The recent introduction of the bill for an Act of Union into the House of Lords is a welcome addition to the debate on the future of Unionism that has been rumbling on since the devolution legislation of 1999 but, says Michael Keating, it contains several problems that will be familiar to those who have followed this debate.
Since the turn of the century, unionism seems to have lost its way. Historically defined in opposition to Home Rule or devolution, it has struggled to come to terms with the post-1999 union in which devolution is a fact that unionists have accepted. What this has revealed is that there never was a unionism in the United Kingdom but a variety of ideas and practices adapted to the different parts of the state. Scottish unionism was not Irish unionism and Welsh perspectives were different again. Curiously perhaps, unionism was most poorly articulated at the centre, where the predominance of England allowed most people to forget that they were living in a plurinational union at all.
For twenty years, unionists have been struggling to rediscover what they never really had or needed before, a moral basis, a historical story and an institutional foundation for a union that was more than England with the Celtic fringe added on piecemeal. The Constitutional Reform Group has now produced a bill for an Act of Union, presented in the House of Lords by Lord Lisvane in October 2018. Its starting point is radical. The four nations of the United Kingdom are to be treated as self-determining entities and invited to form a new union, pooling their sovereignties. Each retains the right to secede again by means of referendum. In practice, the bill builds upon the existing devolution settlements.
The moral foundations of union are to be provided by a set of purposes. These include equality and the rule of law; rights and freedoms; tolerance and respect; equality of opportunity; safety and security; social and economic rights, including health and education; and benefiting from shared history and culture. Here we encounter a familiar problem in post-1999 efforts to reboot the union and Britishness. These are universal values, shared by Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalists and promoted in the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. They do not point towards any particular territorial configuration of political authority. Indeed, in Northern Ireland and, arguably, Scotland they are better divorced from any particular national identity since that is so divisive and contested.
There is a list of reserved competences, as in the current devolution settlement, with the details to be filled in for the individual nations. For Scotland, there would be little difference from the present arrangements, while Wales could continue to catch up. For England, options are presented for an English Parliament or regional and city-regional models.
Finance would be reformed on familiar lines, with an equalization system based on needs and resources to replace the Barnett Formula.
All of this points to a type of asymmetrical federal union. While the proposal to start afresh with referendums in all four nations might be unrealistic, it provides a useful thought experiment and measure for any actual settlement.
The last part of the bill, however goes in a very different direction. There is to be a single civil service, which seems intended to be a strong force for cohesion, as though the bureaucracy should provide a centripetal balance to the centrifugal tendencies of politics. Most strikingly of all, there is a clause that provides that nothing in the Act will affect the sovereignty of the UK Parliament, which even retains the power to amend or repeal the Act of Union itself. Such a clause has featured in every devolution bill since 1886, with the exception of one Scotland bill in the 1920s. It is the essential difference between devolution and the federal or confederal alternatives. It is also in glaring contradiction with the commitment to the sovereignty of the nations on which the earlier part of the proposal is based.
This is a valuable contribution to the debate but unionism has a long way to go to come up with a shared vision of the union itself.