Canon Kenyon Wright: There'll Always be a....Britain? (England and Scotland - Partners in a reformed Union)
Address to Conference on “The Future of England (Campaign for an English Parliament)
by Canon Kenyon Wright CBE, 26 April 2008
What is this? A Scot daring to speak about the future of England?. Are there not already too many Scots deciding England’s future? So why am I here?
I am not here to tell you what to do. We Scots are good at that, but it is not my purpose today. Our two nations have been linked for centuries – as enemies, as friends and as partners in the Union. I admit that we Scots have too often defined our identity in resentment of our larger neighbour. As far back as the 16th century, the Spanish ambassador to the court of King James IV reported back to his homeland that “nothing pleases the Scots so much as abuse of the English!” I hope in the 21st century we have grown up at last, and can meet each other openly and honestly as friends who tell each other the truth, but as CS Lewis once wrote “we cannot meet face to face till we have faces!” The Scottish sense of identity is strong but hard to analyse or define.. One leading Academic in Edinburgh said that anyone who comes for any time to Scotland becomes aware of “a world of dense Scottishness” I am convinced that England has also a strong sense of identity, but that you are in the process of rediscovering it. For both of us, it means redefining the nature of our relationship with Britishness, and the Union. It seems to me that at heart, that is what your campaign and this conference are all about.
I cannot tell you how to influence the future of England – but I can share with you a glimpse of the Principles by which we worked for long years in the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament, and later in the Constitutional Convention; of the Process by which we achieved our goal, and of our continuing task of defining the Future of Scotland as a participative democracy. It is your task to judge whether, and if so how, these facts are relevant to your very different situation.
The Founding Principles
In the 1950’s Scotland’s greatest legal mind of the 20th century. Lord President Cooper was called upon to decide on a legal challenge to our monarch being designated Elizabeth the Second – on the very reasonable grounds that she was indeed the first, not only to reign as Queen of Scots, but in fact first in the United Kingdom. Cooper dismissed the case on the legal grounds that the Royal Prerogative reserved this decision to the monarch – but he did go on say, in a landmark judgement
“The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law”
This reflects the two foundation principles on which we worked. – Sovereignty and Subsidiarity. Our first act in the Convention was the solemn signing by all present (including of course Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling et al) of the “Claim of Right for Scotland” which proclaimed “the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine how they will be governed”. To this day I wonder how many of those MPs who lined up to sign it, fully realised they were by implication denying the right of Parliament to be the final arbiters in constitutional matters.
The second founding principle of subsidiarity, maintains that power should be limited, dispersed, and exercised at the lowest effective level. This means for us, clearer protected and positive powers, constantly under review, for local government, for Scotland, for the UK (though here there is a dispute as we know) and for the European Union too. Scotland is much more positive towards the EU than I sense you are, and generally does not see it as a threat to our sovereignty or nationhood..
I suggest hesitatingly, that there might be two ways in which our story has relevance to yours.
Political Grievances are not enough
First, we did not base our case on political grievances, but on constitutional principles. Like you, we certainly had plenty of complaints, and they provided fertile ground for our task
You have legitimate anger over the West Lothian Question – the undemocratic right of Scottish MPs to influence education and health say, in Doncaster and Edmonton, but not in Dundee or Edinburgh– or indeed in any of their own constituencies. Also many resent Scotland’s apparent advantages through the Barnet Formula, which will obviously be revised if and when the Scottish Parliament gains Fiscal powers, as seems likely in any revision of the Scotland Act
We in our turn, pointed out that, while the votes of Scottish MPs would have made a difference only for two or three years since the war, the votes of English MPs imposed policies on Scotland for some 50 years. This came to a head when the Thatcher Government not only made us guinea pigs for the Poll Tax, but imposed on us measure after measure which the Scottish people and their Representatives had manifestly and massively rejected. A Church of Scotland Report in 1989, the year the Convention was formed and the Claim of Right signed, said “that which was always unacceptable in principle, has now become intolerable in practice”.
My point is simply this. Contemporary political grievances can strengthen your case, as they did ours, but they should not be the basis on which you work. The principles, based on national identity and aspirations, should be clear.
Second, the Process was important
We strove for the widest possible consensus on exactly what we were asking for. Through enormous difficulties, we defined in detail what a Scottish Parliament would look like, and how it would relate to the UK and the EU. That task may indeed be even more difficult for you, but I hope it can be done.
The Future of England is inseparable from the Future of the Union
There is a profound reason why Scotland must be interested in, and aware of, what you are doing here. – simply that the success or failure of your campaign has enormous implications for us.
The devolved Scottish Parliament and Government have many weaknesses, but in one major aspect their very existence breaks the log jam of British politics. For the first time in the history of the Union, we have succeeded in establishing a secure base of alternative constitutional power which is in practice irreversible.
However, we are a small nation of 5 million people, one tenth of England. Our success challenges, but has not radically changed, the United Kingdom or the central institutions of the British State. But make no mistake about it – if your campaign succeeds, it means the end of the Union in the form we now know it. At the least it means the radical transformation of the Union into a very different political reality, one of genuine and secure power sharing. That is as important to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as it is to England. It is time for us to be discussing seriously together what kind of Union, if any, we think best for the 21st century
The new Scottish Constitutional Commission which a group of prominent Scots have recently formed (see www.constitutionalcommission.org) - to be clearly distinguished from the Commission set up by the unionist parties in Scotland, which has a much narrower mandate - should be in regular touch with you and the other nations, to ensure that our thinking on the future of our common relationships and governance, are in harmony, and must be taken seriously.
Scotland is in danger of polarising the debate into two extremes. On the one hand, devolution as at present with a few extra powers – on the other hand, independence; in other words, either the Union with a bit of tinkering at the edges, or the end of the Union. Of course, Scottish Independence would deliver your English Parliament on a plate – but my hope is that you will help us all by bringing fresh ideas to the future of a Union, which your success would inevitably change. Are we talking of some form of Federal or Confederal solution, with powerful Parliaments and Governments in the 4 nations, and with a central Government for those matters we agree to hold in common?
I do not know, but I think it urgent that we begin to ask these questions now
I am aware that the CEP accepts the final authority of the UK Parliament, but I find this hard to endorse.. The very existence of an English Parliament would question the size, the shape and the powers, of the continuing UK body. Certainly for Scotland, it would raise with a new urgency the hope expressed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1989. that the coming Scottish Parliament would “represent a fundamental shift away from the notion of the unlimited or absolute sovereignty of the British Parliament, towards the Scottish and Reformed Principle of limited or relative sovereignty!"
I believe some major changes are unavoidable if a reformed Union acceptable to all its component nations, is to be preserved in the 21st Century.
At the least we need
- The development of a genuinely constitutional monarchy through the abolition of the Royal Prerogatives and the enormous power and patronage they give to the UK Prime Minister.
- A clear and accepted definition of the relationships of the Union government and the “devolved” governments, which defines and effectively limits the powers of each (though the word “devolved” would no longer be strictly accurate in a situation where power is securely shared. Enoch Powell once said “Power devolved is power retained”)
- A written constitution defining these powers and relationships.
The Future of England is inseparable from the Future of Britain.
Towards a Participative Democracy
In one important respect, our Parliament has only partly succeeded. The vision was of something “radically different from the rituals of Westminster, more participative, more open, more creative, less needlessly confrontational”. At a time when there is widespread contempt for politics, and the erosion of trust in politicians, it is vital that the Parliaments for which we strive are closer to the people, elected by a fairer system, open and honest in all they do, and encouraging the people to be part of the decision making process.
If there is one central thing I have learned from the experience of the last twenty years, it is this. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.
Recently the POWER Inquiry, after extensive hearings all over Britain, laid bare the growing contempt, not for politics as such, but for the system. On that basis, its Convenor, Lady Helena Kennedy said
“Changes of this magnitude cannot be left simply to elected representatives. An alliance for change needs to be built amongst the most clear-sighted MPs, local councillors, MEPs and members of the devolved institutions, but only a sustained campaign for change from outside the democratic assemblies and parliaments of the UK will ensure that meaningful reform occurs. We, the people, have to stake our claim on power”
That seems to me to define your continuing task – and ours