberal Democrats argue that, for Scotland and the United Kingdom alike, a partnership with proper separation of powers among the four nations is the most fruitful and stabilising of constitutional settlements. That partnership is best served by federalism.

Post-Cold War settlement is over

Never has there been globally such a period of uncertainty both domestically and abroad.

The United States is seeking to recover from the nationalist excesses of the Trump presidency. China, buoyed up by its continuing economic success and the political and military assertiveness which that allows, pursues worldwide influence like a colonial power. Russia, under the seemingly perpetual reign of Mr Putin, tries to assuage unrest at home with meddling abroad.

Make no mistake, the informal post-Cold War settlement is over. The apparent stability which it brought is fractured and nationalism is on the rise. But in these four nations of ours we have more in common with each other than with any other four nations in the world.

This is a strength to be built upon in an increasingly uncertain environment and neither to be undermined nor squandered.

But Liberal Democrat conviction that the four nations of the United Kingdom are best served by partnership needs constitutional reform to match. The structure of the United Kingdom must reflect the aspirations of all of its people and support the demands of a modern democracy, with particular emphasis on fairness and better internal systems to ensure that government at all levels is transparent and responsive.

UK’s broad shoulders

Through the pandemic we have seen what federalism could look like and also why it is essential.

With health protection measures devolved, but with the virus a threat to us all, it has been necessary to cooperate across the four nations with practical measures like protective equipment and vaccination, while allowing variation in the restrictions on our freedoms reflecting the state of the virus in each part of the country.

Meanwhile on the economic front, Scotland has benefited from the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom economy, while still having the ability to design business-support packages tailored to Scottish needs.

Yet there have been unnecessary disagreements which could have been resolved by a formal partnership structure. That is the opportunity that reform presents.

I relish the opportunity to refresh the work I led for the Scottish Liberal Democrats a decade ago. That work shaped the successful reforms that were ultimately delivered through the Smith Commission. Now the task is to reform the United Kingdom’s governing architecture to make our country more suited to the modern need.

Our objective is a system of government which allows for the expression of different identities and builds additional influence and strength with co-operation and common purpose; which embraces joint action when necessary and enhances effectiveness; decentralisation of power where practicable and desirable; and which is based on proportionality and subsidiarity.

Only a settlement based on these principles will strengthen our ties with the other nations of the United Kingdom and maintain a Union at peace with itself.

A mood for change

While the Prime Minister seems either content or oblivious to the risk of separatism, we see indications that other parties are sympathetic to our approach and that there is momentum building to reform the United Kingdom.

Under the influence of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Labour are exploring reform once more, which presents an opportunity for our two parties to work together and with others of like mind.

In English cities, regional mayors have fought hard for their communities and held the feet of national politicians to the fire. There is a mood for change consistent with our proposals throughout the United Kingdom.

With Liberal Democrat knowledge and expertise in constitutional reform, we are able to join that effort. We reject the idea that the only choice is between independence and the status quo and will be setting out a coherent and modern alternative for the United Kingdom.

Menzies Campbell is former leader of the Liberal Democrats and former MP for North-East Fife

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