In September the Scots will go to the polls, and a 300-year union saturated with a history of wealth, culture and power will be at stake.
Alistair Darling has done a fairly good job as leader of the ‘No campaign’; his grasp of the numbers in the television debate was firm. In many ways that embodies the No campaign: uncharismatic and unshakeably sensible.
The union is not perfect – all would agree. Following a No vote, which is very probable, structural changes will have to be made. Scotland’s relationship with the union is strange. It hands over taxes on its North Sea oil, in return for higher per capita spending than the rest of the UK.
It sends MPs to Westminster, which provides them with lesser representation in contrast to England; southerners dominate Westminster because of their huge population. There are more people in London than in the whole of Scotland, and England’s total population is five times the populations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined.
But Scotland, like Wales and Northern Ireland, was given a devolved parliament in the 1990s, which provides a Scottish administration to deal with purely Scottish affairs. England was given no such devolution: it was considered, as the historian Linda Colley so brilliantly puts it: “as the big sister whose reliability could be taken for granted”. But dominating the British legislature by no means makes up for lacking its own parliament. The English have grievances as well, which Westminster will have to consider.
At present, there are few people who feel properly contented with the Westminster style of government; English people north of the M25 feel that their needs are neglected (which they are); the south-east of England feels that its money is used for spending which doesn’t concern them (they’re wrong); and Scotland feels their oil money goes to the wrong people, and that they have an inadequate voice in decision-making (they too are wrong, but we should try to accommodate them, for old-time’s sake).
The rise of UKIP is one indicator of that. I’m not for a moment suggesting that voting UKIP is a legitimate means of protesting against the establishment; its arguable whether voting for UKIP is even an acceptable way of conducting yourself in 21st century Britain. UKIP’s policies are more “establishment” than the establishment. An Englishman voting for UKIP will be trying to deal with a general feeling of mistrust towards the political class as a whole; its out of the question that he’s misplacing his angst. A vote for UKIP is a vote for isolationist, medieval thinking about everything from gender rights to British identity. It relies on a complete unwillingness to accept that times have changed, and that Britain can no longer act independently and with the brash arrogance that formerly characterised our foreign policy. Diplomacy rather than weaponry will define the following century, and we had better get used to conciliation in Brussels, rather than the tantrum-throwing of which our European partners have begun to tire.
When you weigh up the growing feeling of under-representation among all UK citizens with growing political apathy, and what borders on a psychopathic hatred of the entire political class; a far-sighted (not to mention wildly idealistic) chap might consider a whole-sale reform of the British political system.
Not too long ago I would have considered regional assemblies for the whole UK; but I doubt now whether such a system would be accountable and familiar to the citizen.
It’s clear that we need a national legislature: but at present its decayed and corrupt. The House of Lords is a remarkable relic of medieval politics. Having a queen is quirky, and can be passed off as a mystical eccentricity to amused foreigners; the Lords are a blatant symbol of elitism and clientelism. We would be better off- in this one, isolated instance- in taking a lesson from the Americans.
The US senate acts in much the same way as the House of Lords- but its elected, and gives equal representation to each of the Union’s component parts: the states. Two senators for each state. The Lords could act in a similar way; reform of the Lords is inevitable, but we should use this opportunity to give each component part of the UK an equal voice.
Several voices have started to sing a similar tune; Chris Huhne in his article for the Guardian wrote: “Lords reform could be part of the package for fair geographic representation”.
The House of Lords is useful as a chamber of experience and expertise, but too often senility is confused for these qualities. Prime Ministers use peerages as rewards for big party donors, which has led to a bloated chamber, now only second in size to the Chinese National People’s Congress among legislative bodies all over the world.
How would these ‘new lords’ be elected? I suggest creating an assembly for England, and sending delegates from all four national assemblies to the House of Lords, of course in equal numbers. These delegates could be selected by lottery, possibly – but these are questions for much drabber men than myself to deal with.
Enjoy what remains of the British summer.