How different things could have been.
The day after the independence referendum of 2014, David Cameron could have emerged from 10 Downing Street to announce a root and branch review of the constitutional settlement between England and the other nations. Instead of English votes for English laws he would have announced a consultation on an English parliament and the transformation of Westminster into a true UK parliament, with clear separation of powers and with the permanence of all the national parliaments enshrined in law.
As the constitution started to evolve to formally recognise the UK as a partnership of four equal nations, the very idea of an election campaign against the UK Labour party based on “othering” one of those nations would have been dismissed before it began. After the Scottish people returned 56 out of 59 SNP MPs to Westminster, the British establishment parties would have had the good grace to accept that a party supported by fully half of the Scottish electorate, and the party of government in Scotland, could no longer be treated with contempt as a separatist protest group. The Labour party would have recognised the importance of working with the SNP at UK level to form a truly effective opposition to the Tories.
The SNP already recognise that the first past the post electoral system doesn’t deliver fair representation of the views of the Scottish people. Knowing that the fear of almost permanent Tory rule was a big motivator for many Scots to vote for independence, UK Labour would have also realised that change was essential and they, together with the SNP and the smaller parties, would have begun to seriously campaign for proportional representation in all future Westminster elections.
When the Brexit referendum bill was passed by the UK Parliament, it would have been blatantly obvious that the larger electorate of England could not be allowed to overrule the wishes of the other three nations. The pleas of all the devolved administrations to provide for a “double majority” before the UK could leave the EU would have been accepted without question. And lo and behold, if that small and sensible change had been made, we wouldn’t be facing the looming disaster of Brexit right now.
The BBC would have reviewed their coverage of the 2014 independence referendum and concluded that the metro-centric view is not sustainable. They would have immediately moved to strengthen their coverage of the nations and the English regions. The Scottish Six (and equivalents for the other nations) would have immediately become a reality. UK political programming such as Question Time would now be taking as much care in balancing the national representation on their panels as they currently do with party representation.
See how easy this could have been? A little respect and humility is all it would take for people like me to recommit to the United Kingdom. To this “British at heart” woman, all the above just sounds like common sense. It represents the bare minimum that any of us should expect in a political union of nations, and if events had in any way resembled my hypothetical wish list then I might find myself now supporting its continuation. In fact, if events had unfolded in this way then I doubt we would be even be asking the question again.
Instead what we have now is a United Kingdom with deepening divisions. We have a Prime Minister who has shown herself incapable of joint working and compromise even within her own cabinet. For all her nauseating talk of a “deep and special partnership” with the European Union, the reality is that May’s United Kingdom doesn’t do partnership. The UK feels further away from understanding the concept of partnership with other countries than ever before, so who seriously thinks that a UK based on mutual respect and partnership between the four nations is still even a remote possibility?
We have “English votes for English laws”. We have the convention that the UK government doesn’t “normally” legislate on devolved matters lying in tatters. We have all four nations of the UK being dragged out of the EU on the most extreme terms despite two of those nations voting decisively to stay. We have the leaders of the devolved nations being all but shut out of the Brexit process. What does “taking back control” really mean? I can’t avoid the conclusion that the end game is to take back control over the constituent parts of the UK, and when the reality of that hits it will hit hard, and it will hurt.
Usually a “glass half full” person, my optimism ran out very soon after Theresa May took hold of the reins of power. The Tory government is presumably not forever, although right now it feels like it, and May’s premiership is most certainly not forever (it may not even stay the course of Brexit). But don’t be fooled into thinking we can sit tight and hope for the return of a fairer United Kingdom in the future. All the evidence is that the future will be too late. If we want to preserve the best of what we have, we must act now to refill our glass.