Keeping the UK together means a radical new settlement

Joe Horsnell

Photograph: Theophilos Papadopoulos

The SNP launched a new drive towards a second independence referendum with the ‘biggest listening exercise in SNP history’ this week. Arguably, the threat of Scottish Independence is of even greater importance to the future of the UK than our membership of EU. Although the Brexit decision will fundamentally change the nature of our international relations, Scottish Independence threatens to destroy the 300-year old domestic settlement that has contributed to our success as a nation. However, the reasons for independence have a greater grounding than those that led to England and Wales’ decision to leave the EU. Not only has Scotland been dragged out of an organisation within which it wished to remain, but for centuries decisions affecting the Scots have been taken by the English and vastly different political climates are emerging across the UK. It is for this reason, that we should radically rewrite our constitutional structures in the Britain to create a new equilibrium within our family of nations.

First and foremost, these changes should begin with the UK Parliament which is currently (and logically) dominated by English MPs. This is becoming increasingly problematic due to the emergence of distinct political systems in each of the four nations. Southern England is becoming increasingly Conservative-dominated and Labour controls the bulk of Northern English seats. Scotland is dominated by the SNP, with the party winning fifty-six of the total fifty-nine Scottish seats, whilst Wales is mainly controlled by Labour. Northern Ireland continues to be split by unionism and republicanism. Each of these systems need to be accommodated within the walls of our union and our parliament.

The existing House of Lords offers the perfect opportunity for reform. Instead of appointed peers, Britain should have an elected Senate with equal representation for each of the nations of the UK. In a similar system to that of the US (in which the House of Representatives is proportional to each state’s population and the Senate houses two Senators per state), we could successfully reconcile the differences between each nation whilst disputing the fact that all decisions are taken by English MPs in the House of Commons.

This style of settlement has also been effective in Switzerland, where (within the Federal Assembly of Switzerland) the ‘Council of States’ is the upper house which consists of two members for each canton and one for each half-canton. In effect, the UK could be considered to have a unicameral legislature when Conservative reforms to restrict the Lords’ powers go through. Not only is this unhealthy for democracy, but it completely cuts out the regions of the UK that did not vote for the government of the day from decision-making. Every UK nation should receive ten seats within the new ‘Senate’ to encourage cooperation and compromise.

England presents a problem within this structure. Reducing the dominance of the English within the UK parliament could, in theory, lead to the representatives of the 10.1 million people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland making decisions affecting England without English consent – the very action the system aims to prevent in reverse. The House of Commons will continue to represent the populations of the UK nations. A Senate-Commons system would offer equal and proportional representation for UK nations at the same time.

In addition, many argue that the quasi-federal system that we now have in the UK, following devolution to each nation, is ineffectual and will only proceed to destabilise the equilibrium between our four nations further. We have walked too far down the road of devolution to back out now, so a truly federal settlement is needed. Powers over monetary and some fiscal policy should stay within the UK parliament to avoid the destablisation of the pound – as we have seen when nations join a monetary but not a fiscal union in the Eurozone. With our impending departure from the EU, powers over fisheries, agriculture and consumer protection should also be given to devolved powers.

We should be showing our determination to keep our family of nations together in turbulent times. To reconcile the differences exposed between the different territories of the UK during the EU referendum and the 2015 General Election, and defeat the forces nationalism across our country, we must radically adjust to the political climate. A benefit of our uncodified constitution is that change and flexibility are possible. At a time when the very name of our country feels a tad ironic, our United Kingdom can, and I believe will, change for the better to reconcile our family of nations once again.