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14 July 2016

Leader: Can Theresa May save the UK?

The UK is imperilled as an entity. As Prime Minister, Ms May must seek to unite not just the country, but all of Britain.

By New Statesman

Theresa May, who this week became the 54th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has ­spoken of her desire to “unite the country” at this time of political and constitutional crisis. This aspiration is admirable but Ms May must seek to unite not just England, but all of Britain. The old structures are crumbling. The UK – perhaps the most successful multinational state in modern history – is imperilled. The status quo cannot hold, and nor should it.

Devising a new federal arrangement that is fit for purpose is surely as important as agreeing to a new, post-Brexit settlement between the UK and the European Union. If one cannot be worked out, it seems inevitable that Scotland will secede sooner rather than later, especially as its First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has indicated that the Scottish government is pursuing a second independence referendum.

The EU referendum exposed and exacerbated Britain’s ­divisions. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted decisively to remain, while Wales and England voted to leave (England had its own divisions between cities and towns, and between the cosmopolitans and the rest). Even as Brexit has increased the risks of the Union being shattered, however, it has also created what may be the final opportunity for its reconfiguration. Do our politicians have the will and vision to make this happen?

We have long argued that the UK should embrace a fully federal arrangement, thereby bringing decision-making powers closer to the people. In this context, the Constitution Reform Group’s proposals, unveiled on 14 July, are welcome. The all-party group advocates a bold restructuring of our constitutional settlement, replacing the existing Union with a system of fully devolved government in the four nations of the UK, with each given sovereignty over its affairs. The influence of Westminster would be reduced, although it would retain the power to legislate on areas of pooled sovereignty, such as common defence and security matters.

Under the proposed reconfiguration, the four nations would, in essence, receive “devolution max”. This would be particularly significant for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where voters complain of alienation from Westminster and of a democratic deficit. A new settlement would also finally recognise the “English Question”: the simmering discontent among English voters, who do not have a national legislature and feel that their interests have been ignored for too long (hence the rise of Ukip).

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A new constitutional settlement would recognise the facts of politics in the UK today. Disillusionment with politicians and a sense of disconnect and abandonment are rife. Much of this manifested itself in the vote to leave the EU.

Federalism is a necessary response. Yet it is not sufficient. In effect, the first-past-the-post system disenfranchises millions of voters who live in safe seats and feel that their votes are worthless. It is wholly inadequate for an age of pluralist politics: 97 per cent of the electorate supported the Conservatives or Labour in 1951, but just 67 per cent did so in the 2015 general election. Though we abhor Ukip, it is wrong that its 3.9 million votes gave it just one seat in parliament, fuelling a sense of grievance among those who support the populists.

Elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Assembly all use ­proportional voting systems. It is time that the electorate in England, too – in Westminster as well as in local elections – adopts more proportional systems.

Meanwhile, English cities and regions should be empowered by devolution of the kind that has contributed so much to the resurgence of London and Manchester. The House of Lords, the only fully unelected second chamber in Europe, should be abolished, or at least democratised, perhaps by functioning as a senate of the regions.

It is possible that the problems facing the United Kingdom are insoluble and that the disunities are too great. Many of the world’s multinational states have broken apart, from Czechoslovakia to Yugoslavia. Spain, which is also a kingdom, has been destabilised by independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Belgium is little more than a failing pseudo-state. Against this backdrop, preventing the disintegration of the UK is perhaps the most significant of the challenges confronting Ms May as she grapples with the consequences of David Cameron’s epic failure. 

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM