The Union of 1707 and the art of the deal

For Scotland, Britain was built upon a bargain. Renewing that bargain needs England to engage

Scottish exemplification of the Treaty of Union. Public domain: sourced from Wikimedia Commons

One way or another, devolution as an idea and a reality has a long history in the United Kingdom. The issue of Irish Home Rule pushed the UK’s constitutional norms to its limit (and far beyond in Ireland). Devolution had an unhappy 50-year history in Northern Ireland until 1972. Calls for a Scottish legislature surfaced many times before one was finally created.

Nonetheless, Scottish (and Welsh) devolution in 1999 was a radical act with radical implications. Some who wish to keep the UK together regret it, at least within Great Britain. The devo-sceptics often paint it as an ahistorical rupture. But the historical backdrop to devolution is far from the most important sense in which it reflects a unionist tradition. And their objections miss both the need for a democratic expression of Scottish distinctiveness and two of the hardest challenges the Union faces now.

A new variation on an old theme

Britain was built upon a bargain. Scottish politicians secured Scotland’s distinctiveness in religion, law and administration, along with free trade throughout the new kingdom and its colonies. It was an incorporating union, with one parliament at Westminster. But it was altogether unlike the Tudor Laws in Wales Acts. The legislation of 1536 and 1543 incorporated Wales into the Kingdom of England. The Union of 1707 created a composite state, with a composite nation grafted on over time. Britain in its modern sense was forged in an Anglo-Scottish crucible.

That fact has expressed itself in different ways at different times. In the eighteenth century, the Church of Scotland, the Convention of Royal Burghs and local elites played their parts. The old Scottish Office was set up as far back as 1885 and expanded as the years went by. The Church of Scotland Act 1921 effected a compromise between an anti-Erastian Kirk and a sovereign Parliament. The UK never really had one National Health Service. The Tories stood as Unionists in Scotland until 1965. (They fought elections in the 1950s pledging to protect Scottish distinctiveness against socialist centralisation.)

Legislative devolution is different, because it creates an autonomous centre of political power. But it’s still in a long line of accommodations between the British state and the Scottish nation. It’s also a balance to English preponderance within the Union. It isn’t different because British politicians made a terrible mistake. It’s different because it’s a response for a democratic rather than an oligarchic age.

I doubt Britain could ever have avoided giving Scottish distinctiveness democratic expression. (And I don’t think it should. Devolution made good democratic sense.) But two consequences are, in my view, particularly underappreciated.

Shrinking, but not improving, the British state

First, unlike previous measures, devolution does nothing to make how the British state itself operates more appealing to Scots. It only reduces the scope of its activities. But despite the role of Scottish MPs, British politics became less Scottish over time. Devolving more powers often made sense in policy terms. But it also took up all the political space marked ‘reducing Scottish discontent’.

UK governments show little interest in recognising a devolved role at the centre. The Welsh Government’s call for a UK Council of Ministers falls on deaf ears. They show no sign of, say, thinking creatively about our second chamber. (Why, unlike almost any other state with a territorial challenge, don’t we even discuss some extra seats for the smaller nations in a reformed Lords?) And the current UK Government seems determined to undermine the conventions on which devolution rests.

Pushing the Union’s balancing act into the limelight

Second, as a new political system within the UK, devolution means politicians — and political noise. It has made the balancing act on which the Union of 1707 relies conspicuous outwith Scotland. That hasn’t been the case most of the time. But whether devolution is ‘fair to England’ is now a live question, with major consequences.

A century before the Union of the Parliaments, James VI’s Scottish courtiers attracted the ire of some English MPs. The spasm of Scotophobia surrounding Britain’s first Scottish Prime Minister is well-known. ‘Into our places, states, and beds they creep/They’ve sense to get, what we want sense to keep’ was only its most famous expectoration. But that kind of thing declined as the Union bedded in. And England mostly paid little attention to how Westminster acknowledged Scotland’s distinctiveness. That has clearly changed.

Symmetry versus balance

Anyway, reforming a democratic UK so the devolved nations feel they have more of a stake needs proper consent in England. As a result, tackling the first problem means facing the second head-on. And the view that fairness lies in symmetry — embodied in ‘English votes for English laws’ — will crash headlong into the view that the UK needs to balance England’s size.

Neither view is objectively wrong. But taken to their logical conclusion, the two are incompatible. Many in Scotland take too little account of the fact that the rest of the UK is not a mere backdrop for Scotland’s debate. But most people in England — understandably, as almost no one has suggested otherwise — don’t grasp that the debate involves them too.

One way to look at the American Revolution is to say the British and their colonists were each confronted by the other’s real view of their relationship. The British idea of parliamentary sovereignty over the Empire and the colonial view of their legislatures’ rights within it had diverged. And pitted against each other, they proved incompatible.

There is a risk of something similar nearer home. But I don’t believe the gap between English and Scottish understandings of the state we share can hold forever, unarticulated and unaddressed, in a democratic era. Any modern Union bargain for Scotland will have to combine a high degree of self-rule with a fair degree of shared rule. Those are core features of federalism, whether the UK can ever be remade into a federation or not.

I don’t know whether the people of England would agree to anything like that or what they might want in return. But in the long run, the survival of the Anglo-Scottish bargain may depend upon their answer.

This post was originally published on on 21 February 2021.

Every man for himself?

The EU was partly built to check its members’ worst instincts in dealing with each other. But that only holds within its ranks

By Hofphotograph: Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The world’s scientists have worked together to find ways to fight Covid-19. Its governments have proven less collaborative so far. From backbiting over the quality of each other’s regulators to warnings of a moral failure by the developed world in the scramble for vaccines, fraternity seems in short supply. It’s dispiriting — but, at the risk of proving a cynic, unsurprising.

So I can’t say the EU’s claims that Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines currently intended for British use should be diverted surprise me much. Those claims seem to carry little weight: at the time of writing, it seems the UK was, for once, ahead of the game. Having signed a UK contract early, AstraZeneca had time to iron out problems in its supply chains. The EU dithered before signing on the dotted line, AstraZeneca had less time to deal with its version of the same problems, and here we are.

From an EU perspective, this is a row with AstraZeneca: the fact that UK supply is involved is secondary. But you have to be a pretty monomaniacal sort of pro-European not to find the 27-country version of ‘vaccine nationalism’ highly unattractive. I wish we hadn’t left the EU. I also have little sympathy for the idea that Britons should want for vaccines due to our neighbours’ logistical failures. I profoundly hope it doesn’t come to that.

But many of the EU’s critics (who have lots of justice on their side here) miss the point, even as they point their fingers. When it comes to vaccine nationalism specifically, the EU displaying its own version isn’t the striking thing. We would behave no better in their shoes. The striking thing is the extent to which it’s curbed it between member states.

Intra-European solidarity has frayed a bit, and is fraying further. Germany’s bilateral deals have ruffled feathers, some countries are buying up spares, and irritation with the Commission is mounting. The EU has never completely lived up to its aspirations. Nonetheless, the idea behind a joint programme was to rein in the beggar-thy-neighbour tendency, use EU purchasing power and support poorer as well as richer member states. Only an ideologue would hold the end result up as a shining success, but some pooling and sharing did result.

The furore says something both good and bad about the EU. Its institutions and rules were built to keep nation-states’ worst impulses in check. From trying to take state competition over coal and steel out of commission onwards, an awareness and a fear of what untrammelled nation-states could do played a vital part in building Europe. The idealistic element of the European project is real. But it’s idealism for the fear-haunted, not the starry-eyed.

The creation of a single market reflects that view of the state. The EU’s members don’t trust each other out of a warm, fuzzy sense of Europeanness. They trust each other, to a point, because rules exist to keep them all in line and because institutions have a reasonable ability to make sure they’re being stuck to at least tolerably well. Has that extended to a wider definition of ‘us’ than a nation-state outside the club can manage? Yes, but there are limits.

Most of those rules and institutions don’t exist when the EU looks beyond its borders. It tends to try to replicate them, of course — partly out of self-interest, partly out of self-belief, and partly because what you are shapes what you do. The European Economic Area is one of the most radical examples of regulatory-Europe-for-export; the Northern Ireland Protocol is another. But without them, it doesn’t behave all that much better than a nation-state when it has the power and when the chips are down.

No one should be surprised to find that out. The EU has found ways to make the definition of ‘us’ extend beyond the nation up to a point — but only up to a point, and overwhelmingly within its borders. It doesn’t just happen outside them. Solidarity between nations doesn’t come easily. If it were as easy as all that, why was Europe ever built?

This post was originally published on on 28 January 2021.

Politics and the peerage

You’ll never get politics out of the Lords, and nor should you. The problem isn’t including politics — it’s excluding voters

The House of Lords: not all that much more democratic than it looks. UK Parliament, CC BY 3.0.

Lords appointments have been something of a (slow-burning and highly secondary) theme over the past few months. A number of Boris Johnson’s appointments have raised eyebrows. Notably, the Lords will now include Claire Fox — a former supporter of the IRA’s terror campaign who remains unrepentant, and whose inclusion remains unexplained and suspect. A number of Jeremy Corbyn’s final nominations were rejected. And today, Keir Starmer’s choice of peers has also attracted controversy.

Using peerages as patronage is nothing new

The appointment of Claire Fox is unusually egregious. Consistent commitment to our democratic process seems a pretty minimal requirement for life membership of our Parliament. (Even a show of repentance would be something.) But there’s nothing new about prime ministers appointing legislators-for-life for unedifying reasons. 58% of Margaret Thatcher’s appointments to the Lords were Conservatives, even in a chamber still hereditary-dominated and Tory-skewed. Controversy periodically dogged Blair’s Lords appointments. The speed at which the Coalition expanded the House made experts tear their hair out.

None of this is surprising. The House of Lords ultimately plays second fiddle to the Commons. But it’s still a lawmaking body, and governments often make concessions to it. Lords appointments are a huge source of power — but peers don’t get anything like the same scrutiny as MPs. Voters tend, in the main, to forget or at least deprioritise the Lords. As a result, there’s every incentive to put your people in, even if the appointments do the House no credit, and little downside to doing so.

The Lords became more influential in the New Labour years. It continued to be more assertive under the Coalition. And since 2015, the Conservatives have had their first experience of single-party government with no particular advantage in the second chamber. Their tendency to menace it whenever it gets a bit uppity shows they don’t like it one little bit. But on the whole, the surprise isn’t that unedifying appointments get made: the surprise is that prime ministers show any restraint at all.

Nominations mean patronage, and mitigation is hard

We could do a bit to reduce the problem. We could agree a formula for sharing out Lords appointments, taking the partisan makeup of the House out of prime ministers’ hands. We could beef up vetting by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Wakeham Commission on Lords reform even envisaged the Commission appointing party-political, not just independent, members of the Lords (except for a few elected members). Labour rejected this at first: it came round in 2007, before moving (in theory) to an elected second chamber.

It should be a no-brainer that prime ministers shouldn’t be able to skew the makeup of the second chamber. And few would object to tougher vetting of peers, if we take it as read that we the people get no say in their appointment. The first would be a real step forward; the second might at least help address some of the most egregious appointments.

But how far can vetting go? What is our working definition of ‘improper’ beyond the most egregious cases? If we want it to tackle the wider issue of political patronage, then how? Is the Appointments Commission meant to assess if Johnson, or indeed Starmer, is giving too many peerages to his factional allies? If we exclude politicians and their advisers, how many members with no political history and capacity to serve can parties rustle up? And do we actually want that anyway? Post-Brexit Britain will need to get better at lobbying EU institutions now it’s given up its voice in them. Do we really want to ban former MEPs from the Lords?

Going further and letting the Appointments Commission choose party as well as Crossbench peers may or may not prove tenable. I very much doubt a less deferential age would take its bona fides on trust. The experience of the ‘people’s peers’ hardly inspires confidence in the public credibility of any such model. Britain’s parties have enough difficulty respecting the independence of the judiciary. I doubt they’ll defer to a quango telling them who will represent them in the Lords with no recourse.

A House of Experts: tricky in practice, dubious in principle

Of course, you might try and remove parties altogether. In Canada, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are trying to do just that. Their aim is a non-partisan Senate, with an independent Board to advise (though not bind) prime ministers on appointments. The idea is to restore the Senate’s role as a chamber of ‘sober second thought’, with a less partisan and more independent-minded approach than the Commons.

Some accounts do suggest this has partly happened. Individual Independent Senators are often distinguished. But fairly or unfairly, their independence from the Liberals remains disputed. (Some Senators left the Independent Senators Group over this question.) The Government had to create a caucus of of three to handle its Bills. Ex-Liberal Senators formed their own Progressive Senators Group, which some Independents have joined. The Conservatives continue to oppose the principle. Whether it’ll bed down I don’t know. I think we can already say it won’t quell (admittedly ill-fated) calls for wider Senate reform.

In any case, I’d argue the whole concept is dubious in democratic principle. This is especially true if all members are non-partisan, denying voters any say over the makeup of the Lords. On what basis should a politically unaccountable body have such power over policymaking in the round? How should it decide how much weight to accord diplomacy, defence, development, law, economics, business, trade unions and welfare?

Weighing these things up is exactly what we have politics for. It’s not just that the Lords never will be a dispassionate chamber of experts: it actually shouldn’t be. Parliaments need politics, lawmaking isn’t an academic seminar — and frankly, the whole notion reeks of anti-politics to me. Independent appointments seem manageable for 20–25% of peers, whether or not you approve. It’s quite different if a quango decides which policy priorities we get to hear in half the legislature.

Patronage with or without a public say: take your pick

The House of Lords plays far too big a role in our legislative process to be removed from the political arena, even if such a thing were desirable. More radical Lords reformers are often charged with a lack of realism. But those who believe the Commons will up its game enough to remove the need for an active second chamber any time soon must be more utopian still.

In practice, that means there’s a fairly clear-cut choice. Parties will seek to get their people into both chambers of Parliament. The way they do that can involve the voters, or it can exclude them. If you opt for the latter, then yes, you may get some experts you wouldn’t get if they had to go on the campaign stump. You’ll also get MPs who’ve lost their seats, party leaders’ favoured sons and daughters and others who offend your sensibilities. And you will be able to do nothing about it.

I admit it: for me, no one should sit in Parliament unless the voters put them there, as a matter of principle. I want the second chamber to provide a stronger check on government and a balance for the smaller nations in our (imperilled) union state. So I was never attracted to some sub-Platonic chamber of experts anyway. But I also think it’s a pipe dream. If you reject letting the voters decide, then in the main, party leaders will decide for you.

This post was originally published on on 16 August 2020.

‘This is not a debate’

Sometimes you can say that once you’ve built a settled consensus. Otherwise, you’ll lose the debate you tried to spurn

© Can Stock Photo / vlatko2002.

I only discovered Tom Robinson Band’s ‘Glad to be Gay’ a few years ago. I didn’t know the song was from 1978. With the blitheness of a gay man born in 1986, I assumed it was a high-camp affirmation and not my aesthetic at all. It’s actually a sharp, caustic protest, skewering the homophobia of 1970s Britain.

So sit back and watch as they close all our clubs
Arrest us for meeting and raid all our pubs
Make sure your boyfriend’s at least 21
So only your friends and your brothers get done
Lie to your workmates, lie to your folks
Put down the queens and tell anti-queer jokes
Gay Lib’s ridiculous, join their laughter
‘The buggers are legal now, what more are they after?’

The Sexual Offences Act did an imperfect job of making ‘the buggers … legal’. It proved a huge step forward in the long run. But it came into force in a society which still disapproved, applied by a state which shared that dislike. Arrests of gay men went up for years following 1967. Sex ‘in private’ was defined to exclude, say, a room in a house if your landlord was in another room. The Earl of Arran made the score quite clear, even as he supported the Bill:

Any form of ostentatious behaviour; now or in the future, any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and would, I believe, make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done.

The law in Scotland only changed in 1980. Despite the Revd Ian Paisley’s best efforts to ‘save Ulster from sodomy’, Northern Ireland finally followed suit in 1982, the UK’s hand forced by the European Court of Human Rights. The tone in which the Government introduced the change is instructive:

The Government recognise the very strong feelings held in Northern Ireland on issues pertaining to sexual morality. … However, the court did not accept these arguments. The Government therefore have to deal with the verdict of the court, which imposes an obligation on the Government to change the law.

From cringe to confidence

By 1994, as MPs argued over whether to reduce the age of consent for sex between men to 18 or 16, advocates sounded bolder. Even then, some described their opposition in terms I won’t include here. (And 18 won that time. Equality had to wait until 2000: the House of Lords had to be overruled under the Parliament Acts.) But Tony Banks made the point — pretty basic, we’d say now — that homophobia was homophobes’ fault, not gay people’s:

… the Wolfenden report says that those young people would be set apart from society. Does that not say something about the discrimination that society holds against young gay men? It is a problem of society, not of those young men.

In power, New Labour sometimes acted at Strasbourg’s behest or by halves. But it did a lot: from the age of consent to civil partnerships, from LGBT people in the military by the time it left office, LGBT rights had advanced hugely. That a Conservative Prime Minister could sincerely support equal marriage in 2013 (admittedly in a minority among his MPs) — and that LGBT-inclusive relationships education could pass as a matter of near-consensus among MPs last year — shows how far attitudes have come.

From making the argument to trying to ban it

But all of these changes had to be argued for. Their advocates had to deal with their critics — in the media, in Parliament, and among the public at large. Which is why I was struck by the social media reaction when the House of Commons Petitions Committee tweeted to seek views on banning the practice of so-called conversion therapy a few weeks ago. (A petition to ban it had received enough signatures for a debate, but coronavirus has put paid to Westminster Hall debates for the time being. The Committee sought views to inform its report on the topic.)

Myself, I don’t need any convincing that conversion therapy is quack science which can do great damage to people who undergo it and which is rooted in viewing sexual orientation as some sort of disorder. Nor do medical professionals: the Royal College of Psychiatrists has made its opposition clear for many years and has supported the principle of a ban for quite some time. Countries from Malta to Taiwan have restricted or banned it to varying degrees.

I am sure the argument that we should be working to end it and that a ban has a role to play in doing so can be won. Indeed, the Government has notionally been committed to it for some time. But the Petitions Committee — which has asked for views on other inquiries during the pandemic — didn’t end up in hot water for inattention. It ended up in hot water because it had asked for views on whether conversion therapy should be banned.

Some of the outcry came from the plain ill-informed. Some thought the Petitions Committee was ‘the Government’ (which seems to include more than one journalist, to judge from media output). Some felt the tone was off. But most of the anger stemmed from a view that the Committee shouldn’t be framing this as a debate in any way.

Twitter thought debating the issue was very bad.

This, to put it mildly, poses a challenge when a Commons Committee is conducting an inquiry into a proposed change to the law. It would become even more of a problem if some kind of ban came before the Commons, probably following a Government consultation. The change will have to be debated: that is how laws are passed. And asking whether a ban should be put in place and what difference it would make plays a role in making that happen.

Changing the law is complex

The point becomes even clearer when you look at the details of different conversion therapy bans. Vancouver in Canada has one of the widest-reaching bans: its bylaw bans businesses from offering conversion therapy at any age. Germany’s ban only covers minors and adults where consent was obtained by coercion, threat, deception or error. The German Greens called for an age of 26; the Left Party wanted 27. Taiwan’s ‘ban’ stems, in effect, from a letter from the Ministry of Health clarifying that conversion therapy is not a legitimate medical treatment meaning existing criminal law applies to its provision. This seems to draw a similar line to Germany’s.

Malta was hailed as the first country to ban conversion therapy — but again, this is limited to minors and ‘vulnerable’ individuals. The Maltese Act offers some good examples of the other issues: it deals with what does not, for these purposes, come within a ban. A brief consideration of the potential content of wholly legitimate counselling sessions leads quickly to the conclusion that where the line is drawn will need some thought.

‘Conversion practices’ as defined in Maltese law.

I support some mix of these sorts of restrictions throughout the UK. But I can see that the details, and where exactly the line should fall, need discussion. I can also see, whether I relish the prospect or not, that when proposing to ban something those who don’t want a ban have the right to make their case. That includes religious arguments for which I usually have little time. It also includes arguments about parents’ rights which I think we should dismiss.

You can’t close a debate down before you win it

Judging from the hue and cry, lots of people thought MPs should enact their demands in silence, sackcloth and ashes. I’m afraid that isn’t how representative democracy works. Parliament hasn’t seen fit to change the law yet, and I suspect most people haven’t thought about the issue very much. Like it or not, the discussion is not over.

Of course, few people believe absolutely everything needs to be up for debate. To state the obvious, incitement is beyond the pale. We also no longer need to have a debate about whether women are intellectually inferior to men. It’s no business of the criminal law, but we don’t need to indulge it as a legitimate debating point. In the public realm, we can dismiss it as arrant sexist prejudice, shut it down and move on.

Societies can also remain oppressive without oppressive laws. A society where homosexuality was legal but talk of its ‘repulsiveness’ was rife would be pretty miserable for people like me. ‘A sin but not a crime’ may or may not get the law off your back (people dealing with ‘crime’ may well read it in the light of ‘sin’). It won’t stop your visible existence serving as grounds for censure.

But a conspiracy of silence didn’t get us past that point. Quite the opposite. People had to insist on being seen and challenge the people who wanted them kept invisible. Saying ‘this is not a debate’ in the 1970s would have suited homophobes much better than gay people. It would have fitted the Earl of Arran’s opposition to ‘any form of public flaunting’ to a tee. Now we can say ‘this is not a debate’ when faced with generic expressions of disgust. Because we had those debates, or rows — in all kinds of fora — and won them.

You can say ‘we’ve had the debate’ if you want. But you don’t have the power to decide whether we’ve finished on your own. And if you try, you may well lose it by default. Progressive aversion to talking things out can make for a censorious mood in progressive circles. It can make them lose the argument with everyone else too.

This post was originally published on on 25 July 2020.

State aid and the union state

Defending the Union is not the same as owning the Nats. Tory disdain for devolution post-Brexit endangers it even further

Constructing a UK internal market needs time and attention too

Some nationalists claim the United Kingdom has no such thing as an internal market. Granted, it has no formal project branded ‘UK single market’. But its four parts have sent MPs to Westminster longer than modern regulatory states have existed. Britain built an integrated domestic market long before it joined the then EC. Until 1999, EU law played no specific role in preventing divergence. And the UK has an unusual lack of internal barriers for a large state.

The problem is real, but the end doesn’t justify the means

When devolution arrived, a mix of reservations to the UK Parliament and EU law served to keep it together. That EU framework ceases to bind the UK from 1 January 2021, leaving our internal market vulnerable to erosion. In areas which are within devolved competence but constrained by EU law, ever more barriers could result.

As Canada shows, states can easily end up with major internal economic barriers, which you then have to try to negotiate away. In the UK this would do great economic damage, at least outside of England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have the rest of the UK as their main external market, and we are all deeply integrated.

Data from the Scottish Government, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and UK Government Internal Market White Paper. Figures do not add to 100% due to rounding. Flag images from Wikipedia.

So the issue is serious, as all three devolved administrations say they accept. It’s hard to see how you address it without action at a UK level. So far, so reasonable: hence a White Paper. It’s also true that even with common frameworks, many areas currently regulated at EU level will fall entirely to the devolved legislatures.

Nonetheless, powers devolved within an EU framework aren’t the same thing as reserved powers. Constitutionally, the UK Government wants to reserve some things which are currently devolved. The Sewel convention is clear: the UK Government shouldn’t do this without consent. That convention is core to making devolution work. Parliamentary sovereignty and decentralised power don’t easily mix. Sovereignty needs self-restraint for them to rub along.

Further, the EU doesn’t work in the same way as the UK. EU lawmaking is far more consensual and member states are part of the process. EU law is also likely to give member states more room for manoeuvre than UK replacements. The UK has no equivalent to directives as opposed to regulations, for instance. UK institutions are likely to be far more single-minded and far less prone to compromise. That means an ‘equivalent’ reservation in any given area could well mean less devolved autonomy in practice.

The principle of agreeing common frameworks with the devolved administrations isn’t new or controversial. Reserving subsidy control (state aid) makes sense in policy terms — though that doesn’t let us off the constitutional hook of consent. But the White Paper proposes new cross-cutting constraints on devolved policy:

the Government now proposes a Market Access Commitment, which will enshrine in law two fundamental principles to protect the flow of goods and services in our home market: the principle of mutual recognition, and the principle of nondiscrimination.

I don’t necessarily oppose some version of this. But it has major implications, depending on how it’s drafted and which sectors are excepted. It could well mean major new constraints, over and above EU-derived ones, in devolved areas. We’ve always had regulatory divergence within the UK in some areas. Building regulations differ in Scotland and England, for instance. Will changes now be subject to a market access test?

The White Paper also takes a profoundly asymmetrical approach, with policy in England as the implicit norm. The legal market access commitment will only apply to devolved policy. But policy in England (or England and Wales, or Great Britain) in the same areas could create market barriers too. How far will the UK Government constrain its own approach, and proposals to Parliament, in these areas? Could ministers at least have to certify whether such proposals discriminate against other parts of the UK, for instance?

Would this mix — some EU constraints gone, some powers reserved, a new general constraint — mean more or less de facto power for devolved institutions? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know without seeing the actual drafting. Even that’s not enough to gauge how the market access commitment will pan out in practice. I do know that it has huge implications for how devolution works. It’s a big constitutional change: it merits proper discussion. And in our system, convention is quite clear that consent is required.

So the Scottish and Welsh Governments have every right to be outraged by the idea of imposing it upon them. And to consult upon it for a mere four weeks (a third of the time to consult on a reformed judicial pension scheme, for instance) is outright farcical. The problems with devolution and our home market have been discussed for over four years. And the Brexit cliff-edge on 31 December is of the UK Government’s own (perverse) making. Yes, the SNP always takes any excuse to invent grievances. That doesn’t make it right, or good for the Union, to give them real ones.

This isn’t a first, either. Since 2016, the Sewel convention has been ignored several times, and not just for Scotland. Whatever you think of the arguments for an exception in any given case, it’s becoming a pattern. Among multinational states, the UK seems unusually willing to just override devolved competence. At the same time, secession is unusually — possibly uniquely — easy to seek. In a union state where a British nation overlaps with several other, older nations, that’s a strikingly unstable mix.

Voice, choice and consent

The mix is particularly dangerous to the Union in Scotland. Much of independence’s appeal comes down to agency — speaking to a view that Scotland has no real say in Britain. In response, UK governments yo-yo between ever-looser union and centralising confrontation. Neither works. On the one hand, there’s a limit to how far you can or should devolve within a state. On the other, preserving the Union and owning the Nats are not the same, though a certain sort of Tory seems unaccountably convinced that it is. If you don’t want the UK to break up or become a constitutional God of the gaps, you need to make its central institutions more legitimate in Scottish eyes.

Brexit has damaged support for the Union in Scotland. But it offered a chance to grapple with a more shared approach to governing the UK. The Welsh Government is the most sensible and least heard of the four administrations on constitutional issues. It made proposals for a UK Council of Ministers to decide on common frameworks. More recently, it has called for the successor to state aid rules to be enforced by a neutral body.

Whatever the detail, the principle is clear. Devolved governments need a real say in this area, and the UK Government can’t be both party to and arbitrator of shared rules. Yes, that will slow some UK decision-making down. It would be no bad thing if some UK decisions had to take some more time and be a bit more considered. But for good or ill, it’s part of the price of sustaining a complex union state.

The internal market debacle provides a good example of a core problem with how the Union currently works. Federal systems usually involve some element of shared rule as well as self-rule. The UK, unless and until it finds ways of dealing with the English Question and dividing legal sovereignty, can never be a true federation. But in practice, devolution often raises federal questions, and so does Scottish discontent.

When required to think about Scotland, English commentators often get worked up about money. In doing so, they miss the point about voice. Somehow, the British central state has to find a way to make itself more palatable north of the Border. It has to satisfy enough Scots that Britain as a state isn’t England-Plus with unreliable Scottish opt-outs.

If it can’t, the end of the Union of 1707 is only a matter of time. The Conservatives may think they’re standing up to the SNP. They’re actually dancing to its tune.

This post was originally published on on 18 July 2020.

Public good

The Cummings farrago exposes a government which doesn’t grasp its own role

Wars give us enemies with faces. Coronavirus does not. Social media delights in both putting war metaphors up and shooting them down, but I suspect the lack of a clear enemy makes national cohesion harder. And as we start to talk about exit strategies, whose interests come first and when may well divide us further.

Dominic Cummings has, if nothing else, given many people’s fury a face. And many have written already about how offensive his conduct — and his disdain for explaining himself — has been. But the defence of his conduct betrays a basic failure to grasp the purpose of government, which I think deserves a closer look.

Family first?

When push comes to shove, of course people care about their own children more than anything. But an unpalatable truth is that much of what the state does aims at keeping that impulse from running riot. One of the biggest challenges in education is stopping monied parents elbowing less fortunate kids out of the way in the interests of their offspring. Fair admissions, access to higher education, school funding formulae: keeping loving parents at bay is the bread and butter of education policy.

When politicians put their kids’ education first — as Diane Abbott and Tony Blair both found — we tend to censure them for it. Sometimes, as in Abbott’s case, that’s mainly about hypocrisy. But it reveals a deeper truth. We may nod as politicians say any parent puts their families first, but we don’t like it when they actually do. Because they set the rules which keep that truth in bounds.

Coronavirus poses a wider, sharper, harder challenge. The vast majority of us are vanishingly unlikely to die from it. We are asked — instructed — to act against our own and our loved ones’ interests (at least our immediate interests) every day. Do my friends gain or lose when I can’t help look after my nephew-in-all-but-name? Do children gain or lose from missing months of classes in favour of the trench warfare we call home school? Do families gain or lose from not having loved ones at funerals?

‘Parents always want to do what they think best for their kids’, ministers say. Of course. Why do ministers think we have laws?

Following instincts?

As maxims go, ‘follow your instincts’ may well be beloved of start-ups. It’s also precisely what the coronavirus rules try to prevent. Humans are deeply social animals. We want to see friends and family in groups, we want to hug people and not voice-project at two metres, we want sex. But all these things can transmit coronavirus.

So the state took draconian measures to get us to suppress our instincts. I don’t dispute the need for them: I merely observe that they remain draconian. After a shaky and ambiguous start, we were told to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. And it broadly worked. Possibly it overshot: the British are now among the most cautious of nations, and UK ministers (rightly or wrongly) are struggling to coax them out.

But to judge from the Prime Minister’s press conference, many ministers think we’re mugs. Having demanded a national effort, having given a simple instruction, having thanked us all for the sacrifices we’ve made, yesterday Johnson said Cummings ‘followed his instincts’. But people who didn’t attend loved ones’ funerals, let their children roam freely or see lonely family members resisted their instincts. From Grindr to grandparents, we built an edifice to contain a pandemic by keeping our instincts at bay.

As Johnson says, Cummings did what lots of us would naturally do. Why does he think we have rules?

Public demands

There’s something inhuman about what government — in truth, the policy world — requires. To work in policy, you have to be the kind of person who knows most government choices can kill. You have to embrace choosing whose lives and whose futures to put first every day. Most people don’t want to do it for a reason.

Most people don’t have to acknowledge that up front and they don’t like it when they hear it. So politicians often have to pay lip service to human instincts when half their task is to constrain or countermand them. Yes, it’s hard. And they’re allowed to say it’s hard. But what they cannot do is cite it as a defence when they put their private interests before what they say the public good demands.

On the evidence of the past few days, ministers and advisers neither recognise a higher public good nor care to pretend otherwise. That does not just constitute a culpable failure in public office. It constitutes an intellectual failure to understand what public office is for.

Unless and until they realise that ‘Wouldn’t you have done the same?’ is not just inadequate, but irrelevant, we will have no reason to believe they grasp the point of their own jobs. And even if we ignore every other issue, for that reason alone, Dominic Cummings must go.

This post was originally published on on 25 May 2020.

Crowning complexities

I used to be a convinced republican. I’ve concluded it’s more trouble than it’s worth

The Crown of Scotland on display as the Queen opens Holyrood. Scottish Parliament, CC BY 2.0.

I’ve had republican instincts for a long time. A hereditary monarchy is inherently questionable if you’re on the left. The symbolism of choosing a head of state by inheritance challenges egalitarian values. As a constitutional reformer, the Crown seemed to be the apex of a system in need of reform from root to branch.

As I got older, I became an ever-lazier republican. And without quite noticing when it happened, I’ve accepted I’ve become a pragmatic monarchist. I’ll never be an enthusiastic royalist. But I’ve come to accept that the constitutional, diplomatic and national consequences of abolishing the Crown are too tricky.

The Crown is a constitutional conduit: replacing it is a big deal

Most people think of the Queen as a ceremonial figurehead — a symbol without any power. Some republicans (and other reformers) see her as holding enormous and unaccountable power. The better view, I think, is something else again. The Crown is a conduit of authority: a human valve through which much of the business of the state flows.

When and on what grounds the flow can be blocked — rarely, but not never — exercises lawyers and scholars. British monarchs have never actually refused formal advice in modern history. Sometimes the Brexit process raised the question of where the line might be. Governors-General in other countries have exercised reserve powers. The most (in)famous is Australia’s Dismissal of 1975.

The system would change if its office-holders’ views of their legitimacy changed. The Queen knows her limits. Inserting someone with a democratic mandate into the same system could turn it into something quite different. But if the Prime Minister hired and fired our head of state, that would neuter our ultimate constitutional longstop.

Having a monarch as our constitutional longstop rather than proper safeguards is not ideal. But I have given up on hoping British politicians will ever tackle our constitution in the round. And if they won’t, I don’t want to create a semi-presidential system by mistake. Nor do I wish to remove the only hard check, in extremis, upon a Prime Minister with a majority.

Other Commonwealth Realms would face a constitutional quagmire

She lives in the UK, but the Queen is head of state in 15 other countries. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, one Crown became several over time. The newer Realms started with separate monarchies. The last one to become a republic was Mauritius, in 1992; since then, three have voted against doing the same.

It’s not surprising that the Crown is a more contentious institution outside of the UK. Elizabeth II and Emmanuel Macron are the only heads of state of more than one independent country. Heads of state are national symbols: most countries have their own for a reason. Still, whether due to inertia, divisions over the alternatives or affection for the Queen, we’re likely to share our head of state for years to come.

If we became a republic, Australia and New Zealand would stay monarchies unless they chose otherwise. Most Realms would face a paradox: a head of state with a succession set by UK law which no longer provided for it. (Canada occupies an intermediate and contentious position.) Resolving the issues would usually be tricky. In Canada, all provinces would have to agree to abolish the office of the Queen and/or Governor General. Australia requires a referendum with a majority of people and states (which would have to move to republican models too). Papua New Guinea needs a two-thirds majority of its National Assembly. And so on.

These are all Westminster systems and their Crowns are a conduit of authority like our own. Deciding how and whether to preserve a similar balance raises the same sorts of questions as it would in the UK. (It can raise others. The balance of power between the Australian Commonwealth and states is one example.) In the end, we have the right to decide how we choose our head of state. But I don’t relish creating 15 constitutional nightmares for others to deal with.

What’s in a name? If you’re pro-Union, you’d be surprised

When Charles III accedes, I suspect we’ll be startled by how long it takes us to get used to the shift in everyday speech. ‘God Save the Queen’, Her Majesty’s Government, Queen’s Counsel, the Queen’s Speech, the Queen’s English, ‘By appointment to Her Majesty’, ‘Boris lied to the Queen’: our form of government courses through our language.

The problem runs deeper still. Forty-four independent states have monarchies, but only the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s sole undisputed name depends on keeping one. ‘Great Britain’ is clearly incorrect. We argue about whether ‘Britain’ denotes the British state, Great Britain or either. And as for replacing ‘United Kingdom’, ‘United Republic’ (deeply clunky), ‘Commonwealth’ (repellent to Irish nationalists) and ‘Union’ (oddly syndicalist) all feel wrong. Cutting it to ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ makes us sound like a longer (and just as temporary) version of the old Serbia and Montenegro.

This matters, because our fuzziness is a function of our formation. Britain stems from a quirk of inheritance: James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, and when the Union of the Parliaments took place in 1707 Scotland was in a position to negotiate. The Anglo-Scottish bargain produced a British rather than a greater English polity. There’s no way to know how a greater English polity would have related to Ireland, in particular. But our Britishness relied on a Scottish dynasty acceding to an English throne.

As a result, our monarchy provided vital scaffolding for state-building. The potential rows over why non-English heads of state win so (in)frequently display the upside of a monarch in our multinational nation. It’s not a coincidence that we’re the last European country to continue with coronations. It’s also striking that over half the world’s monarchies had some link with the British.

Not all absurdities are worth unpicking

The UK and Japan are the developed constitutional monarchies for whom the shock of republicanism would prove most profound. There was a time when I’d have seen that as the point. For me, the appeal of republicanism remains the egalitarian principle and looking at our constitution in the round.

I remain, generally, a reformer. I want a proportional House of Commons and a democratic second chamber. I want an end to local councils where one party wins every seat. I’d like to see more checks and balances in our constitution. I’d still like core aspects entrenched to protect them against an overweening executive.

Perhaps I’ve got older, or the past few years have made me more aware of what you can lose as well as gain. But I’ve concluded that, for better or worse, the monarchy underpins too much of our basic structure for fundamental tampering to be worth the risk. If someone can avoid either creating a powerful head of state or abolishing a constitutional check, forestall a 16-fold diplomatic quagmire and prevent picking at the bonds between the home nations, I’ll listen. Until then, I’ll leave the Crown alone.

This post was originally published on on 23 February 2020.

Trashing the BBC comes at a price

Progressives should defend public service broadcasting. Flirting with the anti-BBC lobby has helped imperil it

Hatgate: one of the more ludicrous pieces of anti-BBC hysteria.

For a certain sort of Brit, the NHS and the BBC have long been at or near the top of their list of things to be proud of about their country. They’re both big public institutions which everyone in the UK knows. Their existence speaks to some of the core values of the left. They show that not everything should be left to the market, shared institutions matter and public provision can be popular.

The BBC produces a huge amount of high-quality content of all kinds — news, drama and TV. It makes lots of stuff I’d never want to hear or watch, and quite right too: it’s not supposed to just appeal to me or people like me. But because it’s not driven by market imperatives, it produces things I doubt I’d ever get to see or hear without it. It provides common coverage across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — a pan-UK public arena. It supports local journalists around the country. It’s an enormous soft power asset for the country and a news source people in dictatorships have listened to in secret. I’d be horrified to see it go.

Governments always have an uneasy relationship with the BBC. That’s natural enough: journalists are meant to be a thorn in governments’ side. One of the licence fee’s plus points is that it’s not general taxation, so the tension’s reduced a bit: it’s not a direct case of biting the hand that feeds you. But rows about what the BBC does, how it does it, whether it reports fairly and so on are nothing new.

What is new is a government as determinedly hostile to the BBC as Boris Johnson’s. Their hostility extends to public service broadcasting more generally and fits a wider pattern. Today’s Conservatives seem hostile to scrutiny and independent institutions in a way which goes beyond the norm. Threatening Channel 4’s licence in retaliation for empty-chairing the Prime Minister and the ongoing boycott of the Today programme both set an unnerving tone. Proposing to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee has far more to do with an anti-BBC agenda than its (dubious, in my view) policy merits.

Faced with the possibility — hinted at before the election, floated by the former Culture Secretary and trailed in this week’s Sunday Times — of actually moving towards a subscription model and slashing the BBC to the bone, the Opposition should be rallying to its defence. Frankly, if Labour can’t even defend the world’s best broadcaster and one of our great public institutions, I’m not sure what the point of it is.

Sadly, most of its would-be deputy leaders haven’t got the memo. Ian Murray was an honourable exception. But Angela Rayner said she was ‘no big fan of the BBC’. Richard Burgon referred to the BBC ‘misreporting’ the news. And reaching the real nadir, Dawn Butler said ‘in a way, I thought “OK, that will teach you”’. They all went on to support the principle of a public broadcaster. But it’s more than a little reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘seven, seven and a half out of ten’ response on how strongly he felt about not leaving the EU.

You don’t have to claim the thing you’re backing is perfect. But in politics, you can’t sound lukewarm about which side you’re on when the chips are down. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s comments on a ‘People’s BBC’ this weekend were equally unhelpful. For a start, electing BBC ‘top brass’ is an atrocious idea. It’s a recipe for a hideous battle of obsessives and special interest groups in an inevitably low-turnout election. It’s also a road to politicising the BBC — the exact opposite of what it needs and the public wants.

It used to be mainly the right which trashed the BBC — their self-interest is clear, given a print media far more congenial to its views. Many Scottish nationalists joined in with vim after 2011 — and as the BBC’s very existence embodies the British public space they want to abolish, that’s not too surprising either. But Long-Bailey’s wheeze (not without precedent: a number of Corbynite politicians mutter about ‘democratising the BBC’) and would-be deputy leaders’ curmudgeonliness fit a pattern.

Triggered by the hard left but abetted by much of the soft left, Labour and many of its members have sounded increasingly hostile to free media per se. It’s gone far beyond reasonable discussion of concentrated ownership — booing journalists, the harrying of Laura Kuenssberg, bringing up media reform as a reaction to unfavourable coverage. And with a characteristic blend of zest for public control and suspicion of the actually-existing public realm, the BBC has become a bête noire. The self-parodying row over whether the BBC doctored the appearance of Jeremy Corbyn’s hat to make it look ‘more communist’ was a case in point.

Faced with a pincer movement like this, you’d think the centre and centre-left would be loud in defence of a core public institution. They should fear what wrecking one of the last bulwarks against a retreat to rival echo chambers might mean. And in fairness, the Liberal Democrats have been clear where they stand in recent weeks. But far too many self-defining centrists have not, usually as a result of Brexit. Dawn Butler’s ‘that’ll teach you’ has its counterparts. Andrew Adonis advocating a subscription model and even calling for the BBC to be in court for giving Brexiteers a platform) is a case in point. AC Grayling offers a daily exemplar.

Together with a stonking Tory majority, the result is a better climate for an assault on public service broadcasting than ever before. Britain is not Twitter, of course: plenty of Conservative voters value the BBC. Unease is spreading on the Tory benches. It’s not a foregone conclusion at all. But Opposition parties — and campaigners — need to stop making the Government’s job easier.

Yes, the BBC can merit criticism. I think it’s too inclined to juxtapose factual claims rather than evaluate their truth. I think it struggles to deal with a level of political dishonesty and bad faith we mostly haven’t had to deal with until fairly recently. I sometimes roll my eyes at solecisms in policy areas I know about. At the last election, I think it was too quick to frame an initially much more multiparty contest as a battle between the big two. Its reaction to Samira Ahmed’s totally justified complaint was dire. Some of its journalists should probably just tweet less.

But there’s a difference between constructive criticism and wholesale trashing. Criticise the BBC’s calls on election coverage: don’t say it ‘decided not to be impartial’. Argue for it to be bolder in challenging factual untruths: don’t call it the Brexit Biased Corporation. And recognise that a public service broadcaster’s job involves giving space to views you don’t like, not just playing your worldview back to you.

Because if the BBC becomes a British PBS for lack of champions, Britain will be far poorer for it. The scrutiny of government will weaken. And if you’re on the left or in the liberal centre, you really won’t like the media world you’ll get once the BBC’s brought low.

This post was originally published on on 17 February 2020.

Hard choices

The SNP should debate whether a separate Scotland should join the EU post-Brexit. But all their options are bad

We often forget the SNP campaigned against the Common Market in 1975. But ‘Independence in Europe’ has been an SNP rallying cry for quite some time now. The European Union creates an unusually benign home for small states. To the SNP, the EU also promised continued economic integration with the United Kingdom after secession. The SNP claim that Scotland could carry on in the EU automatically was almost certainly spurious, but that didn’t stop them.

Brexit changes that. It makes the SNP’s political case more appealing, but its practical case harder. It creates sharper dilemmas for a separate Scotland. So it makes sense that some in SNP ranks are raising the question of Scotland’s future EU relationship. Most still back EU membership, including Nicola Sturgeon herself. Some look to the European Economic Area — the so-called Norway model. Are there any good options?

A hard border in Great Britain?

Many Scottish nationalists use Northern Ireland as Brexit grievance fodder. It’s an ugly gambit: Scotland is a country which voted to stay in the UK very recently, not a post-conflict region with a contested land border. Nonetheless, Theresa May’s backstop and Boris Johnson’s frontstop for Northern Ireland show what you need to keep a border open.

Scotland wouldn’t just need to align with the UK on customs and rules of origin. Not joining the Schengen Agreement would avoid checks on people, but still wouldn’t suffice. Scotland would need to align on goods, VAT and sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) too. Joining the EU prevents that, unless the UK aligns with the EU or the EU exempts Scotland from some EU rules.

In the EEA but outside the EU, Schengen, VAT and the EU Customs Union wouldn’t pose an obstacle. But goods regulation remains, as does SPS: EEA members don’t have free trade in agriculture, but apply plenty of EU food safety rules. And being outside the EU Customs Union doesn’t avoid the need for customs checks and rules of origin between Scotland and the UK. And a customs union with the UK is hard to square with joining the European Free Trade Association — required for a non-EU EEA member.

Liechtenstein manages, but Scotland is not a microstate

Granted, one EEA member has an open border with a non-EEA neighbour. Liechtenstein has had a customs union with Switzerland since 1923. It also applies Swiss VAT law. They planned to join the EEA together, but the Swiss rejected joining in a referendum. Switzerland pursued bilateral agreements with the EU instead.

This delayed Liechtenstein’s EEA entry until 1995, but it managed in the end. Both Swiss and EEA goods circulate via so-called ‘parallel marketability’. The authorities monitor goods ‘in the market’ to keep EEA-only products out of Switzerland. Where EEA goods attract tariffs in Switzerland but not Liechtenstein, Swiss customs reimburses importers to Liechtenstein. (This isn’t too far from the plans for Northern Ireland.)

This is much easier for Liechtenstein than it could ever be for Scotland. Switzerland aligns with the EEA for most goods and applies EU SPS rules. It’s in EFTA, along with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. All but Switzerland joined the EEA, reducing the scope for friction due to other trade deals. Furthermore, Liechtenstein is tiny — and so permitted to be anomalous.

Scotland, by contrast, would have the EEA’s largest EFTA population. The UK plans to diverge from EU norms far more than Switzerland. We don’t know how its new trade deals will go, but it shows no interest in joining EFTA. Switzerland has a long history of cooperation with its small, sovereign neighbour. The UK would be asked to help Scotland carve a niche to advantage it against itself.

Cake from London, Brussels, Oslo, Reykjavik and Vaduz? No chance

Only EU membership could grant Scotland a proper vote on EU rules. Overall, though, being a giant Liechtenstein might well be better for an independent Scotland than EU membership. But it’s not going to happen. Neither EU nor EFTA countries will cut corners to keep the Scotland-UK border open. Doing so would mean 49% of the EEA’s non-EU population lived in an anomaly next door to a far trickier neighbour than Switzerland.

Yes, the EU bent some rules for Northern Ireland. Scotland will not get the same offer. It was required for Northern Ireland because Ireland, a continuing EU member, had a vital national interest at stake. Perhaps excepting a Schengen opt-out to preserve the Common Travel Area, Ireland has no such interest in helping Scotland.

Nor would the UK have much interest. It wants to be able to diverge from the EU. It will want to secure the integrity of its regulatory order. And Scotland would be an important trading partner, but not as important as the EU. The UK left the EU to avoid pooling sovereignty: it wouldn’t re-pool it with Scotland for much less economic gain. Any deal would mean Scottish rule-taking and UK decision-making.

Breaking up is hard to do

So Scottish secession means a hard Border unless Brexit softens or the UK rejoins the EU. Joining the EEA would allow fewer barriers with the UK in some areas (eg agricultural tariffs) if the UK agreed. Nonetheless, EEA membership would remain a choice to dealign from the UK.

Still, the scale of Scotland’s UK trade means even this flawed compromise might beat EU membership on economics. A separate Scotland would have two main trading partners: the UK and the EU. But those two partners are far from equal: UK trade dominates.

Data from the Scottish Government. Figures do not add to 100% due to rounding. Flag images from Wikipedia.

For now, Scotland sells to the rest of the UK within a far more integrated market too. There’s a reason the Commission keeps battling to complete the single market. From digital services to hairdressing, from the limits of EU mutual recognition to the UK monetary and fiscal union, sharing a state goes much deeper than joining the EU.

For both reasons, the shock of leaving the British home market — whether for the EU, the EEA or neither — would dwarf leaving the single market. This matters. UK fiscal transfers are crucial, but not the biggest economic question about Scottish secession. The bigger question is: how far would growth exceed or fall short of growth within the Union?

Nationalists make heroic assumptions here, cherrypicking small states and copying countries whose growth isn’t higher than the UK’s. Above all, they don’t factor in the true cost of their political project.

Secession will hurt. So tell Scots what you think they’re paying for

The economic arguments against Brexit apply in spades to breaking up Britain. Scotland’s biggest economic interest lies in its home market with most of its trade. Economic gravity, crucial in Europe according to the SNP (and they’re right), still applies within the UK. If Scotland secedes, the closest possible alignment with the UK would be its least damaging option.

But such close alignment with the UK isn’t realistic. It can’t be: the point of Scottish secession is rejecting the neighbours. Shared EU membership could have cushioned that shift, but not now. Unsure voters will back major pain for radical change, the SNP still wants to sell separation as safer than the Union. But that’s a worse lie than anything from Vote Leave. And the SNP leadership are far too intelligent not to know it.

Breaking up Britain is a far bigger leap of faith than Brexit. It would pull Scotland away from its main market and closest neighbours and the people with whom it shares most. Its rationale is ideological and nationalist, not practical or economic. The least the SNP could do is own its costs.

This post was originally published on on 10 February 2020.


I knew Remain might very well lose the EU referendum. Truth to tell, for most of June I thought we would. I forced myself to believe we wouldn’t in the final week, a feat of denial I’m not usually much good at. I was coordinating Stronger In and Labour In activities in addition to a full-time job: I doubt I’d have had it in me to go through the last week of the campaign if I hadn’t.

I was, if I’m honest, more surprised by the campaign for a second referendum than by losing the first. It never occurred to me people wouldn’t regard it as final. Naively, in retrospect: equally Scottish and English myself, I should have looked north of the Border. Nonetheless, I never expected a second referendum to be held. I never thought it would be won if held. And democratically, I thought the first one should be upheld.

I’d also always guessed that if we lost, Brexit would end up much harder than many thought. In 2016 and 2017, I hoped my government would prove me wrong; in 2018 and 2019, I believed MPs should take the Leave-tilted compromise on the table for fear of something worse. I despaired of the competing fundamentalisms and the pincer movement to destroy any possible middle ground. Once it was gone, Johnson’s Brexit was too much for me to swallow, for the sake of Northern Ireland above all, but I had little hope it wouldn’t go through.

So I’ve never had a comforting period of denial, never really thought the clock could be turned back. I understand something fundamental happened on 23 June 2016. Having spent years fearing No Deal, tonight’s tragedy is, in fact, a little less bad than many of my predictions. Drained by three and a half years of political hand-to-hand combat and schooled in grim realism, I thought I might be less grief-stricken than most Remainers. But it turns out that even if it’s the hope that kills you, a lack of hope isn’t much of an antidote.

I don’t care about the European Union so much just because I like economic integration, or even because I like to see fewer rather than more fences in the world. I believe in the political project and always have done. I believe in a project built to tame the fears of a terrible past, which shifts the basis of relations among Europe’s nations from power to law — a dream never quite fulfilled, but gradually inched towards in Council meetings and arguments over shared rules. I believe in the potential of Europe to bolster liberal democracy and the rule of law —which means I worry more about Poland and Hungary than I do about the euro.

In short, I believe in a project which pools sovereignty for its own sake. Not as a pragmatic means to an end; not even as a generic expression of liberal internationalism. And my countrymen and women do not. They never have. Even many continuity Remainers don’t really support it as it truly is. The fact I understand that is one reason I haven’t supported overturning the referendum result. It’s also the main reason 23 June 2016 was the worst loss of my political life.

I won’t give up on my country as a result. I know the United Kingdom forms a multinational union of its own, as well as a nation, and I know that’s a precious thing. The Union Jack is still my flag; the British people are still my people. I want us to go forward and prosper, in friendship with our neighbours and the wider world. I want to see us mitigate the damage of Brexit and take such opportunities as exist. Leavers aren’t my enemies: they’re friends and family. My grandfather voted Leave by post a few days before he died: I love him no less for it.

I know there’s a perfectly respectable case for leaving the EU. Some people believe democracy should be brought nearer home, even if it comes with an economic price. Some people would rather steer a dinghy on their own, even if the waves are choppy. Some believe laws made abroad corrode the ties between people and politics, even if we have a say in making them. I do not damn anyone for believing all of that.

And to an extent, I hope they prove me wrong. I don’t say ‘to an extent’ because I want Britain to do any less well. I say it because the EU, for all its faults, embodies many of my most cherished beliefs. For as long as it lasts, I expect it always will do. And for Europe’s sake, I want it to succeed. I doubt we ever will, but I hope we take our place in the EU again one day — properly, this time: understanding what it’s truly for.

Until that day, if it ever comes, I understand we must make the best of Brexit. I hope we do. On Monday I’ll try to focus on how to do that, to the small extent that matters. But part of me will always mourn it. I’ll always be a European by conviction, even if not by citizenship. And tonight, I will grieve.

This post was originally published on on 31 January 2020.