It is often imagined that a potential break-up of the United Kingdom might originate from Scotland, after a “No” vote on Britain’s EU membership. In fact, the biggest threat to the UK’s unity could reside in a more assertive England, writes Melanie Sully.
Dr Melanie Sully is a British political scientist and director of the Vienna-based Institute for Go-Governance. This article first appeared in Die Presse on 21 January.
It is often imagined that in the event of a “No” to Europe, the Scots would demand a second independence referendum thus heralding the break-up of the United Kingdom. Edinburgh will “not be dragged out of the EU against its will” is the refrain of many leaders of the Scottish National Party (SNP).
Quite apart from the fact that such constitutional matters reside in London, the Scots might be ill-advised to rush into another bruising referendum. Scotland will soon get more financial autonomy – the option that many wanted – and falling oil prices mean a less secure future alone.
But the catalyst for a possible fragmentation of the United Kingdom could come from south of the border, from England. Indeed this process has already begun.
After the Scottish referendum in 2014, Prime Minister Cameron stood on the doors of Number 10 Downing Street and proclaimed, “we have heard the voice of Scotland and now we must listen to the voice of England”. The anomaly that Scottish Members of Parliament have a say in English affairs but not the other way round, has been for decades a thorn in the flesh of many. Now changes in the parliamentary rules of procedure exclude those sitting for Scottish constituencies from some parts of the legislative process when deliberating on English matters affecting mainly SNP members.
Now a debate is raging on a separate English national anthem in addition to “God save the Queen”, the UK anthem. A majority polled favour an old hymn “Jerusalem” often sung at the end of Labour Party conferences and preferred also by David Cameron. With more autonomy being granted to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, England is struggling to avoid being the “bit left over”.
The Conservative government also plan to introduce a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act introduced by a Labour government. Experts have noted though that this would in effect be reduced to an English Bill since human rights provisions are anchored in the respective legal systems in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Whatever happens after the referendum on the UK’s relation with the European Union, the country is already entering a process of decentralisation which could propel it along the road to a quasi-federal state the likes of which are unknown in the world today. With 85% of the population in England, this type of federalism would face many challenges.
The United Kingdom has for centuries survived through an lopsided financial arrangements and political imbalance. With more powers being granted to the periphery it could well be paradoxically that Edinburgh might be more inclined to keep the status quo and England increasingly impatient for change.
The English voice is beginning to be heard. It is this which could bring about the disintegration of the UK not the Irish, the Welsh or the Scots.