The problem with referenda is that politicians decide the question(s) as this suits their own short-term party and personal agendas. This limits choice for an electorate often forced to vote for propositions which are more extreme than desired. In the Scottish independence referendum, a third question on more radical devolution would anecdotally have received majority support. Many of us in the Scottish Labour Party argued for this but lack of foresight and interference from the Westminster big guns such as Brown and Darling scuppered this.
In the EU referendum, a third option of negotiating changes including, and I say this reluctantly, a temporary cessation of freedom of movement, failing which exit within a time frame, may have succeeded and prevented Britain being badly divided into countries, regions and communities.
This divide shows that you cannot separate economic and social issues from constitutional issues of decentralisation and self-determination. The EU vote has raised other constitutional questions. Is the vote binding on Westminster? Can the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies or Scottish Parliament veto Westminster legislation abolishing EU rights contained in devolved legislation? Can they hold their own referenda? Does there have to be a general election after such a profound constitutional decision? The answers to all are we don’t know.
Britain has an ‘unwritten constitution’. These imprecisions favour politicians, who can interpret it to suit their own interests. This gives little protection or mechanisms for citizens to enforce rights. And, of course, none of this ‘unwritten constitution’ is embedded and a Westminster government with a tiny majority could abolish the Human Rights Act, as this Tory Government intends, or indeed abolish the devolved governments if they get too uppity. That the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ does not have a written constitution is a democratic disgrace and highlights the failure of generations of political leaders.
Another democratic deficit is the absence of a fair, proportional voting system. It is wrong that UKIP got 13% of votes and the Greens 4% in the last general election but only one seat each. In a democracy, every citizen’s vote must count or many will disengage from the process and some seek other avenues. Also, first past the post sees parties tailoring their policies to suit a handful of marginals, mainly in London and the South while ignoring the needs of the majority.
In Scotland, there is growing demand for another independence referendum with the exception of a diminishing band of unionists. The Scottish Labour Party, not before time, has changed its position and is looking at a federal system which they think may keep us in the EU. They have also not said a definite ‘no’ to another referendum. With the devolved governments, the UK has a de facto federal system but not one enshrined in any constitution. A formal federal system would be too little too late and has an obvious defect, on reserved matters, England with 90% of the electorate would dominate and easily outvote the other countries. This would be unacceptable in Scotland.
The SNP Scottish Government is reluctant to hold another referendum without reasonable confidence of success but there are time imperatives with negotiations about Scotland’s and the UK’s future with the EU negotiations. Many Scots are apprehensive of severing all links with the rest of Britain. Those of us on the left have solidarity with workers and their families whether they live in Shotts or Sunderland.
A third option on any referendum on the future of Scotland should include a confederal arrangement with the rest of Britain. In a confederacy, each constituent country is autonomous with agreed matters such as defence, foreign affairs and macro-economics reserved but with the proviso that these must be decided by unanimous agreement of all constituent countries.
Such radical self-determination could satisfy the desires of most nationalists, reduce divisions and prevent gridlock on urgent economic and social issues while constitutional issues are argued interminably. This could allow Scotland to remain part of the EU, if we so decide, with a similar arrangement to those of Denmark and Greenland. Northern Ireland and Wales might seek the same relationship in the future and, who knows, this could lead to closer ties with Eire. There are a lot of ifs and buts, uncertainties and detail required but no more than we face just now. One thing is certain – the present constitutional settlement is unfit for purpose.
Bob Thomson is a retired union official and a past chairman and treasurer of the Scottish Labour Party. He was active in Labour for Independence during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.