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Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH

This election changes everything: We need a Federal Kingdom of Britain Add to ...

Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European Studies at Oxford University.

So now we need the Federal Kingdom of Britain. Otherwise, this most dramatic British election result since 1945 could mark the beginning of the end of Britain, and of Britain in the European Union. With left-wing Scottish nationalists sweeping the board north of Hadrian’s Wall while right-wing Euroskeptic Conservatives form the British government only because they triumphed in England, the two largest parts of our increasingly disunited United Kingdom, England and Scotland, are doomed to discord. Meanwhile, millions of Green, Liberal Democrat and UKIP voters wake up to find that, because of Britain’s unfair election system, their own individual votes counted for nothing.

In the next few days, what happens in Westminster may look like business as usual. An Old Etonian Tory Prime Minister will remain in 10 Downing St., form a new government and write a speech for the Queen to deliver to the assembled Lords and Commons at the end of the month. Take a black-and-white photograph and it could be 1951 – or 1895. But in truth, everything is changed, changed utterly.

For the next couple of years, the most urgent issues will be the economy, the unequal impact of public spending cuts, and the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, which will happen before the end of 2017. But over the life of this Parliament we should start rethinking the whole shape of this country.

However unsympathetic a new Cameron government may be to such ideas, what we need is a Federal Kingdom of Britain. The quiet revolution in Scotland demands a new settlement, in which each constituent part of the kingdom has clearly defined powers. A new Scottish Parliament, to be elected next year, may actually be less dominated by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and more open to that. (The Scots’ seemingly self-contradictory votes in the independence referendum and this election suggest that they want to have their oatcake and eat it. They may yet succeed.) Wales will demand more of what Scotland’s having. Northern Ireland is its own place anyway, intertwined with the rest of Ireland in ways that only a baggy Britain inside a flexible European Union make possible.

And all around me, here in the drizzly heart of England, I hear quiet voices murmuring, “For we are the people of England/that never have spoken yet.” UKIP has been, amongst other things, a dog-whistle voice of English nationalism. Meanwhile, the Conservative party and press have awoken the sleeping English bulldog by making their election cry: “Stop the SNP!” To whom exactly powers are federally devolved in England (regions? counties? cities?) is a conundrum, but one that must now be addressed.

The most radical and coherent proposal comes from a Conservative grandee, the Marquess of Salisbury, a descendant of that earlier and even grander Salisbury who was the David Cameron of 1895. The House of Lords should be abolished, he self-sacrificingly suggests, and turned into an upper house (Senate perhaps?) for the whole federal kingdom. The House of Commons should become the English Parliament, so that each nation of our quadri-national state has its own democratic assembly.

Since every new assembly Britain acquires has a more proportional voting system, so would be the one for the Senate. That would go some way to meet the discontents of the millions of effectively disenfranchised individual voters – including, let it be said, those of UKIP. Eventually, even the English Parliament would be squeezed towards a somewhat more representative electoral system.

All this is inseparable from the matter of Europe. After all, the essential British argument over the EU is about who does what at what level. That’s what people will be looking at in the probably paltry results of Cameron’s self-styled renegotiation with Brussels. But another word for such multilayered arrangements is, precisely, federalism. In fact, Cameron’s first government did an exhaustive exercise looking at all the different powers exercised by the EU – and then buried the results, because they suggested the balance was really not at all bad for Britain. So here too, the federal kingdom is what this transformed country needs.

All this may sound a bit dry and academic on the morning of the most dramatic election result I can remember; but actually it’s not. This drama is so big because it puts not just the economic and social well-being of a society but the very shape of the country at stake: externally, in Europe, and internally, between England and Scotland. So let’s think big in response. It will take years to get there. But on Monday, when we have caught up on lost sleep, the British need to start designing the foundations for the new state they need: the Federal Kingdom of Britain.

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