THE current devolved settlement is becoming out of date and the UK should begin a serious debate about creating a “sensible alternative: a federal United Kingdom,” says Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
The former Foreign Secretary, who also served between 1986 and 1990 as Scottish Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s Government, believes there is “no revolutionary air” in Scotland about breaking up the United Kingdom and that the slew of recent opinion polls – that have put the independence cause ahead – have not been a conclusion about leaving the UK but, rather, an expression of an “evolving” mood against the constitutional status quo; and also against Boris Johnson.
In an interview with The Herald, Sir Malcolm made clear that he was not in favour of a second independence referendum and did not believe one should happen anytime soon even if the SNP won a majority at May’s Holyrood elections.
However, he noted that if indyref2 were ever to take place, then the choice on the ballot must not be between independence and the status quo but between leaving the United Kingdom or remaining in a new federal Union; he feels most Scots would opt for the latter and so preserve the 313-year-old Union.
This week, the constitutional settlement has hit the headlines after the Prime Minister privately told Conservative MPs that devolution had been a “disaster” in Scotland, branding it Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”.
The SNP seized on the remarks as clear evidence Mr Johnson was fundamentally opposed to devolution, insisting the “Tory mask has slipped”. But the PM later insisted he was fully supportive of devolution – he was, after all, Mayor of London for eight years – and that the “disaster” was how the SNP Government had weaponised devolution to further its cause of independence.
Sir Malcolm, who served for 23 years as the MP for Edinburgh Pentlands, argued that the tectonic plates of the constitution had shifted since devolution was created a generation ago and referred to a new “Kingdom of the four nations”.
“We now, constantly, even in London, hear people talk about the four nations, which was a term we didn’t use to use except in regard to rugby…The coronavirus has shown the success of devolution; not just as between Scotland and England but between different parts of Scotland and of England.
“It may be that devolution will soon have had its day and may deserve to be replaced by something more radical, that recognises the national identity of the four nations and provides a system of government that corresponds to new aspirations not just in Scotland but in Wales and England as well.
“Devolution is a system based on Westminster conceding power to the periphery rather than the four nations of the United Kingdom deciding we have a lot in common which justifies, on an island such as ours, having a UK government but with maximum national control by each nation of its own domestic affairs.
“If we created a federal Union, we would have a new United Kingdom of the four nations based on a federal principle instead of London conceding degrees of devolution to each of them.”
When it was put to Sir Malcolm that the SNP would hardly buy into a federal Union when the momentum of 14 consecutive opinion polls, putting the independence cause ahead, made it feel its dream was within grasp, the Scot bristled.
“But, hold on, with respect. These polls are not actually about reaching a conclusion on independence; not a single person answering the pollster thinks this is a decision they are taking now on the future of their country.
“What they are expressing is a feeling which has changed – which may or may not be temporary or permanent, it’s far too early to know – partly because they don’t like Boris Johnson, partly because of a range of issues relevant to Scotland and less relevant to other parts of the Kingdom – they’re saying, well, maybe independence is not a bad idea after all.”
The Tory grandee pointed out how all the opinion polls on Brexit suggested a win for Remain but in the end the decision was for Leave.
“So, I’m not getting too excited about opinion polls. What I do respect and recognise is that opinion is evolving. It’s very important if you believe in the Union, for the United Kingdom Government not just to be at the mercy of events but to take the initiative.”
The former Cabinet Minister argued Nicola Sturgeon, whom he believes is a much more thoughtful politician than Alex Salmond, knew that, whatever the opinion polls were saying now, they did “not guarantee” either a referendum or independence any time soon.
“So, you have time to say: hold on, maybe we need, in a non-partisan way, to examine an alternative structure for the UK, which might make it more acceptable to those in Scotland, who are currently attracted by the issue of independence.
“If I’m correct, and I may not be, the issue in Scotland is about identity; that Scotland is a nation, it’s not just a region and that devolution helps deal with that but it does not entirely respect the national identity of Scotland because it’s devolution conceded by London rather than something in its own right.”
In a week when Gordon Brown, the former Labour Prime Minister, spoke of the need for a new, enhanced devolved settlement to save the Union, Sir Malcolm, pointed out there were also English and Welsh dimensions to this debate, which could be addressed in a new federal structure, where domestic issues would be wholly controlled by the four nations but there would be an agreed central government with responsibility for foreign and defence policy, macroeconomics, a single currency and other domestic and international issues, all under the Crown.
“Surely the sensible thing to do now is not to have a referendum in Scotland simply with the only choice being independence or the status quo. We should use the time now available, no more than a year or 18 months, to work out what may be a sensible, alternative arrangement, which in practice would be likely to be a federal Union.
“And if there is a referendum, then that’s the choice you offer: Scots decide either they want to break up the Union and separate from England and Wales or have a federal Union, which would be a lot better than devolution; it meets the cultural, social and political aspirations that many people have and, if that is now the choice, we can live with that.
“It would be far more likely that a federal Unionist viewpoint would win if that was on the ballot paper, rather than simply saying: do we continue with the status quo or go for independence?”
Federalism is now not only the official policy of the Liberal Democrats but also Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. With high-profile Conservatives like Sir Malcolm now advocating it, perhaps its time has finally come.