The messy UK may get even messier
Is an English backlash on its way after Scotland’s independence referendum? Whatever happens on September 18, the United Kingdom – already a lopsided entity since devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the late 1990s – could look even less united.
A poll of English voters by Cardiff and Edinburgh universities last week suggested a hardening of attitudes. In the event of a No vote – the likeliest outcome – there were large majorities for the view that “Scottish MPs should be prevented [from] voting on laws that apply only in England”, and that public spending in Scotland should be reduced to the UK average. These difficult issues have been described as the “mad people in the attic” of the UK constitutional debate: the West Lothian question, which asks why Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote on English affairs while English MPs cannot vote on Scottish matters; and the Barnett formula, which shares out public spending to the UK’s four nations but has failed to eliminate a gap whereby Scotland receives nearly a fifth more per head than England.
England accounts for 84 per cent of the UK population, but English resentment at what is perceived as a raw deal has grown since devolution. Could this be the moment to deal with it? Alas for reformers, actions taken by political leaders seem more likely to fuel discontent. To persuade Scots to vote No, the main UK parties have promised further tax-raising powers for the Scottish parliament. The Barnett formula, far from being scrapped or radically reformed, would stay to determine the remaining block grant.
The West Lothian question is hard to resolve. Labour MPs, in particular, fear that if anything like an English parliament were created, they could win a UK-level majority yet leave the Conservatives in control of English affairs. Even a modest proposal by the governing UK coalition’s McKay Commission for English MPs to have a consultative vote on English bills has met opposition.
Pressure is also growing to devolve more fiscal power to England’s cities but, while the rhetoric of all the main parties is in favour of this, steps towards it are very cautious.
It is tempting to seek a bold solution. Historian Linda Colley has called for “devo max” in Scotland – devolution of all powers, apart from defence and foreign affairs – coupled with a written British constitution and a new English parliament, based in the north of England.
The likelihood, though, is that change in England will come piecemeal if at all – and the UK’s messy constitutional arrangements could get messier still.
President Barack Obama recently endorsed a young girl’s suggestion to feature a woman on printed US currency. The chances of that happening are more remote than in the UK, where Jane Austen is to appear on the next £10 note after a campaign. So far the only woman to have graced a US bill is Martha Washington. The nation’s first first lady was featured on the face of the $1 silver certificate in 1886.
Candidates have to be dead. The same line-up has been on the bills since 1929, including ex-presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, and founding fathers Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Alternatives have been suggested such as civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks or aviator Amelia Earhart, but any change looks a long way off.
How one yearns for a true “silly season” of slow news. August has lived up to its gruesome reputation for delivering the opposite, with Islamist atrocities in Iraq, conflict in Gaza, fighting in eastern Ukraine, an Ebola outbreak in Africa and race riots in the US.
It has often been thus. August brought the start of the first world war (1914), Hiroshima (1945), the crushing of the Prague Spring (1968), Richard Nixon’s resignation after Watergate (1974), Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait (1990), Princess Diana’s death (1997), the start of the financial crisis (2007) and Russia’s invasion of Georgia (2008).
Just about the only relief this August has been the “ice bucket challenge”, whereby celebrities are doused in aid of charity. Horror and trivia are so intermingled on social media that I half expected Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, to take the challenge.