We Need a Parliament and Constitution for the Whole Country, Not SNP and UKIP Delusion

Apart from 2014 being the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the year Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games, and that Scotland plays host to the Ryder Cup, the vote on Scottish independence is also being held 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War.

Apart from 2014 being the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the year Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games, and that Scotland plays host to the Ryder Cup, the vote on Scottish independence is also being held 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War. The conflict which broke out in 1914 was probably not foremost in Alex Salmond's thinking in choosing a referendum date when the stars in his nationalist constellation would be in perfect alignment.

It should have been.

The First World War was a terrible example of what happens when anachronistic and parochial nationalist sentiment, political miscalculation, and inept statesmanship conspired to undo over half a century of steadily increasing prosperity and growing economic interdependence among the countries of Europe.

What is of concern at present is that in the two most significant constitutional debates in this country's history - over Scotland's future in the United Kingdom and the UK's future in the European Union - reasoned argument and credible policy have given way to implausible claims supported by the shrill voice of emotive nationalism.

SNP myopia

The debate on Scottish independence and the pound has chiefly been taking place in a rose-tinted SNP nether world where a 'yes' vote will be a statement of national pride leading to oil-financed Norwegian lifestyles for all Scots, but it won't result in any hard choices or unpalatable consequences. The extent to which the SNP has run a reality free 'yes' campaign thus far has been impressive politically but rather frightening in terms of Scotland's constitutional future.

There was a clear sense of this dissemblance in Mr Salmond's speech in Aberdeen on Monday when he said that a newly independent Scotland would not view the rest of the United Kingdom (rUK) as a foreign country. Much like his assertion that a state which Scotland had voted to leave would happily agree to share its currency in a potentially destabilizing monetary pact, Mr Salmond's claim that rUK would not be a foreign country makes one wonder what the First Minister thinks this independence lark is all about if not to create a separate Scottish state.

The reasons for much of this obfuscation lie in the difficult dynamics required to secure a yes vote in September. All along, the SNP's campaign for independence has attempted to fulfil two completely contradictory feats: to on the one hand satisfy many of the party's most fervent supporters that Scotland's day of liberty is at hand when it can no longer be bullied by bluff and bluster directed at it from all three major UK political parties (and, most recently, from the politically neutral civil servant heading the Treasury). Mr Salmond's other task has been to reassure undecided voters nervous about the currency issue, their mortgage payments, savings, pensions and benefits that a yes vote wouldn't really change that much. Hence his fateful decision on the currency union.

What, though, has changed since Mr Salmond went to Brussels in 1999 and declared that the pound was ''a millstone round Scotland's neck"?

The answer, of course, is the eurozone crisis, which highlighted the dangers to banks and the entire financial system from a currency union without a concomitant political and fiscal union. Yet the lesson that Mr Salmond improbably drew from the monetary and banking crisis in Europe was not to advocate a separate Scottish currency which would be a basis for real independence, but instead to opt for the sort of currency union which has been founding wanting in the euro area. Just why any supporters of Scottish independence would logically want to enter into a currency union with the country they had just escaped from is a mystery since all it would do is place Scotland into the kind of imbalanced economic relationship to rUK that Greece now has to the EU and Germany. In the words of the former deputy leader of the SNP, Jim Sillars, the currency union idea is "stupidity on stilts".

South-East centricity

George Osborne's audacious raid on Edinburgh last week to dispense his unpalatable dose of Whitehall mandarin sanctioned bad news for the Yes campaign was a reminder of Kipling's adage that "never the twain shall meet". Although Kipling was writing about the divergence of views on ethics and life between the Occident and Orient, one might be forgiven for assuming he had been studying the differences between a Scottish nationalism which feels more comfortable looking towards Europe, and an essentially isolationist form of English nationalism in the guise of UKIP and Eurosceptic Tories, seeking to ditch Europe for a policy of splendid isolation.

Alex Salmond does speak to some real issue when he criticises the UK Parliament for being out of touch. Yet, if anything, Westminster is even more out of touch with the regions of England outside the South East than it is with Edinburgh and Glasgow. This is where the current constitutional debates on the EU and Scotland have largely become fact free zones. Instead we should perhaps be discussing the novel idea of having a UK government which is relevant to the whole country.

In advocating withdrawal from the EU, UKIP and Eurosceptic Tories are not only spreading a mantra of delusion as they desperately compete for the same shrinking pool of what senior Conservatives apparently call "swivel eyed loons", referring to their party activists. More seriously, they are ignoring one of the biggest sources of our current malaise: that having most of the power structures of the British state concentrated in London doesn't even make people in the rest of England, let alone the rest of the United Kingdom, feel that governments of any of the main parties have been serving the interests of all parts of this island. Before the Prime Minister goes off on a futile attempt to reform the EU in order to placate the reactionary rump in his party, he should instead be asking how he and the other parties can try and reform governance in the UK.

How many MPs or politicians from the South-East who seem so eager to sever our economic and political ties with our neighbours across the English Channel ever go further north than Watford to actually see how the citizens and businesses of the United Kingdom interact with people in other parts of Europe and the world?

The political parties have paid lip service to the idea of regionalism by holding their party conferences in cities like Manchester. It would be far more meaningful having a parliament that occasionally moved around the country as well. A UK Parliament which sometimes convened in other parts of the country would send an important signal that policy is not just being decided in the interests of the South-East of England. If the BBC can move large parts of its operations out of London to Salford and the political parties can have their conferences around the country, there is no reason that Parliament cannot do the same. Seeing Parliament meet in Edinburgh or Glasgow from time to time would send a powerful message to the people of Scotland that the UK government is aware of its responsibility to the whole country and not just the South-East bubble. A periodically itinerant Parliament would only be one step, though, albeit a symbolically important one. Stronger constitutional medicine is required.

Sovereignty of Parliament past its best

The doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty which acknowledges no higher legal authority, even the people, is long past its sell by date. As it stands, the UK has no codified constitution to stop Parliament passing any law, however draconian or nonsensical; even the Human Rights Act or the Scottish Parliament could technically be superseded or abolished tomorrow by a subsequent Act of Parliament.

A written constitution that sought to devolve more powers to the cities and regions of the UK, could create better political structures for local accountability and also include a bill of rights. Such a constitutional charter would need to acknowledge the diversity of all the nations of this island while also emphasizing our unique shared history. Just as importantly, the duty of Parliament and the courts would then be to uphold the principles of a British constitution approved by the British people, which balanced the needs of democratic accountability with individual rights and the rule of law. These are the sort of political guarantees that Thomas Jefferson meant when he said that "a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference."

In the continent of Europe we have been fortunate to see national, cultural and political barriers steadily being broken down over decades. In Great Britain, this process has been going on for centuries, aided in no small part through the humanism of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like David Hume, Thomas Reid and Adam Ferguson, and through friendships such as that between Scotland's James Boswell and England's Samuel Johnson. These and other examples, such as the key role that Scots have played in our armed forces, have shown how much we have in common and how much our island could profit from, and give to the world, through cooperation.

Whether the current state of political dissemblance is packaged in the form of the confused naivety of the SNP or the dangerous isolationism of UKIP and Tory Euroscepticism, the centenary of the outbreak of World War One is a salutary reminder of why we should avoid falling for the numbing and illusionary consolation of nationalism. The people of this island deserve a more honest discourse from politicians on how they are going to be governed, as well as a constitutional arrangement which is fit for purpose in the 21st century.


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