Should there be a referendum on Devolution?

The British government is currently engaged in negotiations which could change the constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland. These may lead to a measure of political devolution to the Irish Republic, and the Northern Irish community. The government has promised a referendum on any negotiated changes.

Some of the political parties in Britain are proposing a measure of devolution in Scotland and Wales - if they win the next general election. However, there has been no similar commitment to a referendum concerning these constitutional changes.

In so far as any constitutional change could have a profound effect on Britain, it would seem appropriate to ballot the whole of the British electorate prior to any specific constitutional change.

Why Devolve Power?

The reasons for the current political interest in devolution are not necessarily noble or democratic. The opposition parties want power - and believe that votes can be gained by promising a degree of self-government to the Scottish and Welsh electorate.

The British government has no traditional interest in devolution. The Conservative Party is normally a 'one-nation' party. However, the government has been forced to negotiate with the Irish government, the Sinn Fein, and the other Northern Irish political parties because of the guerrilla war waged by the Provisional IRA.

"Power comes out of the barrel of a gun" said Mao Ze Dung. Unfortunate, but true. The Provisional IRA had learned the lessons of British colonial history. The road to independence is invariably preceded by a guerrilla war. In addition, British foreign policy is invariably determined by the profit and loss account.

The 'war' had proved very costly both in terms of human life and property. The British government had been under increasing pressure from the United States to settle the 'war'. Secret negotiations paved the way for a 'cease-fire'.

However, a sustained peace in Northern Ireland will require a political dividend for the Provisional IRA, or the 'war' will surely resume.
So the 'one-nation' party is forced to consider some measure of devolution in Northern Ireland. The opposition parties are likewise forced to include devolution policies within their manifestos, because of the electoral success of the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties.

Once again we find ourselves returning to the basic issues. "Who rules whom?"

The Making of Britain

In the middle ages, England abolished individual slavery. However, their rulers found no contradiction in the support of a policy of national slavery. Nor in support of the slave trade. And yet surely if it is wrong for one individual to enslave another individual, it must be equally wrong for a group of individuals to enslave another group of individuals!

Likewise, by extension, it must be wrong for one nation to enslave another nation. However such arguments were ignored by English and British governments in colonial times.

The English colonised the Welsh and the Irish. The Scots gained their independence through force of arms, but surrendered it via the Act of Union in the eighteenth century. The Irish negotiated their independence in the 1920's after a guerrilla campaign. The people of Ulster achieved independence from the new Irish State through force of arms. Their subsequent reunion with Britain led to the current United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In the past seventy years, Britain has relinquished most of her colonial empire, and is now negotiating a degree of political and economic union in Western Europe. Times have changed. National slavery, in the form of colonialisation, is no longer approved of. Discrimination on the basis of class, race, sex, religion or colour are considered equally unacceptable. Perhaps it is time to consider the devolution of power in a post colonial society.

The Alternatives

There appear to be four main alternatives to the 'Status Quo' in Britain.

Firstly, there is the establishment of a totally integrated state. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, would be totally abolished as individual entities. Their flags, anthems, sports teams, Secretaries of State, and other cultural variations would be abolished and merged into one British superstate. One people, one education system, one legal system, one currency, one language, and one central government. It could be a unitary or federal state, but it would be totally integrated.

The second alternative would be independence for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each state could determine its own political and electoral system to suit its own particular requirements. Of course, such states would be free to join any other states in a political, and/or economic union.

The third alternative would be a mild degree of devolution, through the establishment of Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Such assemblies would have limited executive and legislative authority over their 'provinces'. These assemblies might be described as glorified metropolitan councils. They would have no more constitutional power than existing local government. In other words - none at all. This seems to be the sort or arrangement the main opposition parties have in mind, when they talk of devolution.

Sovereign State?

The fourth alternative would be to convert the United Kingdom into a Union of Sovereign States, where England, Scotland and Wales would each have 'national status'. As such, each of these countries would have a constitutional right to their own autonomous government.

In addition, under the national status provisions, the English, Scottish and Welsh national governments, could hold a plebiscite from time to time on the question of independence. If a majority voted in favour of independence from the British Union of Sovereign States, then independence would be deemed to have been granted.

This constitutional provision would give a real measure of political power to the national governments of England, Scotland and Wales. However, provided the central government managed the country in a prudent and equitable manner, the British Union of Sovereign States would remain intact.

In Northern Ireland, the geopolitical realities could lead to the establishment of two autonomous regions within the province. One would be nominally Catholic, while the other would be nominally Protestant. The people of Northern Ireland would be able to register as voters in the autonomous region of their choice.

There would be no need to move. At election time, those who resided outside their nominated autonomous region, would have a postal vote. Such registration would imply automatic citizenship, if either of the two autonomous regions should subsequently become independent states.

Each of the two Northern Irish 'mini-states' would have national status, with the same constitutional rights and obligations as their English, Scottish and Welsh counterparts. If the Irish Republican government endorsed the concept of 'national status' - perhaps in the context of a Union of Sovereign States of Europe; the way would be open for the development of a Union of Sovereign States of Ireland.

The Advantages of Devolution

The main advantages of devolution are those that accrue to competition and choice. The spread of government would allow a degree of political, social, educational and economic experimentation which are normally denied in a integrated state. In addition, it could provide an alternative power base for opposition parties to demonstrate their fitness to govern.

The national states could act as nurseries for the development of new political parties, electoral systems and economic programs. If successful, these might then be adopted by the central government.

Finally, it would increase the chances of small militant parties, (like the Sinn Fein,) in gaining representation. This in turn could encourage such parties to imagine the possibility of constitutional solutions to their problems - as an alternative to terrorism!