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Edinburgh v. Westminster: what about the rest of the UK?


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David Cameron is adamant that the Westminster parliament has the legal right to play a role in the Scottish independence referendum. Why, then, should the wider Westminster electorate be denied a say in the outcome?

There has long been a debate over the plausible separation of the United Kingdom, and the role Westminster should play in this. The Scottish National Party (SNP) accuses the Prime Minister of a 'blatant attempt to interfere' with Scotland's 'right' to determine the timing of an independence referendum. As Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon put it, 'The decision on the future of Scotland should be for the Scottish people. That's democracy.' While few would deny Scotland's right to participate in the determination of its constitutional future, if democracy is key, then the decision should not solely be made north of the border. The Act of Union of 1707 was a bilateral affair, with two signatories. Any decision on the future of the Union should be made by all the people of that union, Scottish and English. That would be democracy.

However, insisting upon the democratic right of the rest of Britain to a say in the future of the 1707 Union, raises the complicated question of the democratic rights of the rest of the wider United Kingdom, and in particular Northern Ireland. In the current wrangling between Westminster and Edinburgh, the rights of, and consequences for, the rest of the UK have been totally overlooked. In 1707, when the Kingdom of Great Britain was formally created, Ireland was not constitutionally bound to the British mainland; this came later in 1801. Ireland, having seceded first from the 1801 Union and later from the UK altogether, provides a useful case study for Scotland today. Would the six counties still attached to the UK technically have a right to participate in a referendum on changes to the Union? Each stage in Ireland's independence required fresh legislation in Westminster to define the remaining union. The 1949 Ireland Act specified that Northern Ireland could not cease to be a part of the UK without the permission of its devolved parliament. It gave Northern Ireland the right to a say in the future composition of the UK. A response to the declaration of an Irish Republic, the Act was designed to protect Northern Ireland's identity and the territorial integrity of the UK. Could this Act justify Northern Ireland's participation in a referendum on the future of a Union it had no original part in? Were Scotland to achieve independence, the Act sets a precedent for a legal divorce between the UK and one of its constituent parts. It suggests that Scottish independence might necessitate new legislation to define the parameters and future rights of the remaining rump of the UK.

The Scottish government frequently argues that it was returned with a decisive mandate to pursue an independence referendum. Mandate is a tricky thing. When Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone introduced his first Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886, his critics maintained that he had no mandate to do so, having failed to make his 'conversion' to Home Rule known ahead of the 1885 general election. When he based his 1886 general election campaign on his support for a devolved Irish parliament, Gladstone lost. Reacting to his party's defeat - especially heavy in English constituencies - Gladstone consoled himself that Scotland had returned a majority of Liberal MPs. He held England responsible for the defeat of Home Rule and comforted himself that the more enlightened Scots were better able to understand the importance of Irish Home Rule. By pitting England against the rest of the UK Gladstone contradicted his own claim that Home Rule would establish greater overall unity. Home Rule could not truly unite the Kingdom if, electorally and rhetorically, the English majority at Westminster could override the other three nations.

Unsurprisingly, Gladstone's rhetoric did little to stifle the development of a parallel movement for Scottish Home Rule. Salmond, in the SNP's latest guide to independence, refers to devolution as 'home rule' - the language of nineteenth century nationalists. He argues that independence would bring about a partnership of equals with other nations, something the Scottish Home Rulers of the 1880s and 1890s also demanded. They argued that England had been a 'predatory partner' in the Union. Worried that Scotland was being provincialised by a conservative English nation uninterested in dealing with Scottish grievances in an overburdened and ill-equipped 'Imperial Parliament', they campaigned for a devolved parliament. A Scottish parliament, in common with Gladstone's plan for Ireland, would have the power to resolve specifically national issues.

But opponents of Gladstone's plan argued that Irish affairs could not fundamentally be separated from those of Westminster and the British Empire. Much of the debate on Irish Home Rule was dominated by the question of whether or not to retain a contingent of Irish MPs at Westminster. Among Scottish politicians and observers, fears were raised that, if retained, Irish MPs would be able to interfere in Scottish affairs, while Scottish MPs would have no such finger in the Irish pie. These concerns, together with the Home Rulers' parallel campaign for a Scottish parliament, suggested that Scottish affairs, unlike those of the Irish, could be separated from those of Britain and the Empire.

A belief in the existence of uniquely distinguishable Scottish affairs still lies at the heart of the argument against the Union with England. At the end of the nineteenth century, Home Rulers were a minority in a Scotland dominated by unionist-nationalists. Squeezed out, they became deviant nationalists, supporting Home Rule in defiance of mainstream opinion. Salmond has a majority where the deviant nationalists did not, and control of the very parliament the nineteenth-century Home Rulers worked for. But what he does not have is a mandate from, or a majority in, the rest of the UK. Nationalists held 86 of Ireland's 103 Westminster seats in 1886, yet Gladstone's opponents baulked at his attempt to force through a Home Rule policy that they believed ran against public opinion in the wider UK. Gladstone sought a mandate for Irish Home Rule from the whole of the UK; Salmond and Cameron should do the same. Gladstone lost; let UK-wide democracy decide whether Salmond or Cameron should win the day.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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