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No, The UK Is Not a Unitary State

Picture of Jim Gallagher

Jim Gallagher

Professor Jim Gallagher is the Chairman of Our Scottish Future

There’s been some pretty chaotic debate in the last week about the nature of Scotland’s place in the UK and relationship with it. Folk have been throwing about the U-words – Union, unitary without much regard to their meaning. From both sides of the constitutional argument they find themselves arguing about whether Scotland is or isn’t somehow subordinate in the UK and whether that’s a good thing or a terrible one. This is a fruitless argument. Like the two philosophers debating across the street, they will never reach a conclusion because they argue from different premises.

Scotland’s relationship with the rest of Britain reflects the facts of geography and history. Geography because we share a relatively small island with one large and one smaller neighbour, England and Wales. History, because a Scottish king took over the English throne just over 400 years ago, and then the union of 1707 created a united kingdom of Great Britain. We’ve been in a union ever since.

But union doesn’t mean uniformity, and it doesn’t mean the state that we now have is a unitary state. It’s not. Indeed almost no large country is a unitary state. Managing a complex modern state across a large territory inevitably requires decentralisation. Most places manage this through some sort of federal arrangement, but that doesn’t quite work here. England is so very much larger than the other nations of the UK that a fully formal federal system with an English parliament and government would be unstable. Political power would inevitably reside there, and it would probably lead to the end of the union. Scottish nationalists, if they had any strategic sense, would spend all their time campaigning for a separate English parliament; but happily for those who want Scotland to remain in the UK, the English think they’ve got a parliament already.

The academics have a word for it: they describe the UK as a “union state”, that is to say a state formed by union, but retaining quite a lot of the identity and autonomy of the places which came together to form it.

We tend to forget just how much autonomy and identity Scotland always retained after 1707. Back then, the thing that mattered more than anything else to people was the church and religion. Wars were being fought about it, with each of the English and Scots trying to impose their form of Protestantism on the other. Each failed, and in the end they negotiated a deal. The Scots had leverage, over who should succeed to the throne of the United Kingdom, and they used it to secure a separate Scottish church, quite different in style from the English one, and also to retain a separate legal system. In those days the courts and the legal system were most of the secular domestic government the country had.

On top of that, Scotland retained its distinctive culture and educational system – it had four universities when England only had two, and a more literate population, because of the emphasis the Scottish church put on everyone being able to read the Bible for themselves. History since then includes a great deal of development of separate Scottish government bodies, first within the UK-run institutions, as with the Scottish Office, and since 1999 run by directly elected Scottish parliamentarians.

The key point underlying all of this, of course, is that Scotland (and for that matter Wales and in a different way Northern Ireland) could leave the UK if it really wanted to. That was readily accepted in 2014, and remains true. What also remains true is that it really does not want to.

So what this ain’t is a unitary state: it’s a complicated, slightly untidy way of smaller nations deciding to remain a union with a larger one, but retaining as much identity and autonomy as they can while still gaining the benefits of cooperation and scale, in say defence and foreign affairs or economic management.

If there’s a problem with this system it’s twofold. First, people find it quite hard to understand, and resort to the kind of simplistic mudslinging seen recently about whether Scotland is an equal or an unequal partner. That tells you nothing of value. Second, the truth is that England sometimes forgets, and it sometimes suits some English politicians not to remember that Scotland has it own place. So we probably need to do a bit more to strengthen in the constitution the protections for Scottish autonomy and identity inside the UK system. There are detailed proposals on the table to do just that, but they would require another blog entirely.

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