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Is it Time to Ask What the United Kingdom is for?

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While the Liberal leadership struggled to head off grass root opposition to the coalition's plans for the national health service at its party conference, the SNP leadership, at its own conference in Glasgow, was able to talk about a renaissance in Scottish industry. Meanwhile the Conservative Party has more or less given up trying to define what the Big Society actually means, and the Labour Party continues to adjust, haltingly, to its new leader.

As is often the way in politics, parochial issues dominate discussion. But there are two elephants in the room which are going largely unnoticed. The first is the slow unravelling of the United Kingdom. The second is the slow unravelling of the European Union. Perhaps the time has come to think again about what we are and where we are going.

If anyone thinks the recent Greek bailout will be the last of the Euro's problems they are in cloud cuckoo land. Europe's north-south productivity divide is widening, not closing, and voices of complaint in the north about the south's porous borders are growing louder, as immigrants flee north Africa's unstable regimes. We are in the middle of an economic and social tempest that has not yet blown itself out. Has the European Union developed a strong enough core to hold the edifice together? Or, to put it another way, is José Manuel Barosso the man to lead us all to the promised land?

And what of the United Kingdom? Well Northern Ireland really is an entity in its own right now and Scotland is clearly becoming less and less inclined to look to Westminster for leadership. But it doesn't stop there. London is so powerful, socially and economically, that the regions of England are often lost under its shadow.

Perhaps we need a new paradigm. Voters in the Republic of Ireland will soon have to decide on the latest EU fiscal treaty. With 14% unemployment and a brutal slump in domestic demand, the Irish people might welcome an alternative to being tied to an increasingly dysfunctional Euro, even if that alternative was sterling to which the Irish currency was once pegged. Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Wales, London all have far more in common than the disparate parts of the European Union. Why not an All Island Council, to deal with those matters that concern these entities jointly and independence or regionalism under that? We have a shared history, not always happy, certainly, but most of us can claim to be Irish, Scottish and English, and we are as much Atlanticist as European.

Ultimately the European Union will only work if it becomes a federal entity. That may happen, but the odds against are long at present and lengthening. In the meantime we must look to our own strengths to carry us through the difficult years ahead. Staying true to what we actually are will surely make the task easier.