In the preamble to the US Constitution the Framers, on behalf of the American people, state their principal purpose: ‘to form a more perfect Union’. The implication is obvious: the Union was not perfect as it stood. Over two hundred years later, these words served in the title of a major speech by (then) Senator Obama during his campaign for the Presidency. The implication is clear again: the Union is still not perfect.
Tomorrow, another Union will be scrutinised. The people of Scotland will decide whether or not to remain part of the United Kingdom. Each side of the campaign is giving it their all in a last-ditch attempt to persuade the crucial ‘undecideds’. I do not have a vote in Thursday’s poll, but I do have a stake.
After reflecting on my own thoughts over the past months, I have found myself returning to three reasons as to why I sincerely hope the people of Scotland will say ‘no thanks’ to the prospect of independence.
In the first instance, the very notion of secession seems to me to go against the grain of late modernity. We often hear about how we live in an ever globalising world. And it’s true. Borders are of decreasing significance, at least among liberal democracies. The entire project of the European Union, of which Alex Salmond insists an independent Scotland will be a part, is about building bridges, not tearing them down. I struggle to understand why Scotland on the one hand would want to leave one Union, with such deep historical significance, only to want to be part of another Union at the European level, with only more recent significance.
Secondly, coming from Northern Ireland, I have my own personal interest in the outcome of Thursday’s referendum. Northern Ireland is, of course, a place where the issue of the Union has dominated politics for successive generations. After decades of conflict, however, the salience of the Union dimension has hardly been lower. Instead, the most pressing issues relate to how competently the Northern Ireland government at Stormont can deal with welfare reform, the health system, and regional development. The issue of the Union is not removed, of course, but there is remarkably little demand for it to be revisited anytime soon, as successive opinion polling reveals.
Scotland’s vote on Thursday is not just a matter for the people of Scotland; it is a matter that affects the whole of the UK – and even beyond. In Northern Ireland, we have just about sorted ourselves out for the medium-term. What we need most urgently is to embed good governance. Reopening the constitutional issue at this time would only be a distraction from that goal. Nothing would please better those politicians who are out of their depth in public policy issues than to return to the simplicity of Orange-Green arguments. And for Scotland, too, the real challenge is about governing well with the extensive powers it already has – with more guaranteed.
This brings me to my last point: I have not heard a single argument from the ‘Yes’ campaign that convincingly explains the need for Scotland to become an independent country. The Queen would remain Head of State, the Pound would (supposedly) remain as currency, and Scotland would (supposedly) remain within the EU. There seems to be so much risk and uncertainty (especially economically), for such little change. My question is why independence is necessary; it is a last resort, and all alternatives have not been exhausted.
In recent weeks, Scottish Nationalists have focused a great deal on the NHS, and how only an independent Scotland can prevent its privatisation. But yet control over the health service in Scotland rests squarely with the Scottish Parliament already. They have also argued that Scotland would prefer to have more progressive taxation. But greater control of taxation does not require independence, but simply a further decentralisation of powers from Westminster.
That is where the real focus should be, in my opinion. To vote for independence even before receiving the maximum devolved powers possible would be like reaching for (and pushing) the ejector button in a fighter jet because of turbulence. If you don’t want to wait it out, make changes within your control: change altitude, change speed, or change your heading. You don’t need to abandon the plane altogether. It’s just such a waste – and it’s final.
The United Kingdom is not a perfect Union. Far from it. It is a highly complex Union, made so by endless adjustments over the years, without much real overhaul. Devolution has taken place in a largely piecemeal fashion. I increasingly see the benefits of a far more consistent move towards a federal UK. The flexibility of our constitution can be a source of great strength, but it can also be very messy. If we are to pursue a more perfect Union, we need a much more formal distribution of power across our constituent parts. It will strengthen the parts, but it will also strengthen the whole. Regions of the UK can have meaningful autonomy, but yet still enjoy the benefits and security of being part of a wider family.
This is where I hope the debate will lead after tomorrow’s vote. Whatever the outcome, Scotland has shown how a constitutional debate can be conducted peacefully and in a spirit that promotes genuine public deliberation. That is not to be taken for granted, and should be celebrated. But I profoundly hope that debate can continue within the UK.
By their very names, it may seem as if the ‘Yes’ campaign offers something positive while the ‘No’ campaign merely offers the negative alternative of status quo. That is a false choice. To me, the most positive choice Scotland can make is to continue as an integral part of the UK.
Let’s work – together – towards our more perfect Union.