Britain exiting the Union … and moving towards it

By | June 29, 2016

One of the paradoxes of the narrow vote by people in the UK to ask for a BREXIT is that in fact the worst (and again unfounded) fears of those arguing to leave the European Union may come true. Unless the resolution is cathartic by way of a separation of Scotland (and possibly other parts of the UK), from England, the unitary state of the UK may well transform itself fully and finally into a model of several nations bound by clear levels of power sharing, subsidiary decision-making and mutual accountability for a greater common good. This, for want of a long phrase, would be a federal Britain, working on the same principles on which the EU, however imperfectly, aspires to run.

Next to the misleading argument about immigration the ages old argument against the EU has been its alleged high degree of bureaucracy and lack of democracy. With the exception of London and many other large cities, this has made a lot of people in England prefer the Leave option. Evidently views were different in other parts of the UK, Scotland very clearly, Northern Ireland on aggregate, and even in parts of Wales, and also younger people tended to be more inclined to Remain.

So what will happen next? Commentators are pointing out how limited the constitutional value of a referendum in Britain may be and point towards the Westminster Parliament as the place where such decisions not only ought to be taken, but where they also have to be taken for them to become binding. The Scottish Government is exploring whether there are issues of Holyrood consent to any effective decision to leave the EU to be considered. Private and public financial institutions in the UK and elsewhere are bracing themselves for long periods of instability, and EU leaders reflect on ways to prevent contagion and address some of the core problems exposed more radically than ever by the BREXIT vote.

Within the UK the EU referendum has shown how the spatial and generational distribution of voting population and the clinging to the myth of a unitary state based on a centralised power jar with a growing reality of diversity of viewpoints based on regional differentiation and age informed perspectives on the future. These realities are by now part and parcel of the constitutional settlement. Devolution, i.e. the gradual and careful move of powers to regional legislative assemblies, has been part of the UK’s political trajectory for well over two decades, moving at different speeds depending on the individual circumstances, so evident for Northern Ireland for instance.

To date the UK has tried to deal with the question of meaningful subsidiarity in decision-making in a typically British way: gradual decisions made through ordinary laws agreed in Westminster. It has always been important for Westminster to maintain the possibility to go back a few steps, and never relinquish any power for good. Discussions about the potentially explosive impact of Westminster amending the Scotland Act of 2016 without consent of the devolved administration in order to withdraw powers from Holyrood that the Scottish Government may be invoking in relation to the potential EU exit are a perfect proof. All is dealt with well within the unwritten constitutional settlement of the UK which is so arcane that while there is a sense of essence of what the UK’s constitution may be amongst many, only a tiny minority even in politics fully grasps its intricacies, possibilities and limitations. Above all though there is little appetite in the political establishment, which on this point includes very much UKIP, to upset the British exceptionalism which characterises it all, and keeps challenges to real and enduring shifts of power away from Westminster well at bay.

But for how long will this still be true? One of the drivers of the European Union has been, despite accusations against it of being aloof and democratically distant from EU citizens across different countries, to hold governments within the Union to account over common principles and standards which were agreed jointly and to the benefit of citizens. Consider employment and labour laws, environmental standards, or pricing of telecommunication services for instance. Mutual recognition of educational degrees, access to pensions and public services across countries, and not least abolition of tariffs and customs in the single market are others. Exacting transparency and explanations involves in many cases a challenge to governments to explain not only in Brussels but even more at home to their own electorate why they would not adhere to laws and standards that they themselves had agreed to. The BREXIT advocates in the higher echelons of the political establishment in Britain root their resistance to Europe not so much on the substantive questions addressed in EU laws and standards, but in the unwillingness to be held accountable and be transparent in their own political decision-making to more than just those who have direct electoral power over them, and whose opinions are easier to directly influence in national level campaigning and communications.

However, the people outside this first and inner circle of constituents are nevertheless big stakeholders of national politics of important countries. What the UK does (or what Germany does) affects people all across Europe, and within the UK, from all across Europe. What happens in Greece is rightfully a European matter. In addition, the first circle of direct constituents is arguably becoming smaller, and new intermediate ‘rings’ are established between what used to be a unitary national sphere, where people related to their politicians as a more or less empowered electorate, and between them and people in other countries who had interests in the politics of a given nation, but no say. Regions today command loyalties which do not always gravitate towards the national whole anymore. The referendum has exposed again that the Westminster authority for the whole of the UK is increasingly challenged if Westminster does not demonstrate regard and respect for those who feel distant of it in their political identity, while part of the sphere Westminster seeks to govern. Certainly many people of Scotland feel like this, and so do on many differentiated issues people in Wales and Northern Ireland.

So unless the febrile mood leads Scotland to separate rapidly in spirit and eventually in law, and if some form of wider political, cultural and social unity of the UK should remain a common good that people across its nations (and some regions such as Cornwall) would seek to preserve, it could only be done on the basis of a federal Union, based on clear and mutual accountabilities: the same thing that the UK apparently dislikes  most about the idea of an ever closer political coming together in Europe.

It requires some changes, but mainly three big ones: a readiness of Westminster to genuinely and irrevocably cede key powers to regions or nations within the UK, powers for that matter which make a difference to people day to day lives and their ability to shape their own future; a willingness to address important questions about a joint future on the basis of a respect of regional difference of interests, settings, and identity; and to codify the mutual principles of accountability in simple and broadly intelligible ways so that they can serve as a basis of citizens challenging those in power: a written constitution.

Inevitably simple relative majority decision-making will show itself as inadequate as centralised decision-making on all key questions by a central Parliament caught up in the vestiges of a unitary state which does not reflect the reality of lives and political aspirations of empowered decision-making of people anymore today.

Political solutions inspired by power-sharing, subsidiarity and respect for difference, call it federalism or something else if you must, are more effective not because the people in them are more clever, but if often provides the time to spend more time with the problem before making a decision, and work out a good way forward that takes a wider range of interests into account.

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