To keep the UK united we need a coherent vision of the union and its advantages


David Cameron’s response to the overwhelming success of the Scottish National party in taking 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the UK election this month has been to propose what he describes as content. It is as inept a reaction as the “vow” to the Scottish electorate by him and other unionist party leaders — hastily concocted just before last year’s referendum — to implement further devolution made by the party leaders.

The Conservative prime minister is making the same mistake as Lord Robertson did in 1995 in setting out the plan for devolution that the Labour government implemented after its election two years later. As Labour’s shadow secretary of state for Scotland, he proclaimed it would “kill nationalism stone dead”. It did precisely the opposite.

If you want to keep the UK united, you need to provide a coherent vision of the union and its advantages, not drain the concept of union of any content. The essence of a sustainable union is a common identity and the solidarity that follows from shared values. Against cries of nationalism, you must set out the claim that everyone in the UK should enjoy similar rights and responsibilities.

The nature of union is the subject America’s founding fathers debated so constructively more than two centuries ago. The UK needs a similar discussion. The report by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, to which I contributed, is an attempt to begin that process.

US states are fiscally autonomous but federal authority imposes common policies across the nation. President Barack Obama’s health reforms are the result of federal legislation, even if much implementation is left to the state. There is no explicit mechanism of redistribution of resources among states; but there is a good deal of implicit redistribution to households, through national policies such as social security, and to other levels of government through federal funding of national policies.

Most other countries treat redistribution among their devolved governments as an essential component of union. In Germany, this is an explicit constitutional principle. A loose confederation such as Switzerland makes transfers from richer to poorer cantons but these cantons are largely free to spend as they think fit. This degree of solidarity is precisely that which citizens of the EU are not yet ready to envisage, and why the EU is very far from being a unitary state.

A more extensive form of solidarity compensates for differences in needs as well as differences in resources. Rural areas, and deprived urban communities, need more expenditure to achieve the same level of provision. Australia’s grants commission attempts to parcel out central government funds on an objective basis to states and territories.

Thus there are several principled ways of expressing solidarity and distributing central resources within a devolved system. The present and proposed system for the UK, however, reflects no principle at all: it takes as a base the allocations of expenditure in 1977-78 (sic) and applies a variety of increasingly large and arbitrary adjustments — thereby creating a certain source of future disagreements.

There are, indeed, large problems in moving to any more rational basis. One is that almost any objective formula leaves Scotland worse off. Another is that, as England accounts for the bulk of the UK by population and income, any assessment of resources or needs in the other parts of the union will be dominated by policy choices made for England, leaving no room to define issues that affect England alone.

But the all too likely outcome of policy choices announced without sufficient thought for consequences is a steady erosion of the solidarity needed to make stable union possible. Perhaps the Scottish election showed that we have already reached that point of no return.


This article was first published in the Financial Times on May 27th, 2015.

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