Battered by Covid, threatened by nationalism and uncertain what the promise of a post- Brexit ‘Global Britain’ adds up to, the United Kingdom must urgently rediscover what holds it together and sort out what is driving us apart.
The status quo is not working and the world’s most successful experiment in multinational living is under greater threat than at any time in 300 years.
Months of Covid – and bitter disputes between No 10 and the regions and nations over lockdowns, furloughs and business and employment support – have brought to the surface tensions and grievances that have been simmering for years.
The complaint is that Whitehall does not fully understand the country it is supposed to govern.
Elected leaders in our nations and regions protest that their local knowledge has been ignored and only rarely are they ever consulted.
We are all fighting the same virus and the same recession, but instead of the different tiers of government pulling together, relations are now so fraught that the public doesn’t believe them when they say they are determined to cooperate. According to a recent poll, only 4 in 10 Scots think that Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon want to work constructively with each other.
And it is indeed Scotland where dissatisfaction is so deep that it threatens the end of the United Kingdom. For the first time, a majority of Scots now feel, according to recent polls , that Scotland and the rest of the UK are moving inexorably in opposite directions and, nearly half of all scots who have a view believe – against all the evidence – that Scotland would be better off economically independent, and they feel that the Union undermines Scotland’s distinctive identity.
While the crisis is deepest in Scotland, it is far from alone. Regional Metro Mayors – from Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, to Sheffield, Bristol and London – are demanding more powers from what they see as an insensitive, out of touch and over-centralised centre. And in Wales it is not nationalists but the pro-Union First Minister Mark Drakeford who is leading calls for change.
But it’s not leaders’ opinions that should worry us most but the drift in public opinion. ‘Whoever in London thought of that?” is a common refrain, reflecting the frustration of people in outlying communities who feel they are the forgotten men and women, virtually invisible to Whitehall. Too often they feel they are treated like second class citizens. Little surprise that the annual Edelman UK Trust barometer has reported a dramatic overall collapse in public trust in both British political leaders and Britain’s institutions.
Their demand ‘to take back control’ has not, it seems, been assuaged by Brexit nor, in England, by David Cameron’s introduction of English votes for English Laws.
A succession of constitutional reviews since the 1970s have tended to focus on one set of remedies to the exclusion of most others: more powers for devolved administrations. This has invariably led to allegations from opponents that all this means is transferring powers from one set of politicians to another and creating new bureaucracies to replace the old.
A more rounded, thought-through approach is now essential. The Union’s future depends not just on a fair and workable post-Brexit delineation of powers but on rebuilding relationships that are currently broken and renewing our social fabric so that it nurtures them. This means dealing with social and economic inequalities as recognised in the promise to ‘level up’ – and empowering our northern cities and regions to once again become vibrant centres of economic imitative in their own right And it requires joint working between the centre and the rest; a new inclusiveness at the heart of government; and a clarity about the purposes of the United Kingdom itself.
I believe the choice is now between a reformed state and a failed state. So Boris Johnson should announce that when COVID is finally under control, he will set up the Commission on democracy his election manifesto promised and state that it will review the way the whole United Kingdom is governed.
The commission will discover that all the Institutions designed to promote collaboration across the U.K, like the Joint Ministerial Committees, and the Council of the Isles have fallen into disuse, the latest victims of a policy of ‘devolve and forget. They will find that the United Kingdom urgently needs a Forum of the Nations and Regions that brings them and Boris Johnson together on a regular basis.
No country can have national integration without political inclusion, and the commission might start by learning from the experience of countries like Australia, Canada, Germany and America where, partly because of British influence in times past, second chambers are senates of their regions, and minorities who can easily be outvoted are guaranteed a stronger voice.
But such a Commission cannot be yet another case of an elite reviewing an elite, so the Prime Minister should complement the commission’s work by convening Citizens’ Assemblies in each region and nation so that he can listen to what the public are saying.
Of course Scottish, Welsh, Irish and – perhaps – English nationalists will tell you that nationhood must automatically mean statehood in spite of the evidence of successful multinational states all round the world , but perhaps for too long we have left unstated the shared purpose – and values – that bind the UK together, and we have said too little about what we have in common: our shared beliefs in tolerance, liberty, civic responsibility and fairness, and our conviction that all benefit when we pool and share risks and resources across the country.
Yes, we can appeal to history, tradition, culture and the longevity of our institutions, but it is through a focus on the everyday benefits of cooperation and reciprocity, represented by, for example, the National Health Service and our Armed Forces, and the sentiments that inspire them – solidarity and empathy, that we demonstrate the real glue that today brings four distinctive nations and many diverse regions together.
I believe that when faced with the choice, the vast majority across Britain will favour empathy over enmity, solidarity over separation, cooperation over conflict, and reciprocity over the resentments – often more imagined than real – that are sadly what drives us- versus- them political nationalisms.
Indeed, it is because the United Kingdom and its institutions can be rebuilt on the solid rock of shared values that today’s troubled and fractured Union can become a modern reformed UK with a renewed sense of mission and purpose. This is the prize that awaits a Prime Minister who chooses to act. Whether it is this Prime Minister, only time will tell.