Dear Great Britain,
We know how you're feeling. We've been there before. Twice.
A referendum campaign that was supposed to have been a cakewalk for the "No." Early polls bearing that out. A central government washing its hands of the matter, figuring its intervention can only do harm. The country dozing off, because the status quo retaining its status isn't news.
And then, the wind begins to change. The "Yes" is led by a man of energy and passion; the other side by something like his opposite. Polls narrow. Momentum shifts. Defeat and national breakup go from impossible to possible, maybe even likely. The final days of the campaign are marked by panicked interventions from business leaders, international allies, a litany of public figures and the Prime Minister, who promises that a "No" vote means Change with a capital C. There is a palpable feeling that the nation is on the verge of breakup.
And then you wake up. It's the morning after, and disaster has somehow been averted. Voters have come to their senses, or at least enough of them to prevent catastrophe. But having survived the near-death experience, much of the political class believes the country must introduce radical reforms – and make them quickly.
Maybe big constitutional change, fast, is exactly what Britain needs. But be careful. Haste lays waste. Breaking up the country, as we urged Scots against doing, would be a terrible mistake. But so would a mad dash to redraw the constitution.
We've been there, too. Partly in an attempt to address the wounds and demands of the first Quebec referendum, we undertook a process of attempting to negotiate sweeping constitutional change – a process that consumed the country for more than a decade, opened a Pandora's box of frustrations and fresh demands, led to a failed national referendum on constitutional reform, destroyed the governing Progressive Conservative Party and lit the spark for a second, even closer Quebec referendum.
We've lived what you've just gone through, and we've been where you appear to be going. So here's our advice.
Federalism works. Canada has been practising federalism for a century and a half. It works. We have strong provinces and a strong central government. We recommend federalism as the cure to many of your problems. It will not weaken the United Kingdom to have governments in Scotland and in the other three nations of the U.K. that have extensive taxing and spending powers, and that can make different decisions on how to run major social programs. They could have greater control over how to tax and where to spend – precisely what many Scottish "Yes" voters appeared to want.
British politicians were instrumental in creating federalism in Canada in 1867. (Canada's original constitution was nothing but a British statute.) They also shared the model with other parts of the Empire, notably Australia. One of your better inventions was developed and perfected in the distant Dominions, and largely ignored in the British Isles. You built better than you knew.
Federalism makes sense for Britain now; it arguably made even more sense back then – a century ago, it could have allowed for Irish Home Rule within the United Kingdom.
Asymmetric federalism undermines itself: Never underestimate the value that people rightly put on fairness. Federalism works when the various constituencies making up the federation feel they are treated equally. There can and will be arguments about what "equal" means. But any constitutional set-up that gives one province or state extra powers or guarantees denied its peer governments, and the voters of those other constituencies, is liable to turn into a source of festering resentment. Speaking in front of 10 Downing St. on Friday morning, Prime Minister David Cameron seemed to get this. He called for a constitutional order that, if it devolved powers, would seek to offer them equally to each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom.
Federalism works, and more of it might work for the U.K. That, however, opens up a huge new challenge for you, because….
Rewriting a constitution is hard. It is also dangerous: Nobody volunteers for major surgery unless they are left with no other choice. What your political leaders, led by Mr. Cameron, are talking about sounds like major invasive procedure. Yes, the arguments in favour of a truly federal Britain may be compelling. The challenge is in getting through the procedure without the patient expiring. Do you really need surgery? Can it be minor rather than major?
In the mid-1980s, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney tried to address the wounds associated with the 1980 Quebec referendum, and his predecessor Pierre Trudeau's post-referendum constitutional reforms. It did not go as planned. He cobbled together a deal with the provinces, but it fell apart in acrimony, opened new wounds and unleashed new passions. He tried to fix the failed fix with a second deal – which was rejected by the country's voters, stirring up new anger.
By the end of the exercise, his prime ministership was in ruins, his party had been reduced to only two seats in the House of Commons, and Quebec was being propelled into a second independence referendum. It was a disaster. The patient, not particularly sick to start with, barely survived the treatment.
Sometimes doing nothing, or at the very least moving slowly, is the best option. And sometimes it's possible because….
Passions cool. And people change their minds. Britain's constitution may need to evolve. But don't rewrite it solely to address a call for Scottish independence that has already been rejected by a majority of Scots. Keep your eyes on the problems of the future, not the demands of the past.
Each unhappy family, said Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, is unhappy in its own unique way. You can learn something from our experience, because we have so much in common. We used to be close family and now we're more like ever more distant relatives, which means that your history and your points of tension are not exactly the same as ours, and neither will be your solutions. Based on our experience, our advice comes down to this: prudence. Exercise extreme caution. Change as much of your constitution as you must – and as little as you can. Good luck.