Joined-up writing on the wall

October 2, 1998

Devolution could herald the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom. reports Alan Thomson

BRITAIN's constitutional map faces the most significant revision since modern parliamentary government emerged after the Glorious Revolution 300 years ago. Now academics are warning that the reforms Labour is making in local and national government could herald the break-up of the United Kingdom: Labour may be unable to control the forces it has unleashed.

By 2007, the end of a probable second Labour term:

* Scotland might be fully independent

* Northern Ireland and Wales might have secured more powers for their assemblies

* Hereditary peers might not exist in the House of Lords

* MPs might be elected by proportional representation

* Britain might have ceded key powers to Europe.

Devolution - the creation of parliaments for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales - is the driver for radical reform, striking at Britain's constitutional heart. At risk are the very acts of union between England and its neighbours. Devolution was designed as a bulwark against full independence, but unionists, including the prime minister, know it is a leap in the dark.

In Scotland, polls put the Scottish National Party ahead of Labour in the run-up to May's parliamentary elections. If the SNP leads the new body, it will push for complete independence.

Ben Seyd, senior research fellow at University College London, believes devolution is a terrible gamble. "The government has adopted a finger-in-the-dyke approach (to nationalist demands) but there is a dynamic in the process that the government will try to control and will find difficult." His colleague Mads Qvortrup agrees, citing the experience of Spain, where devolution begun in 1979 has resulted in 17 autonomous regions. The Spanish national government had hoped to cool separatist ardour by strictly defining the regions' powers. Nonetheless some regions, notably Catalonia, are inching towards full independence. Many national politicians viewed the creation of a Catalan commissar for foreign relations in 1992 as a "deliberately provocative" move that threatened Spain's constitution. Could Britain break up in this way?

What has been decided so far is that the Scotland Bill will hand to the Scottish Parliament responsibility for everything bar defence, foreign affairs, social security, employment legislation, macroeconomic affairs and transport safety. The devil, however, is in the detail. Any grey areas - those defining Scotland's relationship with overseas countries, for instance - will very likely be exploited by the Scots, particularly if the SNP leads parliament. The UCL team of constitutional researchers believes that this will lead to legal challenges in Europe.

The Northern Irish and Welsh assemblies are also likely to seek more powers. And following the establishment of the national assemblies, many English regions could seek democratic assemblies. The outcome? A fractured United Kingdom.

John Barnes, who lectures on British and European government at the London School of Economics, is pessimistic: "I just despair of the way this government is approaching constitutional reform. It is not joined-up thinking. They are painting a picture by joining dots and have no idea what it will look like when complete. A Europe of regions is a recipe for more centralised European power. God help us in that situation."

How the constitution might change

* The House of Lords

Reform is stalking the House of Lords. The government pledged to scrap the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the upper chamber in its election manifesto, ending 600 years of constitutional history. The manifesto also promised to review how life peers are chosen so that the chamber reflects general election voting patterns.

Since Labour's election, the House of Lords has done little to endear itself to the government. Although banned by the 1911 Parliament Act from blocking money bills, peers still cause trouble - as when they thwarted the Teaching and Higher Education Bill.

A cabinet subcommittee is discussing how the Lords could be made more democratically legitimate. One possibility is that some members could be elected directly and the rest nominated by political parties. Firm plans are expected by the end of the first parliament.

London University historian Conrad Russell, an hereditary peer, believes that Tony Blair is unlikely to favour a second chamber with genuine powers to revise legislation. "I should imagine this would be the last thing Mr Blair would want. He believes in quiescent parliament."

* Electoral reform

Labour's electoral chances could be damaged by proposals to change the system of voting in general elections. The Jenkins Commission is due to report in the autumn on alternatives to the current first-past-the-post system. It is likely to recommend that the distribution of seats between parties in the Commons more accurately reflect the proportions of votes cast. The government has promised a referendum on voting reform.

Opponents of full-blown proportional representation point out that it tends to lead to weaker coalition government and to inflate the role of small parties. Philip Norton, professor of government at Hull University, argues that electoral reform is a huge threat to the UK constitution. Lord Norton says the first-past-the-post system delivers the government voters want and makes it relatively easy for them to reject it if they are dissatisfied. "Accountability in the Commons would be destroyed under proportional representation," he says. "The electorate would have more choice over MPs but less over the government. It would be harder to vote out an unpopular government because of deals and coalitions between parties."

David Butler, fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, who advised the Jenkins Commission on proportional voting systems, disagrees. "The government is venturing into uncertain territory. There is the danger of unnecessary change. But we are a civilised people who would learn to work with any new system."

* Bill of rights

By 2007, the government might have approved a Bill of Rights, which would form the core of a United States-style written constitution.

Such a bill would abolish delegated legislation that allows the government to write in regulations to major acts without further parliamentary consultation. It would also end the guillotine procedure - which allows a government to railroad problematic bills through the Commons - and the Royal Prerogative, which gives government the right to act without recourse to parliament during "emergencies".

SCOTLAND

Neil MacCormick's Scotland - bagpipes, Irving Welsh and gravadlax Nationalist Neil MacCormick is fiercely proud of Scottish culture and traditions, but his patriotism is an intrinsic part of his commitment to Europe.

Highlander-turned-lowlander MacCormick was born in Argyllshire, went to university in Glasgow and is now professor of public law at Edinburgh University. He is deputy constitutional spokesman of the Scottish Nationalist Party. "I am a citizen of both Scotland and Europe. We require to be part of a new Europe as a member state in our own right rather than as part of a member state," he says.

It is the hallmark of today's nationalists that they look inwards and outwards and backwards and forwards at the same time. Rabbie Burns, bagpipes and haggis are as valid to modern Scottish nationalists as Irving Welsh, dance music and the wild salmon gravadlax sold in Europe's delicatessens.

MacCormick says: "We have a rich cultural heritage but contemporary Scots culture embraces far more. Democratic self-government requires a sense of community and belonging. Used appropriately, symbols and history are a way of reflecting that. Nationalism can be accompanied by extreme evils but then so can capitalism and socialism."

He believes devolution will open the door to full independence. "I do not think devolution is a permanent and stable solution. It is difficult to imagine a federal system in which one state comprises 80 per cent of the total. Independence arising from devolution over time would be the best outcome for the nation."

ENGLAND

David Starkey's England - no longer beer and cricket

Nations are founded on myths and England has killed its own, says historian David Starkey.

Starkey, a history lecturer at the London School of Economics, says that England as a nation is dead. It exists only in people's minds. Images of warm beer, cricket and the empire are historical constructions, and England has lost its sense of itself.

"England has become like Rome. We gave the world a language, a system of government and law but now we are being overtaken by our own empire. I have a strong historical sense of England but no contemporary picture. We are not even defined by our language because English is international," he says.

Starkey says that sentimental Scots and Welsh nationalism are defined by race and language but that these are irrelevant in England. Englishness may have been defined once by the empire and the upper classes but both have vanished, taking the English people's sense of identity with them. "We have got to get round to the idea that nations die. They become monuments, and shells."

But there is hope. "We have a degree of openness and internationalism that is extraordinary. If one looks at the City and the many non-English influences in industry and contemporary culture, these generate very little of the hostility one finds in other countries."

WALES

Derec Llwyd Morgan's Wales - daffodils, miners' buyouts and eisteddfods

Derec Llwyd Morgan says that Taffies, daffodils and leeks are stereotypical symbols of Wales and Welshness. Morgan, principal of the University of Wales Aberystwyth, is more interested in real Welsh culture and the hard realities of economic and political self-determination.

"National caricatures are always drawn from outside. But if you are Welsh you do not think in terms of daffodils or Taffies. I think in terms of real political necessity as well as things tied to language and culture," he says.

Morgan grew up as a native Welsh speaker but it was in the Labour dominated industrial coalfields. Is it not then surprising that he chose nationalism over socialism?

"My family was non-political," he says. "My politics arrived in my teens when neighbouring coal-mines were being closed down because of coal board incompetence. Nationalists were calling for a miners' buyout. This made sense, and since then I never really considered belonging to another party. Perhaps that was remiss of me."

Morgan, former chairman and president of the national eisteddfod, hopes that the Welsh assembly will be able to secure more powers for itself over time. "The assembly must act as a civil service and look at the needs of Wales. In this way it will be able to gather greater powers for itself. The assembly must work towards a goal."

NORTHERN IRELAND

Arthur Aughey's Ireland - Belfast, existentialism and a karaoke nationalism

Many Protestants living in Northern Ireland worry about their national identity. Some, like Arthur Aughey, prefer to forge a psychological attachment to the city of Belfast rather than to a province torn between the competing claims of mainland Britain and a united Ireland.

As a Protestant Unionist, Aughey, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster, is not Irish if by Irish one means shillelaghs, folk music, horse racing and Guinness. He identifies first and foremost with Belfast. "Irishness is such a devilishly contested notion. We were an urban family and that's very important in Northern Ireland. I was a Belfast person, a city person."

He does not feel particularly alienated from Irish culture and language - it is just that they play no part in his life. "The turning point for me was reading Jean-Paul Sartre when I was young. The city gave me space to be my own person. "Many Protestants do worry about their identity. What has developed as a consequence of this anxiety is a sort of karaoke nationalism. The Irish have all the best tunes, and we have to sing along.

"I suppose Britishness is the Ulster Protestant's equivalent of Scottishness, Welshness and Englishness. The problem is Britishness harks back to an imperial past, which the rest of the UK has forgotten about but is still alive and well in Northern Ireland."

Aughey believes the future of the UK is unsettled and that the Scots hold the key to the future of the union. "We are in unknown territory. There is a possibility that if Scotland goes independent the UK could disintegrate."

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