Ambitious Act of Union Bill is the 'new game in town' - Lord Lisvane

The Scottish Parliament elections take place this Thursday, May 6. What will they really be about?

Health, education, transport, crime and justice, no doubt; and both the performance of the government led by Nicola Sturgeon and the aspirations of those who would replace her.

The handling of the pandemic will loom large – the restrictions and fears of coronavirus have resulted in a million electors registering for postal votes.

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But in the minds of many Scots, and many in the rest of the United Kingdom these issues are trumped by the looming prospect of indyref2 – a referendum for a once-in-centuries decision that Ms Sturgeon has said she wants to stage by the end of 2023.

The new Bill for the Union has been described as 'ambitious' by Lord Lisvane. Picture: PA

If she secures an overall Holyrood majority, and more so if there is a two-thirds “super-majority”, then that referendum is likely to take place.

The United Kingdom Government, seen by many Scots as an English government, would have great difficulty in preventing it; and an “advisory” referendum returning a substantial pro-independence majority and stoking resentment would in some ways be worse for the Prime Minister.

The odd thing about all this is that the elections will be dominated by a purely binary choice. Advocates for “yes” and for “no” have sought to assess what each might mean in terms of the economy, trading balances – even the distant prospect of membership of the European Union as a newly independent Scottish state: salvation for some, a chimera for others.

But the truth is that no-one really knows. There are powerful resonances here of another binary choice five years ago: whether the UK should Leave the EU, or Remain a member.

For good or ill, that is now decided. But the choice that may face Scots in two years or so risks taking our constitution – the constitution of the whole of the United Kingdom – down a cul-de-sac.

It appears that for many people there are only two games in town – either Scotland seeks to leave the United Kingdom, with the unknowable uncertainties and disruption that would be involved, or we all go on as we are, with the centrifugal forces in an increasingly embattled Union barely kept in check.

In the process, it will become clearer and clearer that “devolution” as a term and as a concept is outdated.

If you devolve, you are giving away part of what you control. You are the owner of the cake, and you decide how much to give away. However tasty the morsel, this will not stop recipients being rightly resentful.

This relationship between the parts of the United Kingdom has been and continues to be characterised by London’s imperial condescension in issues large and small.

In the scheme of things it may be no great matter, but I am sure that I am not the only person who is uneasy at the idea that the widespread flying of the Union flag is going to strengthen the bonds between the members of the UK.

Indeed, as a Welshman, I resent the fact that our proud Red Dragon flag, y ddraig goch, is excluded.

I said that some might think that there are only two games in town. But now there is a third.

The Constitution Reform Group was established following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum to devise a new path for the Union by reshaping the relationships, powers and responsibilities of the four members of the Union.

Among the group’s members are senior figures from across the political spectrum, including former first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and those, like myself, of no party.

The group has just published its Act of Union Bill 2021. It is the practical expression of the group’s view that if the Union is to endure and prosper, the United Kingdom must be refashioned, and that a new constitutional settlement is part of that refashioning.

It is easy to make sweeping and vague proposals, but what the group has done, with the involvement of distinguished practitioners in constitutional, legal and public finance issues, is to produce a fully worked-through Bill, drafted by a leading parliamentary draftsman.

The Bill would reverse the presumption at present underpinning the relationship between the members of the United Kingdom.

Instead of “top down”, where the centre – effectively Whitehall and Westminster – decides what powers are to be given to other parts of the UK, the relationship would be “bottom up” where the four parts of the UK agree upon the powers that they need to serve their citizens best, and to take a full part in a Union that has been astonishingly successful culturally and economically, and which has stood as a powerful defence of its people’s values and liberties in a dangerous and unpredictable world.

The Bill envisages an entirely new approach to our constitutional settlement.

It includes options to replace the House of Lords with a National Parliament; to establish an English Parliament; and to create a UK Central Bank to replace the Bank of England, with flanking provisions aimed at serving the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom better and more fairly.

The proposals would be subject to a post-legislative referendum. After enactment a majority of 65 per cent of total votes cast, and a majority of votes cast in England, in Scotland, in Wales and in Northern Ireland, would be required to bring the new arrangements into effect.

The Bill’s proposals (see https://www.constitutionreformgroup.co.uk for the full text) are ambitious.

But resetting the constitution in this way should be seen as fair by citizens in all parts of the UK, and it will provide the stability and common purpose needed to keep our Union united in decades ahead. It is the new game in town.

- Lord Lisvane is a cross-bench member of the House of Lords.

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