Federalism Can Stop Independence

By McLeish, Henry | The Scotsman, December 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

Federalism Can Stop Independence


McLeish, Henry, The Scotsman


T he idea of a Federal Union has been around for a long time. Speaking in a House of Commons debate on the 9 April 1889, Mr Hunter, the Honourable member for Aberdeen North said: "I have come to the conclusion that the Federal form of Union is the one which gives the greatest hopes of obtaining the objects of representative institutions in the future … look forward to the day when England herself shall be merged in a higher unity, and when, although we may not live to see it, there will be established that which would be the greatest blessing to the world - namely, the United States of Europe. That is the direction of our ideas and aspirations."

A quarter of a century later, in a speech to his Dundee constituency on 9 October 1913, Winston Churchill spoke of the, "establishment of a Federal System in the UK, in which Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and, if necessary, parts of England could have separate legislative and parliamentary institutions". These were remarkably inspiring and prescient speeches. The wisdom of the past is needed now, to reignite a constitutional debate that has lost impetus. New thinking, ideas, and action, which will ultimately offer a new alternative and vision to the Scottish people, are urgently needed. The debate must move on from the narrow terms of the SNP, independence, and old devo-unionism.

Setting aside the recklessness and chaos of Brexit, there are wider and more important lessons to be drawn for our weak democracy and broken politics, and indeed for the way we are governed. The EU referendum, an avoidable disaster, was the worst method available to settle big issues. Brexit, the product of cult politics and ineffective government, has laid bare the chronic deficiencies of our politics and democracy and has created the idea of binary mindsets. Everything is viewed in black and white; the winner takes all and there is never scope for compromise. There are no coalitions of interest, no regard for consensus, where one vote is a majority and that's enough to settle huge issues of national and international importance. Referenda have now been cast into the spotlight as weapons of mass division.

We are locked into the politics of extremes. This is the logical outcome of our two-party system, tribalism to the point of legislative irrelevance, an archaic first past the post system of voting and binary thinking: and the public being taken for fools, with much of the press acting as cheer leaders for this insane form of political decision making. Scottish politics must learn lessons from the tragedy of Brexit.

The "settled will" of the Scottish people doesn't exist. Scotland is divided on the issue of independence. Surely our democracy and our politics must evolve to the point where we don't see each issue through the prism of conflict and where one-size answers fit every conceivable question. There are few absolutes in politics. We need to accept this and move on from our insular and partisan approach.

Federalism could start to address these political and philosophical questions and help create a deeper and smarter debate. Brexit has shown that slim majorities can undermine national solidarity, cohesion, and stability and create powerful divisions, which will not go away. The bitter legacy that befalls the defeated and the discontented can be enduringly destructive. Scotland's challenge is to avoid us.

Resolving the constitutional question is about building as much consensus as possible. In Scotland today, there is none. …

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