It’s time for the UK to give England more of a voice—and this is how to do itby Jim Gallagher / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
The decision is made, and Scotland remains in the United Kingdom. So what happens now? Back to business as usual? Emphatically not. There may be a temptation to see Scotland’s vote to stay with the UK as a rejection of nationalism, and relapse into a comfortable, if poorly understood, status quo. This would be a mistake. Nationalism has been rejected at the polls, but neither the idea nor its proponents will disappear. They may present the question again in another generation, and before then the UK must take the chance to reflect on what sort of a country it is and how it hangs together.
The pledge made by party leaders David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband of more powers for Scotland now requires some hurried work to prepare a stronger devolution settlement, and one that’s consistent with the sort of Union defended in the referendum campaign. That’s tricky enough. But attention also now focuses on the rest of the UK, especially England. West Lothian, like most of Scotland, voted “No,” and became a Question again. The day after Scotland’s vote, David Cameron promised England more of a voice, responding to calls for “English votes for English laws.” Why should Scottish MPs (or Welsh or Northern Irish for that matter) vote in Westminster on purely English matters? This famous “West Lothian question” puzzled William Gladstone, and has entertained constitutional scholars for more than a century. It’s really an “English question”—about how to give England fair representation—and now deserves an answer. But the right answer, just like designing the right form of devolution, depends on understanding what sort of Union the UK is.
An untidy, asymmetric Union
The referendum has held up a mirror not only to Scotland, but to the UK as a whole. It has given us an opportunity to understand and to restate the nature and purpose of the union. Under the pressure of the campaign, it became clearer that the Union had both economic and social aspects. Whether economic integration and a single currency could survive the shock of separation and the end of fiscal sharing and a common welfare state was a key campaign battleground. Scots concluded they could not, and opted into the political union which underpins both.