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The United Kingdom is following an increasingly treacherous path. In truth, the last decade has revealed the Union to be in a fragile state. The Scottish independence referendum (‘IndyRef’) of 2014; the SNP success of 2015; the EU membership referendum of 2016; the bitter EU withdrawal process, and the pandemic have all, to varying degrees, highlighted the growing discord underlying contemporary Britain. 

To ignore the legacy of these events is to fundamentally misunderstand the growing social and political disharmony between the four constituent nations of the UK. For these tensions to be addressed, a paradigm shift is needed to assure economic prosperity, mutual understanding, and political reciprocity. 

Before the dilemma can be solved, however, it is first necessary to ask how we arrived at this point. The 2014 Scottish IndyRef is an important place to start for it represents – both symbolically and politically- the culmination of discourse on the breakup of the UK. 

When reflecting upon this ‘crisis’ of the British constitution, Vernon Bogdanor offered a compelling account of how the referendum had failed to adequately resolve deep legal and political quagmires. “The referendum”, he noted, “not only failed to answer the Scottish Question but invoked a constitutional debate about the English Question”. The so-called English Question, as noted by Murdo Fraser MSP for Bright Blue, is one that embodies concerns that England does not have ‘parallel’ political representation to the devolved bodies of the Celtic nations. In essence, there is a stark imbalance of representation at the heart of the constitution. 

As the last five years have shown, though, devolution is scarcely just a legal issue- it is also a cultural one. Whether it be through the polarisation of voting outcomes in Westminster- the 2015 election was the first time in British history that each nation elected different majorities- or divergence over Brexit, lopsided devolution has afforded nationalism ample space through which to undermine the basis of the Union. 

On one hand, separatism can use extended devolutionary powers to differentiate itself from a distinctly ‘British’ political identity; on the other, English populist nationalism can engineer an explicitly ‘English’ ideal borne from the repulsion of being excluded or marginalized. These dynamics often interact in dangerous ways. An excellent piece in The Economist underlines this tension: “the English feel that by pocketing more money than they deserve, the Scots are not playing fair”. With a separatist power in the Scottish Government, it is easy to understand why these grievances exist. 

In many respects, it is this conception of Englishness that has emphatically altered the politics of the Union. Data presented by Prospect Magazine highlight how those that feel ‘more English’ than ‘British’ have remade the electoral composition of England, with 70% of these ‘English identifying’ voters having voted to leave the EU. When one analyses the words of Nicola Sturgeon, it becomes clear just how much of a deep-seated division this engenders: “People in Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, but their views have been ignored”. It would seem, then, that a cultural reconciliation is a core requirement for any workable British constitutional settlement- with citizen empowerment at its heart. 

How might the disintegration of the Union be averted? There are two ways the UK can aim to forestall antipathy and promote an engaged citizenry. 

First, the UK should pursue an Act of Union. As prescribed by a bill tabled in the House of Lords in 2018, an ‘Act of Union’ should seek “to provide a renewed constitutional form for the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to continue to join together to form the United Kingdom”. Such a reiteration of our mutual cultural, political, and civic obligations should serve as a principal reminder of the intertwined fortunes through which the foundations of our four nations are established. 

Indeed, as articulated by Murdo Fraser MSP, any Act or Charter of this kind should underline and respect the existing devolved competencies of the United Kingdom. Considering the ongoing difficulties in Northern Ireland, it would also need to replenish commitment to the cultural and legal sensitivities of the Good Friday Agreement, while also acknowledging the shifted dynamics of Brexit on Northern Ireland. 

Additionally, in establishing a renewed civic British ideal, any Act of Union could create favourable conditions for a comprehensive reform of the House of Lords. A more modern, democratic chamber would need to enhance political representation in England, while drawing Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland closer to the centralised political processes of the United Kingdom. It would also banish the problematic lack of democratic legitimacy the House of Lords has in British politics. 

Second, an active development of the Sewel Convention can help to animate a more reciprocal political understanding between devolved administrations and central government. The convention, established in 1999, ensures that the UK Parliament does not pass legislation that directly impacts or interferes with the competencies of the devolved bodies. Although historically uncontroversial, the Brexit withdrawal process has fundamentally weakened the trust and cooperation assured by the Sewel Convention, further straining the relationships between the principal organs of British democracy. 

To build a healthier union, a rejuvenation of collaborative policy making must be developed, hence diluting the threat of unilateralism. As outlined by the Institute for Government, there are multiple ways through which this can be achieved. Acting on these recommendations, alongside other core reforms, could help to reaffirm the symbiotic network of mutual political, cultural, and civic interdependence that we recognise to be the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

Josh is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image:]