Reuniting the United Kingdom

By Chris Patten

In the end, democracy came to the rescue. The people of Scotland voted by a comfortable margin of about 10% to remain part of the United Kingdom – not least because of the campaigning of three Labour politicians, Alastair Darling, Gordon Brown, and Jim Murphy.

At times, it seemed that the result would be much closer, or even that we British might engineer the dismemberment of our country, which for centuries has brought together four national communities: England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. The Scots have been part of the British state for more than 300 years, at the heart of the Protestant, imperial, adventuring, outward-looking culture that forged Britain’s identity. Still, that identity has been fractured; I hope not beyond repair. In any case, things will never be quite the same again.

Now, the people of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – not rejected, after all – must behave as well as possible to salvage something workable from the sometimes bitter and divisive arguments. We have to display magnanimity – a difficult enough virtue to practice at the best of times. Before trying to rise to this challenge, what can we learn from this walk along the cliff edge?

Despite the huge turnout on polling day in Scotland, referendums are a lamentable way of trying to settle big political issues. Those who established and developed parliamentary democracy in Britain knew this very well. Referendums are the favorite device of populists and would-be dictators. One vote on one day subsumes complex matters with one ballot question, which in any event is frequently not the question that many people actually answer. Parliamentary democracies should have nothing to do with them.

In the event, we did not dispose of 300 years of shared experience and common prosperity on one Thursday in September 2014. But there are three reasons why we seemed at times to come so close to that outcome, none of which reflect well on the British political process or, in my view, justify the claim that our future will, and must, be different.

First, while Scottish nationalism has many honorable roots and aspirations, the campaign and its incubation showed a nasty tinge of chauvinism and an occasionally brutish hostility toward pluralism, reflected, for example, in the intimidation of some journalists. Overall, the English took on the role of what philosophers and social scientists call the “other,” an alien threatening force, in the pro-independence campaign. The English were every day’s villains. Now we have to try to forget all of that.

Second, Britain, like other countries in Europe, is suffering from the rise of angry, populist, anti-enlightenment political forces, fueled by conspiracy theories. In England, the electoral success of the UK Independence Party is one such example. Demagogues stack prejudices atop half-truths, and any attempt to connect discussion with reality is shot through with contemptuous accusations of dishonesty and self-interest. Responsible political leaders will have to be more aggressive, bold, and vigorous in confronting such interlocutors.

Finally, as far as policy is concerned, we Britons have deluded ourselves to think that our system of government – increasingly shown to be unrepresentative, inefficient, and over-centralized – could survive with a little tinkering here and there.

This belief has suited the two main political parties. Labour has sought to avoid a constitutional debate, because any move in the direction of federal institutions requires addressing the party’s over-representation in the UK parliament. It is unfair to give ever more power to a Scottish parliament while continuing to give Labour, which controls 41 Scottish constituencies in the House of Commons, disproportionate say over what happens in England.

As for the Conservatives, the party has allowed its belief in the union of the country’s constituent parts to foreclose any discussion of how that union can be modernized. If we are to prevent the UK from rattling to pieces, we have to change the way we govern ourselves. The pace that Prime Minister David Cameron has now proposed for this process is breathtaking.

Conservatives held a majority of the seats in Scotland less than 60 years ago. Today, there is one Scottish Conservative MP out of 59 in the UK Parliament, a mark of how the Tories have allowed themselves to be frozen out of some parts of the country.

In some respects, this is the biggest challenge of all to the UK’s political culture. Conservatives are losing touch with parts of the country where once they were strong – not just Scotland, but also cities and the north of England – and there is a growing disconnect between the party and Britain’s increasingly important minority ethnic groups.

Some of the same problems affect Labour. Both big parties will have to address these issues as we start on the long and difficult task of reforming a UK that has lost some of the glue of affinity and solidarity that has held it together for so long.

For some British citizens south of the Scottish border, it will be difficult to act with the goodwill now required to recover from the referendum episode. I do not know how much Alex Salmond, the now-resigned Scottish Nationalist Party leader who pressed for the referendum, is responsible for the surge in his own party’s support; but I suspect that he may, alas, have galvanized all too much nationalist sentiment in England.

I heard one commentator claiming that the referendum campaign was “beautiful.” Perhaps in the end, we really could “trust the people,” and that is an invigorating thought. Let others, who oppose democracy in their own countries, take note. But the campaign did come perilously close at times to being a triumph for un-reason. The challenge now is to figure out how to banish half-truths and big lies from our politics and restore reason and moderation to our divided land.

Formerly published on project-syndicate.org