Political architecture of UK set to change whatever vote may bring

Opinion: Yes campaign has fallen to earth because of gulf between vision and practicality

Alex Salmond, who hosted the Edinburgh conference addressed by Tom Nairn

Alex Salmond, who hosted the Edinburgh conference addressed by Tom Nairn


In the film Miss Congeniality Sandra Bullock stars as an undercover FBI agent at a Miss America beauty pageant. When contestants are asked: “What is the one most important thing our society needs?” each replies: “World peace”. When it is Sandra Bullock’s turn she answers: “Harsher punishment for parole violators. And world peace.” If the joke is the disconnection between vision and practicality, a similar disconnect faces the case for Scottish independence.

Tom Nairn, author of The Break-up of Britain, veteran of the cause, put succinctly Scotland’s independence moment at the Edinburgh Lecture of 2008, hosted by first minister Alex Salmond. The old question: “Are you big enough to survive and develop in an industrialising world?” has been replaced with: “Are you small and smart enough to survive, and claim a positive part in the common global culture?” How can you achieve that without independence, Nairn asked? Scotland must take its place as one of “the nations of a new and deeply different age”. This is a soaring dove argument, proof of the “vision thing” which nationalists claim unionists don’t have. Released from the United Kingdom’s confinement, Scotland will fly onwards and upwards.

For sceptics this dove was Kant’s in The Critique of Pure Reason: “The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.” And the course of the referendum campaign has witnessed such a falling to earth because of the space between vision and practice.

Like an army

A nation, like an army, marches on its stomach. On the practical “stomach” issues, the SNP proposed unions if not Union. Currency union, social union – even keeping the university research funding system – were intended to make independence risk free. Once it became clear currency union had no wings, independence policy options have struggled to fly. Peter Kellner of YouGov put it starkly. Barring catastrophe for the No campaign “Scotland will vote to remain in the United Kingdom, and by a decisive enough margin to settle the matter for many years to come”.

Here is one delicious irony. A No vote in September will represent a positive expression of Scotland’s place in the UK, unparalleled since 1707. Moreover, it has breathed new life into thinking about the Union, reflection on what the historian Colin Kidd has called “the vast and variegated middle ground” between centralisation and independence. An excellent example of this is the report published last May by the Scottish Conservatives’ Commission on the Future governance of Scotland and endorsed by British prime minister David Cameron. That report argues that the Scottish parliament should become responsible for setting rates and bands of income tax as well as supplementing welfare benefits. In general outline, these proposals are close to the “devo-more” strategy of the Labour-linked think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. They are rapidly becoming the settled view of all UK parties of government. It just happens to correspond with the public centre of gravity according to Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys: further devolution but not independence. A YouGovpoll in June shows the majority of Scots think that is exactly what they will get if they vote “No”. Chairman of the Conservative Commission Lord Strathclyde also identifies another emerging political consensus. He notes that after 15 years of ad hoc constitutional change, there is a need for clear divisions of responsibility and accountability between institutions across the UK. The recommendation is to establish a “Committee of all the Parliaments and Assemblies of the United Kingdom” to complement devolution with stronger Union. Similarly, a “constitutional convention” has been proposed by Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones and former Scottish first minister Lord McConnell has called for a “conference on the Union”. After the vote on September 18th there will also be an imperative to address the English question and to recognise England’s distinctive voice in the UK. The McKay Commission report last year proposed English MPs should have greatest influence over England-only laws. Though its recommendations have been parked by the coalition pending the outcome of the Scottish referendum the issue will not go away. Northern Ireland’s political parties will also need to engage in this process. None of them can afford to ignore the debates about the changing architecture of the UK. Indeed in language familiar to politicians in Northern Ireland, but of value now throughout the Union, it is obvious that multinational institutions are sustained on the basis of consent. Of course, there is still much work ahead to reconcile the policy choices of enhanced devolution with the common interests of Union. And there is no certainty politicians are up to the task.

Irish Home Rule

It was once said of the damnable task of making Irish Home Rule work that it would need the brains of a Gladstone and the balls of a Munster fusilier. That formula, if not personnel, applies still.

Nevertheless, if the precise shape of the post-referendum Union is unclear, one paradoxical term best describes it. That term is elective affinity: “elective” which suggests deliberate choice; “affinity” which implies that individuals and systems are related by something other than choice.What the Scottish referendum will show is that component nationalities can elect to stay in constitutional relationship; and that relationship exhibits affinities which give continued substance to British identity.

Arthur Aughey is professor of politics at the University of Ulster and author of The Politics of Englishness (2007) and The British Question (2013) both published by Manchester University Press.

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