Why mandates matter in the fight for the union

Unionists – and especially those unionists who rest their hopes on a stable devolved settlement – must start defending the fundamental legitimacy of the British parliament

Image courtesy of Joe Cummings: Financial World
Henry Hill
On 7 February 2012 12:58

There will doubtless be hundreds of articles written in the coming years about what unionists need to do to secure the future of the UK. But in my view one of the most important hasn’t been properly discussed yet.

This is the proper defence of the legitimacy of pan-UK institutions, most importantly Parliament. I’ve run across two broad examples of how this critical lynchpin of any unionist argument is under threat.

The first occurred the other day when, whilst subbing a contribution to Open Unionism, I got into an interesting debate with the author, Northern Ireland Conservative Future officer Conal O’Hare.

In his piece – a long article about how unionists should prepare for and fight the coming Scottish referendum – he put forward that the SNP had ‘the mandate’ to decide the details of the referendum and we unionists would just have to accept it.

‘Where had they acquired this mandate?’ I asked. Even setting aside how rigorously the SNP played down independence during the campaign, constitutional affairs are – quite properly – a reserved issue, not a devolved one.

Yet in the 2010 Westminster elections the SNP polled only 491,386 votes, not much more than the Tory 412,855 and well below the combined 1.9 million votes polled by the three main unionist parties.

Surely, if devolution was functioning properly, it must be generally accepted that an election to the Scottish parliament only granted a mandate for devolved policy?

Conal’s response was telling: ‘Technically, of course, you’re right but i think we know that wouldn't wash with your average Scot.’

The second mandate issue arose whenever I find myself debating whether or not a Conservative government with only one MP had any right to pass laws affecting Scotland. This supposed ‘dilemma’ is often brought up, even in the lofty heights of BBC election night programming.

Assuming for a moment unionists win the referendum, if the Union is to survive as a functional entity in the long term both of these attitudes needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency, because it is these two mindsets that are making the theoretically simple task of striking a balance between devolved and reserved government a one-way street to independence.

Much of the logic behind devolution – and certainly behind that section of ‘unionists’ who favour devo-max as a solution – is that powerful devolved governments work fine in other countries, from Germany to the United States. Perhaps most tellingly for Britain, both Australia and Canada operate models with devolved government. If they can do it, why not us?

However, the two constitutional assumptions often made in British politics that I listed above undermine any effort to find a sustainable balance between devolved and reserved government, because both act as if the British state is fundamentally illegitimate.

Let’s look at the first one and compare it with an American example:

Excluding fringe elements of the Republican party and a certain species of ‘states’ rights’ libertarian, American political discourse respects a division of governmental responsibility between the federal and state governments.

Yet Conal’s attitude suggests that somehow an election to the Scottish parliament trumps an election to the British parliament even on issues explicitly reserved for the latter.

Quite aside from the low regard this shows for the political savvy of the average Scot, it represents, if true, a fundamental unionist failing that needs fixing at once. Because this attitude transforms the Scottish Parliament from a functional body for delivering devolved government into a nationalist wish-fulfillment machine.

Any attempt to strike a balance between Holyrood and Westminster is doomed to fail until the devolutionary species of unionist wake up to the fact that they need to defend Westminster’s position as well as Holyrood’s, however uncomfortably ‘old-school’ that may feel, and that this fight can’t be won by framing the argument on the SNP’s terms.

The second example – that a Conservative government without a full phalanx of Scots MPs has a constitutional credibility crisis – also needs to be hit on the head.

Let’s compare again with America: excluding the extremists, most US states accept the right for a nationally-elected president and their policies to hold sway on those areas of government explicitly reserved for the federal centre. Federal authority doesn’t halt at the Mason-Dixon line because a Democrat holds the White House.

Let’s look at the British example and imagine for a moment that David Cameron had won say 30 extra Westminster seats (none of them Scottish) and managed to form a solo government. Would he have had the right to pass laws on reserved matters that affected Scotland?

Of course he would. When a voter takes part in an election they accept – tacitly – the legitimacy of both the election and the body that is being elected. There are only a few (Sinn Féin-shaped) exceptions in the British system.

The overwhelming majority of Scots voted in 2010, as they have in all Westminster contests, for unionist parties. All of these parties accept without reservation the legitimacy and authority of the united Parliament in London to legislate on reserved issues and the right of the largest party therein to form a government.

I first argued this in the aftermath of the general election and must have had to repeat it hundreds of times since. I’d only add that, since the SNP don’t take the SF step and refuse to take their seats, even most SNP voters must concede that the union parliament is legitimate as constituted even if they’d like to dismantle it.

These two mandate questions cut to the very heart of the United Kingdom’s legitimacy as a country and source of governmental authority. Unionists – and especially those unionists who rest their hopes on a stable devolved settlement – must start defending the fundamental legitimacy of the British parliament, lest they find themselves unable to justify the existence of the British nation.

If this doesn’t happen, devolution will remain nothing more than what Tam Dalyell called “a motorway to independence with no u-turns and no exits”, an absurd situation where defeatist unionists hand the SNP gift-wrapped concessions and then watch, aghast, as these successes somehow fail to discourage separatism.

Henry Hill is a UK Conservative blogger and author of the popular Dilettante blog. He is the Editor of Open Unionism and tweets at @Dilettante11

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