Nicola Sturgeon answers questions after delivering a speech at University College London on February 11, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Unless Westminster responds to what is happening in Scotland the Union will be doomed

The UK's ancient constitution must be reformed to spread power more evenly. 

One recent evening I chaired a discussion on our disunited kingdom at the London Welsh Centre. It was a good panel: Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University; Tom Holland, the historian and romantic unionist; Adam Tomkins, a professor of law at Glasgow University and adviser to the Scottish Tories; Billy Bragg, the singer-songwriter; and Joanna Cherry, the SNP’s prospective parliamentary candidate in Edinburgh South-West, which is held at present by Alistair Darling. Our discussion was given a charge of energy by the release that evening of Michael Ashcroft’s latest poll of Scottish marginals, which suggested that the SNP was poised to win a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster.

There followed over the next few days a series of panicked interventions from Tory grandees, urging Ed Miliband to rule out any post-election pacts with the SNP. This culminated in the poetry-loving Kenneth Baker, an education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, calling for a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories to save the Union. So far, Miliband has refused to be drawn. Why should he be, when a deal with the SNP might offer his best opportunity of becoming prime minister, something he believes is his manifest destiny?

What was fascinating to me about our discussion that evening was how much consensus there was. No one supported the status quo. Everyone agreed that more devolution, even full federalism, was necessary if the UK was to survive. Each of us conceded that there was no demand in England for regional assemblies or an English parliament, not least because Englishness has for so long – too long – been coterminous with Britishness.

The Cambridge historian David Reynolds, author most recently of The Long Shadow, has correctly called the UK a mini-English empire. Yet it is one that is unravelling, undermined by its asymmetries and internal divisions between a wealthy, entrepreneurial south and a more collectivist north.

This much we know: the centre cannot hold, the British state is fractured, the UK remains imperilled, and we are entering a new era of multiparty politics and hung parliaments. Our first-past-the-post voting system, which was supposed to deliver strong and decisive government, seems no longer fit for purpose when Ukip could win 15 per cent of the vote in May but only a handful of seats. Indeed, a sixth of Scots still vote Conservative but the party has only one MP out of the 59 in Scotland; under a proportional system this would translate into as many as ten Scottish seats, an outcome that would weaken the SNP’s claim that David Cameron has no legitimacy north of the border.

Under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has repositioned itself as Scotland’s authentic left-wing party. Joanna Cherry, who used to be a Labour Party member, said: “Labour put down its left-wing clothes and we were happy to pick them up.”

Yet in recent days London commentators have absurdly dismissed the SNP as nothing but a “receptacle for protest”. Max Hastings, writing in the Daily Mail, denounced Sturgeon, who is a mainstream European social democrat, as “almost Stalinist”, because she supports redistributive taxation and some kind of moderate land reform, long overdue in Scotland as it is in the rest of the UK, where 158,000 families, the so-called cousinhood, own most of our 60 million acres.

In Jim Murphy Scottish Labour finally has a competent leader. He is a good communicator and campaigner, as he showed on his “100 Streets in 100 Days” referendum tour, during which, standing on a soapbox, he addressed crowds and took a fair bit of abuse in return. But Labour’s decline is deep. Murphy has had too little time to win back some of those voters who feel betrayed by a party that was abandoned first by the intelligentsia (writers, artists, academics and commentators) and then by the poorest and most disaffected.

In the late 19th century, after Gladstone converted to home rule for Ireland, the British establishment, harried by a bloc of nearly 100 Irish MPs at Westminster, failed to answer the Irish question. In time, Ireland was lost and civil and guerrilla wars followed because of intransigence and a kind of magisterial imperial disdain.

In May there could be a formidable bloc of SNP MPs at Westminster, somewhere between 25 and 40 of them, the greatest nationalist force at Westminster since the Irish Parliamentary Party entered into coalition with Asquith’s Liberals in 1910. Their presence will ensure that the main Westminster parties honour their pre-referendum “vow” to the Scottish people (which was written by Gordon Brown, it is said) to create one of the world’s most powerful substate legislatures. Yet much more is needed. There has to be a serious regeneration of local government in England, more decentralisation of power and spending of the kind that George Osborne has begun in Manchester, as well as electoral reform.

The Tories claim to have a long-term economic plan. What is required is a long-term constitutional plan, says Adam Tomkins, one that addresses the grievances of all four nations, such as they are. Scots are not suffering from buyer’s remorse. A majority still wish to remain part of the UK, and there will be a second independence referendum in the short term only if Britain votes to leave the EU, which is unlikely.

In The Crisis of the Constitution, an inval­uable new pamphlet published by the Constitution Society, Vernon Bogdanor quotes Disraeli’s dictum that “England is governed not by logic but by parliament”. But parliament, for all its illogicalities, codes and cherished customs, has to give up more powers – or the Union will be no more.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.