Whatever we may think of it, the Yes camp in Scotland succeeded in building a powerful movement. Turnout in the Scottish Referendum was a staggering 84 percent, putting the typical General Election turnout of 60 percent very much in the shade. This is proof that when the electorate is offered real, meaningful choice, they will engage. It is however sobering, that Scotland’s biggest city – Glasgow, and 45 percent of Scots overall, voted to leave the United Kingdom.
That such a sizeable minority of Scots voted Yes should be no surprise. Westminster and Whitehall grandees alike have ignored the warning signs and slept walked into this situation. Alarm bells have been ringing for over 30 years. From Tom Nairn’s “Breakup of Britain”, to the rise of Charter 88, Baroness Kennedy’s Power inquiry, and the long-running analyses of Democratic Audit – all have pointed to the growing constitutional anomalies of the UK.
For far too long, Westminster politicians have resisted significant constitutional reform. Instead, they’ve mistakenly tried to cling on to the influence Britain once wielded as an imperial power, in complete denial that we’re now a middle ranking power with some embarrassing statistics. As pointed out earlier this year by Adam Ramsey, we are the fourth most unequal country in the world, with wages falling faster, working hours getting longer, and house prices rising higher, than the majority of our EU neighbours. Our economic productivity is significantly lower than the average for developed markets and we have the highest infant mortality rates in Western Europe.
The Social Liberal Forum has led the way on these issues within our Party. We have long-called on our ministers in government to commit to a radical industrial policy, to build more houses and to invest in our country’s future by increasing infrastructure, education and business spending. And if we want some of those appalling trends to be reversed, we must keep the pressure up. With a No vote in Scotland, many left leaning Liberal Democrats could be lulled in to a sense of relief that it will now be easier to keep the Tories out of majority governments. But now is not the time for us to rest on our laurels, there is much to do.
Our Party has long been committed to devolution and federalism. We shouldn’t be fobbed off with piecemeal reform. Nothing short of a written constitution will now do. At the heart of the problem is the inherent asymmetry of the UK for a federal solution – but this must be tackled. A whole host of questions need to be asked: Should the predominance of England be diluted with stronger local government or regional devolution within England? Should there be a Second Chamber at all? If so, should it be emblematic of the UKness of the UK? Should the Lords be replaced by a Council of State, comprising say 100 experts from main sectors of national life appointed for 5 years, enjoying the Crown’s prerogatives to “advise, warn and encourage”, together with pre- and post-legislative scrutiny powers?
Whatever the answers, we should all be grateful to Scotland for bringing in to stark focus, the need for major reform of our political system. Our Party should lead the charge.