“The Future of the Union”, explored not just the ‘Scottish Question’ but also the implications of this crisis for the government of the entire United Kingdom. Those present included senior policy makers, members of both houses of parliament, constitutional and legal scholars, business leaders and commentators.

Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute, opened the discussion with a historical account of British constitutional developments during the 20th century, showing how periods of constitutional uncertainty have alternated with evolutionary progress in the United Kingdom.

Vernon Bogdanor, Research Professor, Institute for Contemporary British History, King's College London, explained that the constitution is based on the sovereignty of parliament, instead of being an inactive, codified constitution. As power was necessarily concentrated in one central place, Westminster, it was not surprising that problems arose when attempting to confer power upwards, to the European Union, as well as when conferring power downwards, as with legislative devolution. Despite this, Bogdanor commented, the United Kingdom has never had an ideology of centralisation per se, and “we are happy to recognise that the United Kingdom is a multi-national state, rather than a unitary one”.

Although happy with devolution to Scotland or Wales, Bogdanor continued, politicians and the electorate resist federalism or devolution in England itself, summed up by Sir John Major’s statement “if the answer is more politicians, you’re asking the wrong questions”. “Asymmetrical devolution is the price England pays to keep Scotland in the union”, said Bogdanor. A Grand Committee considering English legislation, as proposed by the Mackay commission, he believed, would lead to continual deadlock in a Westminster without an English majority, similar to the situation US President Obama now faces in relation to the Republican majority in Congress.

“The argument in favour of a written constitution is logically strong”, Bogdanor claimed. The United Kingdom is currently one of only three democracies in the world without a single codified constitution. He proposed a Royal Commission, to be used as a learning exercise in England, where the electorate have only just begun to think about their constitution, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom.

“There is no union between Wales and the United Kingdom”, Lord Elis-Thomas, former Presiding Officer, National Assembly of Wales, began, “it was abolished in 1993 with the so called Laws in Wales”. With the legislation spent, there has been no need to negotiate any further constitutional devolution. The very nature of devolution, Elis-Thomas continued, is that powers are conferred on the respective nation assemblies by Westminster, “the mother ship”, and because powers are conferred by acts of parliament there is a clear constitutional basis for this.

“Devolution progresses by political activity”, he said, before ending with a prediction with regard to the United Kingdom’s constitution: “get ready for the coming of the Lancaster House conference”.

Dominic Lawson, journalist and commentator, focused on the economic implications of the “vow” given by Cameron, Milliband and Clegg, before the referendum, a “confirmation of the Barnett allocation of resources”. A continuation of the block grant, Lawson argued, is on the surface nonsensical, as the late Barnett himself thought the formula was outdated, given that the population of Scotland has only decreased, whilst the population of England has continued to rise.

“In Wales the proportion of the population wanting independence is less than 5 percent, there is no need to bribe them, whereas the feeling is the Scots need to be”, claimed Lawson. “A huge problem with Ireland was the English treated it as a colony”, he pointed out, whereas “we treat Scotland as a partner”. ‘English Votes for English Laws’ would be fissiparous, Lawson concluded, a quasi-federal state where one of the units contained 80% of the economy, and 85% of the population, would not be feasible.

Researched essays written by the three speakers, and commissioned by the Legatum Institute, now inform the latest stage in the national debate. The essays were published to coincide with the date of the conference and in pamphlet form entitled The Future of the Union.

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Future Reading

  • English votes for English laws is a hopeless proposal - by Vernon Bogdanor, 10 November 2014, The Times (View)
  • English votes proposal ‘is misguided’ - by Lucy Fisher, 10 November 2014, The Times (View)
  • English Votes for English Laws is “Incoherent” and Encourages Separatism, says Vernon Bogdanor - Press Release (View)

About the Speakers

Vernon Bogdanor CBE is Professor of Government at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College, London. He was formerly Professor of Government at Oxford University. A Fellow of the British Academy, he has been an adviser to a number of governments, including those of Albania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Kosovo and Israel. His books include The New British Constitution and, most recently The Coalition and the Constitution, published in March 2011. In 2009 he was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by President Sarkozy.

Lord Elis-Thomas has been the Assembly Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd since 2007, having represented Meirionnydd Nant Conwy from 1999 to 2007. He was Member of Parliament for Meirionnydd from 1974 to 1983 and Meirionnydd Nant Conwy from 1983 to 1992. He was nominated to the House of Lords in 1992 and appointed to chair the Welsh Language Board from 1993 to 1999. He was elected by his colleagues as ‘Llywydd’ or Presiding Officer of the National Assembly in 1999, 2003 and 2007.

Dominic Lawson is the principal opinion columnist and non-fiction book reviewer for the Sunday Times and also columnist for the Daily Mail and Standpoint magazine. He is the presenter of Across the Board, the BBC Radio 4 series of interviews over a game of chess.