An open letter to Baroness Camilla Cavendish

DEAR Ms Cavendish. Forgive me addressing you in this slightly unorthodox and public manner. I read with great interest your article in the Financial Times on Saturday, headed “A new constitutional deal would avert a break-up of the Union”.

I note that you speak with some authority as the former head of the Downing Street policy unit under David Cameron and are now a senior fellow in government at Harvard University. Perhaps even more interesting, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour has ranked you the fifth-most influential woman in Britain.

I read your piece avidly because I, as a long-time advocate of Scottish independence, am anxious to see a resolution of the present constitutional crisis. A resolution that is both peaceful and equitable to all the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, including England.

My concern is that the UK Parliament is now acting like an English nationalist administration – as you yourself admit. As a result, the political and economic future of these islands – in their totality – has become increasingly problematic. It is a time for wise heads and cool reflection all round.

Sadly, on reading your article, I find that you – as an influential member of the British governing elite (nothing pejorative intended) – are desperately ignorant of the drivers of independence in Scotland. Also, your analysis of the solutions to the present constitutional imbroglio are – I do not mean to be polemical – extraordinarily facile, given the gravity of the situation. Please let me explain.

I start with your opening statement that “as a half-Scot, I have sympathy with the desire to assert distinct identities”. I know you are trying to define common ground in this discussion but in fact you have utterly failed to understand that the demand for Scottish self-government is not – and never has been – centred on the issue of personal identity. Rather, the issue is about better governance, democracy, and the right of Scotland to decide its own path.

At heart, this is a debate about the over-centralisation and increasingly English-oriented nature of the UK political system. With a majority of Scots now supporting forming their own state, it is the undemocratic refusal of the Johnson administration to accept another referendum that has brought matters to a head – not the psychological preferences of individuals living north of Hadrian’s Wall.

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This is only compounded by the inability of influential people in the Unionist camp such as yourself to accept that the problem originates in the dysfunctional nature of the UK constitution and its obsolete parliamentary structures. This includes the House of Lords in which you sit (unelected) as Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice.

I might add, if you will forgive me, that your own understanding of how the UK constitution present operates is somewhat lacking, especially for a Harvard fellow in governance. You claim: “Devolution is lopsided with Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on English matters.” Surely you cannot have forgotten that in October 2015 the Conservatives used their majority to change the House of Commons standing orders to exclude MPs from Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish constituencies from voting on English-only matters (as defined by the Speaker). “English votes for English matters” is now standard.

This change has had serious constitutional consequences. Rather than create a devolved English legislative chamber, the Westminster Parliament now doubles as the English Parliament. Inevitably, Commons business is dominated by the health, education, transport and community ministers of England pretending to speak for “the nation”.

Hours of parliamentary time are taken up with English-only matters. Representatives of the other three nations are reduced to frustrated bystanders.

One obvious solution – from the Unionist perspective – is a move to an explicitly federal system, with a distinct English Parliament. You could even site such a parliament beyond the Red Wall.

Yet I note that you, Baroness Cavendish, are utterly opposed to federalism. You reason that federation “would be unworkable” as England possesses eight out of 10 UK citizens and an even higher proportion of GDP.

Again, forgive me, but your grasp of the mechanics of federation seems weak, given your Boston location. In a federation, the individual states have internal jurisdiction over agreed matters. The fact that California has a population 10 times that of Connecticut is irrelevant as they both do their own thing.

In matters reserved to the federal level, we can discount any economic or population bias by giving each constituent state the same representation. California elects two members of the Senate, as does Connecticut and every other one of the 50 US states.

Here we come to the nub of the long-standing Unionist opposition to federalism in the UK. Introducing genuine federalism would put England and English interests (chiefly economic) on an equal footing with those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and that will never do.

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Subconsciously or otherwise, the English establishment views itself as the dominant power. At least, Baroness Cavendish, you have the honesty to admit that.

Which brings us to your own suggestion for a solution to “The Scottish Question”. You propose “a new Act of Union” which will “define the UK as a unitary state with suitable powers devolved and with due respect for each nation’s identity”. You say this would limit Downing Street’s ability “to make ad hoc changes to suit itself”.

That is, of course, utter nonsense because a simple one-line bill commanding a simple majority will always override any previous legislation, as we have seen with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Besides, I note you want any new Act of Union to “set a higher bar for referendums”. Effectively, you are proposing a new prison of the nations.

Your proposal is cosmetic at best. SNP MPs would vote against it, meaning that it was imposed against the wishes of the majority of Scottish elected representatives. How, Baroness Cavendish, does that strengthen your “precious Union”? From day one the legislation would lack democratic legitimacy north of the Border. But there is an even more troublesome implication.

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Imposing a new “Act of Union” on Northern Ireland is very probably in breach of the Good Friday Agreement which defines Northern Ireland’s status as partly in the UK and partly (constitutionally and economically) a constituent component of the whole island of Ireland. Forcing through a new Act of Union would likely trigger a fresh border poll, which Sinn Fein might win.

Worse, such meddling with the status quo in Northern Ireland could produce a dangerous backlash. And don’t think that excluding Northern Ireland from the legislation would help. That would send the DUP into orbit and negate the logic of the whole project.

You finish by saying “the SNP’s attacks show the emptiness of their case”. But how can you ever pretend to negotiate a serious modernisation of the Union when you start by dismissing your opponent’s case as “empty”. So empty, in fact, that a majority of the Scottish electorate have been won to it.

Baroness Cavendish: why not embrace the independence of the nations of the British Archipelago and let England stand on its own two feet. That – and that alone – is how we will create a new era of friendship and co-operation in these islands.