The United Kingdom is in danger of disintegration, yet its leaders remain too gutless to take us into their confidence. They believe it is less risky to play the usual political game, which entails the cunning exploitation of their opponents’ difficulties for tactical advantage, and the suppression of all debate among their followers.
Instead of talking with courage about the perils facing the UK, and telling us how they think these can be surmounted, they publish posters and slogans which are an insult to our intelligence. They wish us to experience a general election campaign which is as bland as a party conference.
We are not treated as free men and women, inheritors of a great tradition of liberty and capable of freely given allegiance, but as if we have degenerated into manipulable semi-automatons. We know we are being treated like that, and turn away in disgust.
These unusually vehement remarks are the protest of a Unionist, whose instinctive unionism is a hundred times more important to him than any sympathy he might feel for the present Conservative leadership. We were assured that the referendum on Scottish independence would settle the question of the Union. This turned out to be a miscalculation. Referendums are most often a sign of weakness: of loss of faith in the ability of representative institutions to settle difficult questions: and so it proved here. At the eleventh hour, the Unionist leaders, Labour and Conservative, found themselves in danger of defeat, so announced sweeping concessions.
The Vow, as their assurances were dubbed, may or may not have affected the outcome, in which 2,001,926 Scots voted to stay in UK and 1,617,989 voted to leave. But it had the unfortunate effect of making it look as if Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists, could push Westminster around.
As the great Lord Salisbury observed in his essay, Disintegration, published in 1883, when discussing the effect on Ireland of the granting of Catholic emancipation, “the universal conviction that the measure was extorted has quenched all gratitude for the boon”.
That was the trouble with trying to buy off Irish nationalism: “such concessions have conveyed…a conviction rather of our softness than of our liberality”.
The same impression has been conveyed by the Vow. Salmond resigned the leadership of the Nats, for he had lost the referendum. But by extorting major concessions, he had established himself as a man with every prospect of extorting more.
It looks as though a mere eight months later, Salmond may find himself empowered to commit fresh acts of extortion. On Friday 8th of May, we may awaken (if we have slept) to find that he and his fellow Nats hold the balance of power, and can sell themselves to the highest bidder.
I hope this does not happen. But the fact that it could well happen ought to provoke a serious response from David Cameron, Ed Miliband and other senior figures. We ought to be told by them how they propose to save the UK.
Instead of which we get various tactical, trouble-making responses, and a profound silence on the central question. During the preparation of this article, I made inquiries at a high level with both Labour and the Conservatives about how they intend to save the Union from collapse. Answer came there none: they just don’t want to talk about it. Staying “on message” remains the careerists’ way of doing politics, but they find it a style most easy to practise when they have no message.
One appreciates that in any negotiation, there is advantage to be gained from keeping one’s cards hidden. But there is also advantage to be gained from making handsome and reasonable announcements before these are wrung from one by others who then take the credit and devalue whatever has been offered.
This issue could well explode at breakfast time on 8th May, when Cameron and Miliband make their bids for Salmond’s support. There is a danger that two exhausted leaders, fighting for personal survival, will make pre-emptive offers which cannot subsequently be retracted, but which fail to satisfy the Nats and rouse the English to fury.
Salmond does not need a majority of the Scots to vote for independence: to persuade a majority of the English that Scotland must be expelled would for him be another way of attaining his goal. All he has to do is to make himself intolerably annoying: an activity for which he has an exceptional talent. We are in the process of playing into the hands of this gifted and shameless agitator.
How is the danger to be averted? Only by talking about it, for a new constitutional settlement can only work if it rests on the widest possible consent. No one wants to feel bounced by some desperate, discredited and insultingly secretive leader into a measure of this kind. The inhabitants of all four parts of the UK wish to feel, on reflection, that they are prepared, on balance, to enter into the new arrangement. It has to look to the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish like the least bad course of action, or it will not last.
It does not, however, have to be a love match. The Union of 1707 was very far from being that. As G.M.Trevelyan wrote:
“It would be an error to suppose that the Union was passed in the reign of Anne because English and Scots were in a friendly mood. The opposite was the case. The badness of the terms on which the two nations were living was the motive of the Union. Statesmen on both sides of the Border saw the necessity of a union of the two Parliaments in one, as the only alternative to war, and as the only political machine strong enough to stand the shocks of the perpetually recurring antagonism of North and South Britain.”
France and German decided on their union after the Second World War as an alternative to the perpetually recurring antagonism between them. It is not a contemptible motive: such rational self-interest offers a stronger foundation for an alliance than an affection which the French and the Germans will almost certainly never feel for each other.
But the resulting settlement is one which has to be ratified (or not) by the peoples concerned, who choose to follow (or not) the leaders who negotiate, commend and preserve it.
Instead of which Cameron and Miliband remain silent on the central issue, while sniping on subsidiary matters. One sees why Miliband and his tiny coterie want to keep his options open: they know a deal with the SNP could be the only way to put him in Downing Street.
But for Labour MPs in Scotland, this would be a sell-out to their bitterest enemies. And for Labour MPs in the North of England, the same calculation applies: their party would be exposed as so unprincipled that there was no point ever voting for it again. What havoc Salmond could inflict.
On the Conservative side, some eloquent voices are starting to be heard. Janan Ganesh points out in this morning’s Financial Times that “the only future for the UK is a federal one”, and states the reasons for thinking so very clearly.
Lord Lexden, official historian of the Conservative Party, had already observed in a letter to the Spectator, with the anger of a life-long Unionist:
“Under the baleful influence of George Osborne who could not care less about the constitution, there seems little chance that the Tories will at last redeem themselves by proposing the one remaining policy that could save the Union: a new constitutional settlement for the UK based on the federal model. Osborne’s Tories are wholly preoccupied with their so-called long-term economic plan. A genuine long-term plan for the constitution ought to be the overriding priority.”
Lexden followed this up with a letter to yesterday’s Daily Telegraph about the task now facing Cameron:
“It is his duty as a Conservative and Unionist Prime Minister to spell out, with eloquence and conviction, a policy that will halt the process of national disintegration that is the inevitable consequence of having three devolved legislatures using their differing powers for their own ends while undevolved England becomes ever more resentful.
“When Gladstone suddenly put forward a botched plan for Irish home rule in 1886, Joseph Chamberlain, perhaps the greatest Unionist leader we have ever had, immediately saw that only a federal scheme would work. ‘In any rearrangement of our constitutional system’, he said on June 17 1886, ‘new provisions must be so devised as to be equally applicable to England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales under the supreme authority of one Parliament for the United Kingdom’.
“Chamberlain’s federal ideals can provide Mr Cameron with the only Unionist policy capable of averting disaster.”
And at the start of this month, the present Lord Salisbury set out with admirable calmness in the Sunday Times (£) a suggested form of federalism (which is also championed by this site in the ConsevativeHome Manifesto):
“There is a model that offers clarity and whose principles can be explained in a few sentences — always an advantage. It also would use existing buildings, reduce the number of politicians and preserve existing ceremonial.
“Under this proposal there would be a directly elected federal parliament. It would sit in the chamber of the House of Lords. The House of Lords would be abolished. Ministers responsible for non-devolved matters would sit in this parliament and be held to account there.
“The Scottish members of this parliament would as necessary resolve themselves into a committee sitting in Edinburgh with the same powers as the present House of Lords to act as the revising chamber for the Scottish parliament. Similar committees would sit in the respective capitals of the other nations for the same purpose and with the same powers.
“The chamber of the Commons would become the seat of the English parliament.”
To get from where we are now to something like this form of federalism would be a very big step. But if we shrink from debating and enacting measures of this kind, we shall find ourselves at the mercy of demagogues who profit from the unacceptable timidity of Cameron, Osborne, Miliband and their desperately narrow-minded advisers.