The taste for freedom: questions raised by campaigners for Scottish independence signal directions for a refreshed democracy for all Britons. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
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Union does not mean uniform

Are we moving to a federal United Kingdom and a written constitution?

Throughout the 15 years of devolution the defenders of the old United Kingdom have comforted themselves with the belief that only Scotland and Wales had changed and that the British constitution remained intact.

To give reassurance that Britain would not fundamentally change, the sovereignty of parliament was reaffirmed in the 1997 white paper that preceded devolution, Scotland’s Parliament, which declared: “The United Kingdom Parliament is and will remain sovereign in all matters.” This claim was repeated in the 1998 Scotland Act’s assertion that the Scottish Parliament “does not affect the power of the Parliament of the UK to make laws for Scotland”.

Now with more devolution to Scotland on the way and with even more inevitably to follow, the reality is slowly dawning: Britain cannot be Britain without Scotland and yet Britain cannot keep Scotland unless Britain itself changes.

It is now time to admit the truth – and end years of denial – that it is not just the Scottish part of the British constitution that was in need of overhaul. What is happening in Scotland is rocking the British constitution to its very foundations and has forced us to have a fundamental reappraisal.

No one can now ignore the basic fact that the United Kingdom is no longer and will never again be the all-powerful centralised unitary state of the constitutional textbooks. With one parliament, two legislative assemblies and a high-powered London authority taking powers from the centre, Britain is not the unitary state we were taught about at school.

Nor does the old theory of an undivided Westminster sovereignty conform to the new realities. In its own sphere the Scottish Parliament holds undisputed power and its decisions are not overruled by Westminster.

The idea of parliamentary sovereignty has taken a bashing because referendums, reflecting popular sovereignty, are now in effect required before important constitutional decisions are made.

But does this mean we are becoming a federal state? The classic case against federalism in the UK was put in the 1970s by the Kilbrandon commission, which said that it was “not a realistic proposition”. The commission concluded that the UK would be “dominated by the overwhelming poli­tical importance and wealth of England. The English Parliament would rival the United Kingdom federal Parliament, and in the federal Parliament itself the representation of England could hardly be scaled down in such a way as to enable it to be outvoted by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.” But is this asymmetry, with England 85 per cent of the whole, an end to the federalist’s dream?

Federal systems are typically characterised by a clear division of powers between different tiers of government, a set of autonomous institutions, a formal division of competences, rules for the resolution of conflict and arrangements for the policing of the distribution of competences. To make all that work there is usually a codified constitution that places defined boundaries on the powers of the national parliament, in contrast with the traditional British assertion of parliamentary sovereignty.

Today, with the passing of the Scotland Act 2012 and other developments, we not only have a far clearer division of powers between Westminster and the devolved legislatures, but also a procedure for the adjudication of disputes between Scotland and Westminster. In practice, one parliament cannot simply overrule the other and the UK Supreme Court is able to pronounce upon the constitutionality of Scottish legislation – as demonstrated by its 2011 decision in Axa General Insurance Limited v the Lord Advocate. It is now accepted that where conflicts about legislative powers arise, a resolution will not be imposed by the Westminster parliament under the old theory of its unchallengeable sovereignty but will be adjudicated by the Supreme Court.

And we have also moved from the constitution of the old legal textbooks by dev­eloping a mechanism through which constitutional change can happen without a constitutional crisis, regular referendums or Westminster imposition: where there is a consensus on reform, this can be agreed between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament in the form of an order in council under Section 30 of the Scotland Act.

These arrangements are as yet only partially in place for Wales and operate differently in Northern Ireland but our changing understandings on finance also mark a departure from the notion of the unitary, centralised state. Finance is no longer wholly centralised but a mixture of national and devolved taxation. While there is no agreement yet between the Westminster parties on the final range of tax-raising powers that the Scottish Parliament will have, there is a sufficiently strong consensus emerging that can form the basis of a tax-sharing agreement, which over time Wales may also wish to adopt. And it looks as if the Barnett formula, the mechanism for the UK-wide distribution of resources, would not be altered without at least a serious attempt at a cross-national agreement.

Thus many of the defining characteristics of a new constitution are already coming to life and there is no constitutional bar to proposals – set out in reviews by David Steel and Menzies Campbell – for formal partnership arrangements between the nations of the UK which might include a mutual requirement for statutory consultation and even reciprocal powers of initiation, enabling one government to request formally that another take action to facilitate policy objectives.

But in one respect the nations of the United Kingdom have defied localising tendencies and are far closer and more uniform today than they were 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. Our UK-wide system of pooling and sharing risks, rewards and resources means that not only defence, foreign affairs and the administration of our single economic market remain in UK hands, but so, too, does almost all welfare (Northern Ireland excepted) and guarantees for the funding of key services such as health care. Indeed, what is unique about the modern United Kingdom – and distinguishes it not only from the US and other federal countries but also from the European Union – is the extent to which UK citizenship guarantees fundamental social and economic, and not just civil and political, rights. It means that regardless of whether you are Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish you have a right to a UK-guaranteed pension; a right to UK-guaranteed assistance when unemployed; a right to fully funded health care free at the point of need; and a right to minimum standards of protection at work, including a UK-wide minimum wage and tax credits, no matter who you are and where you reside. The system of sharing across the UK creates a form of equality between the citizens of the four nations that no other group of countries can match for its depth and sophistication and this is arguably the defining characteristic of the Union today.

Can you pool and share resources for services as extensive as these while also enshrining the autonomy of the devolved parliaments and assemblies in other areas of domestic policy? I believe that all the evidence suggests that this is what most UK citizens support. Contrary to the Scottish nationalists’ claim that Scotland believes in social justice in a way that England does not, there is in fact no fundamental difference in the attitudes of Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens when an overwhelming majority of people in each of the four nations support a health service free at the point of need, the same generous provision for pensioners and, at least in Britain, the same system of business tax to pay for these. And the citizens of each nation seem happy to contribute to the security of people across the four nations of the UK.

It is therefore possible to imagine support for a system of government in which welfare, the funding of health care, defence, foreign affairs and most macroeconomic issues are managed at a UK level, while the devolved assemblies and parliaments are autonomous in most other areas.

But can England’s interests and needs be met within such a constitutional framework? Lord Irvine once said that the best way of dealing with the West Lothian question was not to ask it at all. Others feel that there is a West Lothian answer as well as a West Lothian question, even if there is little desire on the part of England to have a separate English parliament.

I do of course strongly support the growing movement for regional devolution that responds to what has become a widespread desire for an answer to the growing power of London, but there is a desire to acknowledge specifically English concerns within the current UK parliament. There are two possible routes. The first potential innovation was in fact discussed by the last Labour government. On a second reading of an English-only bill, English members could of course be outvoted by the rest of the UK. So it would be standard practice to have a second vote on a second reading, which would allow a period of reflection. The second – and in my view more difficult – proposal is the McKay commission’s recommendation that in a grand committee-type arrangement, solely English members – or, if it was an English and Welsh bill, solely English and Welsh MPs – could amend and return draft legislation before the final vote by all the UK MPs.

In both these proposals English members would have a procedure for their views to be represented fully and in each case the final decision would rest with all MPs in parliament – and thus the principle that all MPs have equal voting rights in Westminster would not be breached.

No solution is truly federal because the asymmetry of the constitution – through the lack of an English parliament – remains. But in so far as these reforms would entrench a formal division of powers between the different legislatures and support the resolution of disputes through a system of adjudication, many federalists will likely find them appealing. The arrangement is close to “home rule” for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the sharing of risks and resources in health and welfare means that not all domestic legislative powers would be devolved. Indeed, I believe that the sharing of risks and resources across the UK in welfare and in guaranteeing the funding of health care now defines the UK and is central to the continued unity of the United Kingdom – and even the nationalists, who desire to maintain a currency union with the rest of the UK (while ceding the power to shape it), recognise the desirability for sharing in some areas.

One further set of reforms might help cement the arrangements. While there are mechanisms for adjudication of disputes between the different tiers of government and for achieving further constitutional change by agreement, there is no arena where consensus between the different parts of the Union can be built. Joint forums for dealing with issues such as poverty and housing where powers converge and co-ordination is required would benefit all parts of Britain. There is an argument that the House of Lords should be replaced with an elected Senate-like forum that represents the nations and regions, is sensitive to their needs and recognises that there are areas so controversial that they may cause such polarisation as to jeopardise the Union.

But whatever the post-Scottish referen­dum arrangements are, the UK already looks more like a constitutional partnership of equals in what is in essence a voluntary multinational association. At some stage it will make sense to codify the new division of powers and the new power-sharing, tax-sharing, risk-sharing and resource-sharing rules in a written constitution. And when this is done, Britain will move as close to a federal state as is possible in a country where 85 per cent of the population comes from only one of its four constituent parts. 

Gordon Brown was prime minister from 2007 to 2010. His book “My Scotland, Our Britain” is newly published by Simon & Schuster (£20)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war