The Guardian view on the Act of Union: time to reimagine the United Kingdom

Posted By: July 11, 2016

The Guardian Editorial. Sunday, July 10, 2016

New ideas for a federal relationship between England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales should get a proper debate going about the post-Brexit union.
In the heat of the EU referendum argument, too little attention was paid to the consequences of Brexit for the relationship between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the aftermath of the vote, most minds have been focused on Britain’s relations with Europe and turmoil in British domestic politics. Once again, the impact of Brexit on our shared union of nations has been forced to play a distant and sometimes scarcely audible second fiddle.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, unsurprisingly, there is more awareness than in England of the impact that Brexit may have on the union. This might take the shape of a second independence referendum in Scotland. There might be new border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But it is perhaps now beginning to dawn on the English too that Brexit threatens to unbalance and reshape a Britain out of the EU.

The union, in short, is in danger of breaking apart in a fit of absence of mind. Of course, challenges to the constitutional and political cohesion of the United Kingdom long predate the vote on Europe. Devolution has been an issue in Scotland and Wales for more than 40 years. Britain as a whole might have voted to leave the EU, but the different results in the different nations again underline, as the 2015 election also did, that the Britishness of politics may be a thing of the past. Ours is becoming more than ever a disunited kingdom.

The way that these issues now play out will depend on the imagination and good faith that the public realm in all four parts of the UK can bring to bear on them. If past experience is a guide, the process will otherwise largely be both ad hoc and uneven. The strongest national and regional voices will demand most and get most from the UK government, while the least assertive will get least. If real care is not taken, Scotland, in particular, could decide that the time has come to become an independent nation, with huge implications for the whole of Britain.

It does not have to be this way. An all-party group of present and former members of the House of Lords and others have recently been working on a different approach. Under the aegis of the Constitution Reform Group and convened by the former Conservative minister Lord Salisbury, this group, which includes crossbench as well as political peers, has drawn up a new draft Act of Union, in the form of a parliamentary bill, which will be published this week.

The fundamental rethink at the bill’s heart is that the peoples of the four nations should decide to pool their sovereignty in a new United Kingdom for a set of specified purposes, while retaining the power to decide for themselves on all other issues. The shared purposes might include, subject to agreement, the constitutional monarch as head of state, national security, foreign affairs, defence, human rights, immigration, the supreme court, the currency, a central bank, some taxation powers, and the civil service. Options, including a separate parliament or a more evolutionary city and regional approach, are proposed for England. The current House of Lords might be replaced in various ways. But the relationship would be explicitly federal.

This bill is far from the last word on the best way to reshape the UK. It is one of several initiatives seeking to give the different parts of the country as much power as they jointly choose, while pooling sovereignty in a new and freely created federal-style union. It is bottom-up, rather than the top-down approach that has created much of the current imbalance and constitutional stress. It is potentially a stronger and more consensual model than the existing one. It is a possible basis for a much-needed shared discussion across the UK about a more appropriate and modern form of union based on popular sovereignty. The Guardian has championed these issues for long years. Now their time has come.