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The UK needs radical constitutional reform not the shock therapy of independence

The UK needs radical constitutional reform not the shock therapy of independence

In June 2014, as the Scottish independence referendum moved into top gear, the legendary Tariq Ali addressed a public meeting in Kirkcaldy.  It was one of the most memorable of that long intense campaign. The venue was St Bryce’s Church – a venerable Kirkcaldy institution.  It was the church in which Gordon Brown’s father had preached. Six years on Mark Drakeford, Wales' first minister addressed a meeting in the same venue. The similarities and contrasts are instructive.

In many respects the 2014 meeting was typical of so many at that time. Independence may have drawn people to the meeting but the discussion was unrestricted, capacious and idealistic. 

The subjects discussed included the case for and against a written constitution, merits and demerits of compulsory voting, the governance of England and even the future of Bermuda.  Independence was also discussed. And it was a discussion, not simply someone passing on his wisdom.

The two speakers, six years apart, had much in common in their critique of the UK.  Each saw the UK’s archaic, antiquated institutions favouring few, marginalising large parts of the state and excluding people from decision making. But what they proposed to address these deficiencies differed.

Tariq Ali argued for independence but not as a Scottish nationalist – he had serious reservations and concerns about the SNP – but saw independence providing what amounted to constitutional shock therapy. 

In common with a section of the English left, he thought that Scottish independence would be better for Scotland and England as a vote for independence reverberated throughout the UK.  The argument appealed to many who shared the critique and could see no alternative.

Mark Drakeford is wary of shock treatment but wants change. He proposes a radical alternative without the shock of independence. 

Anyone listening only to him over the years talking about his identity could be forgiven for thinking he was a card-carrying member of Plaid Cymru. But far from seeing any incompatibility between his Welsh identity and support for a reformed Union, his vision was of a state that more than accommodated national and regional identities but would give authoritative and effective voice to these communities and peoples at all times. The aim is to ensure that regardless of who is in power, no community or group of people should feel excluded.

As followers of Welsh politics are aware, he has little truck with romantic British nationalism.  His support for a reformed union is instrumental, informed by fairness, social justice and solidarity – principles that has informed a lifetime of political engagement by Tariq Ali.

Much has happened in the six years between these two visits. We have had four prime ministers and a Brexit referendum with accompanying chaos and crisis as well as a pandemic. 

These six years have concentrated minds and we have seen the development of political movements with common grievances and aspirations. 

Back in the 1970s, the ‘Geordie revolt’ in the north of England helped put paid to Scottish and Welsh devolution. Many people in Scotland and the north of England had similar grievances but were antagonistic towards each other. 

The leaders of Tyne and Wear Council felt that devolution would favour Scotland and Wales at the expense of their area and orchestrated opposition. The Northern Group of Labour MPs were more united in what they opposed ie Scottish devolution than in what they then supported.

But by 1997 it was not unknown to see campaigners from the north of England along with Welsh devolutionists on pro-devolution demonstrations in Scotland.  The antagonism had gone. 

Central government in London – out of touch and out of sympathy with Scotland, Wales and the north of England – was acknowledged but there remained a lack of common purpose. In 1997, Scotland voted emphatically for a Parliament, Wales did so narrowly though for a weaker body and the north of England emphatically rejected an even more watered down Assembly in a referendum in 2004. Debates in these parts of the UK took place in constitutional silos.

But today what has emerged for the first time is a loose alliance across the UK in favour of change that both permits diversity but appreciates the need for some common. 

The core problem is being addressed recognising that devolution on its own is not enough.  There needs to be reform at the centre, the source of common grievances. There remain differences in what should be devolved to the components parts of the UK and the institutional for it should take, an understanding that a symmetrical system is not desired and a willingness to ensure that diversity of demand should be reflected institutionally.

Constitutional shock therapy has less appeal to many who might have supported it in 2014.  There is an alternative that now commands wider support and a very real prospect of implementation. 

Even if the SNP fails to achieve its goal of 50 per cent support at the next election, there is awareness that offers a short breathing space to get on with reform that should not be missed.  Failure to reform will simply return us in a short time to familiar grievances, the sense that large parts of the UK are excluded.

There is a further lesson from the last six years. The experience of Brexit has shown that shocks with sufficient forward planning lead to chaos. There can be no certainty that constitutional shock therapy would result in reformed institutions and more progressive politics. Quite the reverse is at least as likely and that would be bad news for those people and places that currently feel excluded.

Tariq Ali and Mark Drakeford come from very different traditions in progressive politics but share a critique of many of the failings of UK politics. Recent developments show that radical constitutional reform rather than constitutional shock therapy is now on the agenda as never before.

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