Wither The Union

by on 23 August, 2011

Crb Craig Buchanan looks at the UK, the EU and Federalism:

The casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that Britain has been coming apart at the seams of late.  First there were the parliamentary scandals – resignations by the London bus load, and Members of Parliament arrested, while luckier colleagues were forced to pay back thousands in misappropriated (taxpayer) funds.  Then Scotland threatened to vote with its feet, electing the first majority government at Holyrood committed to eventual independence and the end of the Union.  And now the good people of not only London, but also Birmingham, Liverpool, and Bristol, are cleaning up after riots, looting, and a side serving of recreational arson.  As England mops up (and the Scots, Welsh, and Irish gloat quietly to themselves) it is tempting to paraphrase that most English of musical acts, Kit and the Widow, in punning “’Whither the Union?’ they’re asking, to which the answer’s ‘yes’.”

Meanwhile, just across the Channel, Merkel and Sarkozy are busy proposing a single European government with France and Germany at its heart, ala Charlemaigne, while Britain, once the defender of European independence, looks on through the smoke.

Of one thing there can be no doubt, however.  David Cameron and his Conservative-Liberal coalition government seem committed to preserving their almost mythic Union at any cost.  Unionist to the core (the full title of Cameron’s party is, after all, the Conservative and Unionist Party, even if the Union in question harks back to the Irish Union of 1801, long since defunct, and beloved of almost no one), they have pledged to fight to preserve what they have in the face of all comers.  But are they in danger of allowing those who wish to see the break-up of the United Kingdom the upper hand?  Exactly what sort of Union should the Unionists be looking to save, or perhaps to salvage?

It may now be time for the right-of-centre, Unionist parties in the UK to take the lead, and declare exactly which parts of the Union are worth saving, and which parts they might be willing to cede to make that happen.  If Scotland’s Nationalist First Minister, Alex Salmond, can talk of Independence Lite (a plan whereby Scotland would gain 95% of the objectives for which the SNP has stood for almost a hundred years, while at one and the same time managing to avoid two or three of the most obvious pitfalls of complete sovereign status), then might it not be time for Cameron to step up to the crease and propose a Union Lite alternative?

And what better model for such an alternative than the federal structures already in place here in Australia?

Since 9/11 it has been increasingly difficult for nationalists in Scotland (the Welsh, to give them their due, have never seriously tried) to propose independent armed forces, to the point at which the SNP has fallen back for some years now on a ‘defence pact’ model, wherein Scotland and England would continue to share bases, troops, and command structures towards a common defence.  Meanwhile, in spite of strong republican leanings amongst some of its members, the SNP continues to support the retention of the Queen as Scotland’s head of state post independence.

Scotland, Northern Ireland, and (to a lesser extent) Wales already have their own devolved parliaments, their own laws, and their own levels of fiscal autonomy.  If Cameron and his Unionists want to get a lead on their detractors, they have to take the bold step, recognise that lethargy and inaction will doom the very Union they claim to love, and voluntarily cede control of those areas which are peripheral, in the name of saving that which is central and good. 

In other words, they need to come out in favour of a federal state.  Give the constituent nations fiscal autonomy.  Let them raise and spend their own taxes on what they like, and pay into a central pot to maintain defence and foreign policy commitments.  Let them run their own education systems (they already do anyway).  Let them maintain their own hospitals (ditto) and roads (ditto).  And, in the name of sanity, let them establish an equivalent body in England – a fully fledged English Parliament – to look after all those concerns south of the border, and to give the downtrodden Englishman a voice and a forum, taking the debate off the streets, and putting it back where it belongs.

And Westminster?  Let it sit three days a week, rather the way Canberra does, and let it focus on defence, border protection, and foreign policy.  In the process, it will cost the British taxpayer less, as well as allowing more time for it to do what it arguably should have been doing all along – promoting Britain, not holding it back; giving people a common voice, rather than stifling individual identities.

Union Lite, anyone?  Oh, and do pass the Pimms …


[Craig Buchanan is President of the Nedlands Branch of the WA Liberal Party.  A British ex-pat who migrated to Australia in 2003, he stood as an approved candidate for the Scottish National Party in the early 1990s, sitting slightly to the right of that party’s centralist norm]


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