Dying Days of the UK?

Even before the Scottish National Party (SNP) launched its plans on 25th January 2012 – Burns Night – to hold a referendum on independence in Autumn 2014, questions were being asked about what would happen to the United Kingdom without one of its key component countries and what will the future hold for the other Celtic countries within the UK. The debate has quickly been taken up in the media within the UK and around the world for the beginning of what is proving to be one of the most interesting periods of political discussion to involve the constitutional status of the Celtic countries since devolution in 1997. Below I set out some of the more interesting developments over the past month to have spun off from the SNP’s plans to deliver an independent Scotland for its people, in what will become a regular feature for Celtic news over the next two years.

Members of Plaid Cymru were calling on the Welsh Government in early December 2011 to start preparing themselves for the fallout that would inevitably occur in Wales following a positive referendum on independence in Scotland. It wasn’t until early January 2012 though that First Minister (FM) of Wales Carwyn Jones seemed to awaken to the fact that the Union between Wales and England cannot not remain as it is after Scottish independence with “about 550 MPs [in Westminster], 510 of whom would be from England”. After this realisation FM Jones himself immediately began calling for a “radical constitutional” rethink on the Union, because without Scotland his own Unionist Labour Party would never again have an opportunity to form a UK Government in London, with loyal Conservative Party voters in Wales and England outnumbering all the other voters from all the other political parties in Wales combined. Without a substantial constitutional overhaul after Scottish independence, the Labour Party in a new UK would not really exist in any significant form outside of Wales. With Scottish independence and an English dominated UK Government the prospects for Wales, by anyone’s political imagination, do not look good if it remains in a distorted Union with England. As FM Jones freely admitted during the British-Irish Council meeting, the Union “certainly couldn’t carry on as it is now.” Jones’ comments have spurred on the possibility that Wales too could follow Scotland’s lead and hold its own referendum on independence.

The possible consequence of a positive referendum vote in Scotland in 2014 has given added impetus to the current Plaid Cymru leadership contest, the elections for which will be on 16th March 2012. Future Welsh independence has been a hot topic of debate among the three contestants, with Leanne Wood AM championing the cause almost as soon as she had thrown her hat in the ring, which has left the other two contestants – Elin Jones and Dafydd Elis Thomas – falling over each other to explain their positions on the issue. If the SNP hadn’t set out its plans for a Scottish referendum during this time the independence debate in Wales would not have been given such prominence. As it is not only has the English press been exploring the Welsh independence issue and dealing with it in a serious way, but even the international media has shown interest in the debate. In the New York Times last month (Thomas 2012) an article appeared in the business section that tried to debunk the idea of Welsh independence and last week Radio Canada (`Queen Elizabeth’s Shifting United Kingdom’, 2012) ran a debate with Plaid Leadership contestant Leanne Wood and Dr Richard Wyn Jones on its `The Current’ programme, where the issue of Welsh independence was presented as a real possibility. It seems that everyone has an opinion on the UK constitutional issue, which is not surprising considering the consequences such changes will have to everyone’s life. Plaid saw its membership increase last month by more than over 23%, a trend that has been reflected in SNP membership, which now boasts to have the biggest membership base of any political party in Scotland with over 20, 000 people. It seems likely that Plaid’s memberships rise was more to do with members having the opportunity to vote in the leadership contest, rather than being inspired by the heat surrounding the `constitutional crisis’, but of course we will never know.

The plans for a Scottish referendum it seems is opening up a window of opportunity for nationalists from the other Celtic nations to present their own arguments for autonomy, as the right to self determination pushes its way out into the political mainstream. The possibility of England finally losing its grip on Cornwall has been explored in the press over the last month with the [London] Guardian newspaper running a fully balanced article on Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall (Morris, S 2012). The newspaper even sent a journalist to Cornwall to interview party leader Dick Cole and newly elected Councilor Loveday Jenkin. The idea of Cornish independence has also been highlighted in the international press in newspapers as diverse as the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper in their article `Cornwall Does Not Want to Be In England’ (Pawlicki, 2012), to Telegraph India’s newspaper article `Britain is reinventing itself’ Datta-Ray, SK. MK’s cause has been helped by a little inter Celtic solidarity with Plaid Cymru introducing an early day motion into the UK Parliaments’ House of Commons in December 2012 (Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons, 2011). The motion called on the UK Government to recognise the 50 000 signature petition that demanded a Cornish Assembly by granting Cornwall the same and to date has been signed by a total of 11 Members of Parliament from Plaid, SNP and the Unionist Labour Party. Not that early day motions mean very much, but it is the thought that counts.

Nationalist politicians in the north of Ireland have been (surprisingly) subdued on the issue, but Loyalists there have been linking arms with Loyalists in Wales in showing their solidarity for the Union. At the British-rish Council meeting in Dublin last month, FM Carwyn Jones of Wales and FM Peter Robinson of Northern Ireland (NI) issued an appeal to the Scottish people to stay in the Union. Sinn Fein’s Deputy FM Martin McGuiness of NI though gave FM Salmond a warm welcome to Dublin and joked that there was a castle in Belfast that could be used as a venue in any peace negotiations between Scotland and England. Perhaps Irish nationalists are content in the knowledge that, as Sinn Fein MLA Martina Anderson argued in a recent article in the Derry Journal (Anderson, 2012):

“A process of dislocation by democracy within what is called the United Kingdom has begun.”

Mannin (Isle of Man) however is a different matter altogether. Outside of the UK, Mannin enjoys the kind of autonomy not yet experienced by any of the other Celtic countries or provinces outside of the Republic of Ireland. How long will the people of Mannin remain content with their lot though once Scotland breaks away? So far the constitutional debate on the Island remains subdued, despite the new Manx Chief Minister once being a member of the nationalist Mec Vannin party. The League’s own Director of Information was quizzed on the radio last month on what he thought the consequences of Scottish political independence would mean for Mannin, but aside from that debate on the Island has been mainly limited to internet forums. Perhaps, like in Cymru (Wales), only with a radical overhaul of the UK following Scottish independence and the potential implications this could have for the Manx economy, will Manx politicians and the general population be shaken out of their slumber. If Mannin is so far quiet on the issue, Breizh (Brittany) is positively silent. Little has been mentioned in Breizh about how Scottish independence could impact on that too often neglected Celtic land. A possible referendum on the unification of historic Breizh is the closest the debate has got in the corridors of Parisian power over the political future of this particular Celtic country. Devolution for Breizh in any form is an idea that is barely ever touched upon by Parisian politicians of any hue for many a year. But following the political climate of an independent Scotland, attitudes towards Breizh could even change among the French. The very real possibility of an independent Scotland, with FM Salmond arguing that the first independent Scottish Parliament in over 300 years would be elected by as early as 2016, has inspired rage and delight from all sections of society both in Scotland and elsewhere.

Russia hinted at developing a special economic relationship with Scotland at a Russian Embassy meeting in London last month, while EU lawyers confirmed that following a positive vote on independence in Scotland, (re)negotiations between Scotland, England and the EU would have to be held on future EU membership, potentially altering the voting clout and financial relations that England currently enjoys (Thomson, 2012). Thoughts of political autonomy from countries connected to the commonwealth are appearing from all over the world. Jamaica has indicated over the last month that it will pull out of the Commonwealth and become a Republic and questions are being asked who else will follow. Argentina is taking heart from the independence debate and has once again begun disputing the authority of England over the Falkland Islands.Senior Unionist Conservative Party members in England have been incensed over the last month by FM Salmond’s claims that the terms by which the SNP should implement the referendum will not be dictated by the UK Government. For the SNP the referendum should be designed in Scotland for Scotland, including the date the referendum will be held and the question(s) to be included. This stand prompted one well known BBC journalist to liken FM Salmond to President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, an accusation that was vehemently criticised by the Scottish public, but one by which the BBC stood by (News Net Scotland Report). The BBC has been heavily criticised by the SNP over the last month about their alleged partiality of coverage of the SNP, the Scottish impendence issue and FM Salmond in particular. Last week FM Salmond had been booked by the BBC Scotland Sports Editor as a rugby pundit, on the assurance that no constitutional matters would be discussed, only for the BBC’s political advisor to step in and cancel the invitation at the last minute (Shackle, 2012). Was the decision to withdraw the invitation influenced by political motives? The decision by the BBC to close its political blogs for comments on its news sites, does not inspire the trust that it wants to encourage a democratic political debate on the Scottish independence issue (why does a media corporation have a political advisor anyway?).

It seems unlikely that the political furore between Scotland and England will lessen any time soon and in fact only looks set to be heightened in tension as PM Cameron visits FM Salmond in Scotland on Thursday this week for a summit on how to avert what English pundits claim could be a constitutional crisis over the referendum vote. The UK Government is still asserting that it should lay down the conditions of a referendum, while the SNP is arguing that they were given the mandate to do this by the Scottish people and everyone else should allow the Party to deliver that promise. With 51% of people in support of Scottish independence, according to the latest opinion poll (Borland, 2012), it does not seem likely that the SNP will rescind on that promise easily. Scotland aside, the wider constitutional debate that the planned referendum has sparked in Cymru and to a lesser extent Kernow has been an interesting if inevitable spin off from it. Even the International Standards Organisation (ISO) last month inadvertently contributed to the debate by officially changing the status of Wales from a `Principality’ to a `Country’. The Celtic nations it seems – at least within the UK – are once again coming into their own with devolution being the spark that started it all off. As Martina Anderson MLA pointed out in the opening of her article (Anderson, 2012), the 19th Century statesman, Charles Stewart Parnell had understood back n the 19th century that once set in motion the `march of a nation’ is impossible to stop. Parnell also understood that `home rule’ was only the start of the political journey and not the end, which is a concept the that Ron Davies – who is seen to be the architect of devolution within the UK before his untimely demise as UK Home Secretary in 1998 – understood too.

In his trip to Scotland this week PM Cameron would do well to take heed of the additional argument expressed by Parnell in that:
“No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country “thus far shalt thou go and no further.”
I am sure though that PM Cameron will try all he can to impede that march, but whatever Scotland decides in its referendum vote in 2014 the constitutional question is already and rightly finally being asked by hundreds of thousands of people in the Celtic world. So much of the political future of the Celtic nations seems to be riding on the decision of the Scottish people. Unfairly perhaps they hold the key to what the next step of the devolution process could be, not just for itself but for the rest of the Celtic nations. It will certainly be an interesting couple of years for the Celtic nations in the run up to the referendum and the Celtic League will, as always, aim to bring regular insightful comment and opinion on the political issues from the Celtic world as they arise.

Links:

Anderson, M (2012), `The Union is Coming to an End’, Derry Journal, 12 February 2012 [online]. Available at:
https://www.derryjournal.com/news/local/the_union_is_coming_to_an_end_1_3487071 (Accessed 11 January 2012)
Borland, B (2012), `Poll: Now 51% Back Independence Poll’, Express, 29 January 2012 [online]. Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/298664/Poll-Now-51-back-independence-Poll-Now-51-back-independence-Poll-Now-51-back-independence-Poll-Now-51-back-independence-Poll-Now-51-back-independence-Poll-Now-51-back-independence (Accessed 11 January 2012)
Datta-Ray, SK, (2012) `Britain is reinventing itself’, Telegraph India, 21 January 2012 [online]. Available at: https://www.telegraphindia.com/1120121/jsp/opinion/story_15033669.jsp, (Accessed 11 January 2012)Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons (2011) `Tenth Anniversary of the Presentation of a Petition for a Cornish Assembly’, Early Day Motion (2532) 12 December 2012, [online].Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/edm/2010-12/2532 (Accessed 11 January 2012)Morris, S (2012), `Cornish Party Mebyon Kernow Sees the Future in Black and White’, The Guardian, 26 January 2012, [online]. Available at: https://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jan/26/cornish-party-mebyon-kernow-future (Accessed 11 January 2012)News Net Scotland Report, `BBC Defends Paxman Slur After Viewers Complain’, Newsnet Scotland, 26 January 2012 [online]. Available at: https://newsnetscotland.com/index.php/scottish-politics/4195-bbc-defends-paxman-mugabe-slur-after-viewers-complain (Accessed 11 January 2012)
Pawlicki, J (2012), `Kornwalia nie chce byæ Anglii’ Gazeta Wyborcza [online]. Available at: https://wyborcza.pl/1,75477,11033669,Kornwalia_nie_chce_byc_w_Anglii.html, (Accessed 11 January 2012)`Queen Elizabeth’s Shifting United Kingdom’ (2012), CBC Radio, 6 February 2012 Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/video/news/audioplayer.html?clipid=2193461521, (Accessed 11 January 2012)Shackle, S, (2012) `BBC Salmond Rugby Cancelled’, New Statesman, 6 February 2012 [online]. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2012/02/bbc-salmond-rugby-cancelled (Accessed 11 January 2012)
Thomas, L (2011) `The Welsh Economy Slips, But London Cushions the Fall’, New York Times, 27 January 2012 [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/28/business/global/the-wales-economy-slips-but-london-cushions-the-fall.html?_r=2&ref=landonjrthomas (Accessed 11 January 2012)Thomson, R (2012) `An Exit from the United Kingdom’, Gulf Today, 17 January 2012 [online], Available at: https://gulftoday.ae/portal/f342aa22-986d-4731-9cce-f93ffc139d1f.aspx (Accessed 11 January 2012)

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14/02/12

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