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Last week saw the launch of the Scottish Government’s white paper on independence, ‘Scotland’s Future’. This document and the Scottish-independence process have been subsequently discussed in several articles in openDemocracy, including one by Anthony Barnett, who observes that the Scottish example could lead more and more people in England to ask why England, too, should not walk away from the UK; but that:
“The sadness is that there is no English party or movement capable of making this challenge in a positive fashion. For the energy and spirit of Scotland’s example could lead to the emancipation of us all with the declaration of self-government by England and the emergence of an English parliament. This would be able to co-create a federal Britain with its Scottish and Welsh sisters that could command the lasting, positive assent of the Scottish people, as Carwyn Jones has said as the First Minister of Wales.”
We at English Commonwealth believe that now is the time to begin to make that challenge. Indeed, it may already be too late. As I have observed elsewhere, the unionist side in the Scottish-independence debate are able to offer no coherent vision for the governance structures of the Union, and of Scotland within the Union, with which they can oppose ‘Scotland’s Future’. This is simply because there is no such vision: no one in government has articulated, or seems likely to articulate any time soon, any alternative blueprint setting out how the aspirations towards national self-government of the Scottish, Welsh and English could be fulfilled by further devolution, but within a more clearly defined, perhaps federal, UK constitutional framework.
The government appears to have no strategic plan for the governance of, and relations between, the UK’s constituent nations beyond 2014, whether this is a UK of four or three nations (or five and four, if one takes Cornwall as a nation in its own right). And if it has no plan for the UK as a whole then it has, if possible, even less of a strategy for England. This is an utter absurdity insofar as any ‘Rest of the UK’ (rUK) that might emerge from Scottish independence will be an almost exclusively English state.
If no such process of constitutional reshaping is launched from the top down then it will have to be driven from the bottom up. Hence our call for an English Constitutional Convention to be set up in response to popular demand, with participation from every walk of English society and accountable to the people through a referendum.
But why an English Constitutional Convention rather than a UK or British one? For us, it is a matter of ownership and priorities. Our main aim is not to ‘save the Union’, in however modified a form, but to save England as a civic nation and popular democracy: as “a discrete nation and source of political identity and citizenship in its own right”, as we put it. A UK Constitutional Convention will not necessarily deliver this because it will have Westminster’s imprint all over it, and its primary objective will be to salvage the UK/Britain as some form of unitary nation state: something which in reality can be achieved only by suppressing England as a discrete nation.
In any case, as I asserted above, it may already be too late for a UK-wide Constitutional Convention. The time for that would have been a few years ago, when the momentum towards the Scottish-independence referendum was getting underway, and when English people’s dissatisfaction with their present governance arrangements became more and more apparent from polling, from the parliamentary-expenses scandal and other evidence. Launching a UK Constitutional Convention now, as the countdown to the independence referendum gathers momentum, would smack of desperation and expediency: an eleventh-hour attempt to keep Scotland in the Union, rather than a careful, deliberative and open constitutional process for the benefit of the UK as a whole, including its largest constituent part.
To be asserted as a principle, popular sovereignty needs to be exercised in practice. In other words, if we the English people demand the right in principle to determine the manner in which we are governed, then we must in fact demand that right in sufficient numbers not to be ignored by those who presently hold the reins of power. Therefore, we would urge openDemocracy’s readers to sign our petition calling for an English Constitutional Convention, which is couched in the following terms:
governments have ignored the English question while the other nations of the United Kingdom
have forged ahead with their own national projects.
England has the same right to self-government as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and deserves its say on its constitutional future and that of the United Kingdom.
I hereby call upon the United Kingdom Government to consult the people of England on their constitutional future by way of an English Constitutional Convention and a referendum on its recommendations.
We believe this is a simple and just demand, and it is easy to join your voice to ours by signing the petition. England deserves a voice in the inevitable constitutional discussions that will arise over the next few years, whether Scotland votes Yes or No. But England as such will have absolutely no voice at the table unless we demand to be heard.
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