A 21st Century Union

A lot has changed in 300 years. When you stop and think, it’s actually harder to come up with things that haven’t changed since the Act of Union was passed in 1707.

The Union has endured astonishingly well over this time, bringing huge benefits to both England and Scotland. In its day, the Treaty of Union created the largest free trade area in 18th century Europe, while today it continues to set an example worldwide of unprecedented political and economic cooperation.

Even the Union, though, has embraced change from time to time. In recent years, devolution has, with no small measure of success, reshaped the political landscape in Scotland, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland.

But the changes instigated by devolution have not yet reached a conclusion. A survey run last month for Channel 4, asking Scots to choose their preference from a range of constitutional options for the country’s future, found that substantially the most popular choice was for Scotland to remain in the Union, ‘but with the Scottish Parliament having more powers than it does today’.

There is an appetite for further change, with the current situation echoing the description by Donald Dewar of devolution as “a process, not an event”. This appetite is mirrored in England, where a rise in national identity, and a corresponding desire for more devolved representation, has taken place.

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, the proportion of the UK public who think themselves best described as ‘British’ has declined from 52% to 44% in the last 10 years. This decline in ‘Britishness’ has been most marked in England over the last decade, with 40% in 2005, up from 31% in 1992, labelling themselves as ‘English’ only.

In addition, the poll run by Newsnight last month for the Act of Union Tercentenary found support from both England (61%) and Scotland (51%) for the idea of an English Parliament.

With constitutional change now high on the agenda in England and Scotland, it is up to politicians, in conjunction with the people, to come up with answers.

We should not talk in reactionary terms about ‘English votes for English MPs’, a proposal likely to create a “constitutional crisis” , according to researchers at the UCL Constitution Unit. Nor should we place blind faith in the fact that the status quo will see us through. Even more emphatically, we should not countenance the idea that either Scotland, or England, would be better off by breaking the Union apart.

What we should do in order to set the Union on a sound constitutional footing is build consensus on what kind of constitutional changes would be best for all the nations of the UK.

A Constitutional Convention, allowing us to seek a solution through robust and open debate on the issues involved, is something I would welcome. This should be coupled with a debate in Parliament, which the Government has to date been reluctant to pursue.

In the Liberal Democrats, we are currently re-examining our policy in this area through a Better Governance policy group. There are no easy answers, and some of the options on the table, such as regional assemblies or an English Parliament have attractive aspects, but considerable downsides.

Nevertheless, it is an important debate for our party, and those of all parties, to have. Whatever the constitutional changes proposed, the focus of the debate must be on how we bring power closer to the people.

Creating a Union that is durable through a period of far-reaching change should be our aim.

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