Building political consensus after the referendum – in Scotland and the UK

This article builds on my previous blog article in which I suggested that David Cameron should resign after the referendum (whatever the result), in line with the convention of ministerial responsibility.  This is because of the unnecessary division he created by refusing to allow a third “devo-max” option on the referendum ballot-paper.  In this article, I reflect on what consensus politics is about and go on to ponder some possible initiatives which could re-build consensuses which have been damaged by Mr Cameron’s strategy, in the event of both “Yes” and “No” votes.

Most peoples in the world have struggled for independence at some time in their history, but the struggle was usually built on an internal consensus.  In the democratic era, this consensus has usually then been ratified democratically and the need for such plebiscites is now widely accepted.   Despite my continued sympathy for Scottish independence, if this happens, it will probably be in the absence of a national consensus in Scotland. 

Democratic bodies of every description operate mainly through consensus.  Majority votes should be the exception for when genuine attempts at consensus have failed, or when external pressures mean that there is no time to build a consensus.  This applies to families, community groups, companies, churches, sports clubs, local authorities, and even in Westminster and Holyrood quite a lot of the time. 

In my opinion, the essence of consensus-building is for everyone to listen seriously and respectfully to each other, pay attention to minority viewpoints, stand on principle where necessary, make concessions graciously where possible, exercise authority sparingly, and work together to reach a compromise if possible. The outcome should be something to which everyone feels they have made a contribution and which they are also willing to put into practice jointly. Forcing a vote – either too soon, too often or when not necessary at all – is inimical to consensus politics. It leads to disaffection with the democratic process and reduces enthusiasm for policy implementation.    

Scotland provided a wonderful example of how effective consensus-building can be with Scottish Constitutional Convention, which paved the way for the revival of the Scottish Parliament.  This body united political parties, churches, trade unions and other bodies across Scotland in a common political endeavour which I have not seen replicated in England.  It is true that the SNP at the time withdrew part-way through and the Conservatives were hostile to it.  But both parties now believe in its value.  The consensus for the revival of a (devolved) parliament was and is truly national.

Bringing matters up-to-date, the Westminster parties’ various proposals for greater devolution reflect some kind of loose and hastily-contrived consensus only within those parties themselves.  The fact that we have three such proposals is not a genuine expression of political diversity but rather reflects the reluctance that Westminster parties have to work together consensually, even when their political lives depend on it. 

To give an even greater contrast, these proposals have not emerged following any attempt at a painstaking, nationwide, consensus-building approach that the Scottish Constitutional Convention demonstrated.  Scots have this comparison with the Scottish Constitutional Convention to remind them how a democratic consensus can and should be built.  And unlike the consensus achieved by that Convention, these proposals will not be ratified by the Scottish people.  So Westminster should not be in the least bit surprised when people in Scotland show little interest in proposals which have greater devolution as their aim.  Greater devolution, if it happens, will be imposed on the Scottish people from Westminster.  To put it another way, greater democracy has been promised to the people of Scotland by the most minimally democratic means possible. If I were in Scotland, I would feel insulted. 

All this leads back to the door of No. 10 when a “devo-max” option on the ballot-paper was ruled out. At the time, it was incumbent on David Cameron to take Mr Salmond more seriously and to assess the wider political and constitutional implications of the referendum for Scotland and the UK. A consensual approach at the time could have involved establishing a UK-wide constitutional convention which pulled together all strands of opinion in society in all 4 UK countries, along the lines of the Scottish Constitutional Convention of the 1990s.  At the very least, David Cameron could have suggested bilateral talks between the Scottish and UK Governments with a view to saving the union.  They may not have worked – consensual politics does not always result in a happy compromise. But at the least, they would or should have provided a solid foundation of trust and respect between the UK and Scottish Governments, going into a subsequent referendum. The subsequent bitterness now evident in the referendum campaign may have been much reduced.  As things stand now, the UK and Scottish Governments have some major fence-mending to do after the referendum, whatever the outcome may be.    All this was utterly avoidable. If “No” succeeds, I presume that “No” voters will be making similar points when calling for Mr Cameron’s head after 18 September.

I want to move on now to suggestions for building consensus after the referendum.  After a “Yes” vote, I believe that an independent Scotland and the rUK should consider forming a consultative body which has the remit of encouraging positive relations between Scotland and rUK and discussing issues of common interest.  As we share the same island, there will be a number of policy areas where mutual co-operation will be desirable, if not essential e.g. energy supplies, fisheries, defence and security issues, immigration policy, major infrastructure projects.  This consultative body could also have a role in honouring our shared history as a united country.  Such a body should include non-political bodies such as churches, community groups, trade union and business interest groups – in fact anyone who has something valuable to give.  It could operate a select committee system in order to provide high-quality scrutiny and suggestions on policy development and practice in those areas of its advisory competence. 

Ultimately, such a body should be no more than consultative and not violate the sovereignty of either Scotland or the rUK.  At the same time, neither government could (and should not) easily dismiss its serious recommendations. Given how busy the governments of both countries will be after a “Yes” vote in working out a path to independence, I would suggest that the initiative for this consultative body should come from pro-union supporters and party members.  This would also channel their continued energies for union constructively, though in the light of the changed political landscape that Scottish independence will bring.

Turning now to a “No” vote, a very different analysis must be made. The referendum has worsened already bitter divisions between the SNP and Scottish Labour, two parties whose grassroots occupy quite similar political ground (except for the issue of independence).  Scotland’s ability to have a strong voice in the UK is limited by its small share of MPs in Westminster and the limits to its devolved powers within Scotland.  Ongoing divisions between the Scottish Government and Labour MPs can only limit Scotland’s voice further.  I believe that it would be in Scotland’s interests for the Scottish Government and for Scottish Labour MPs to bury the hatchet and to co-ordinate closely on UK-wide issues with a view to speaking with one voice. (If this happens already in private, I am happy to be corrected.) Such co-operation will make it harder for the UK Government to ignore Scotland’s distinctive policy preferences on UK-wide issues. It could also pave the way for the kind of UK constitutional convention I mentioned earlier.  This could lead to a form of federalism which would ensure that Scotland – as a nation – will be officially consulted on UK-wide policies.  Whatever approach is taken, I believe that the SNP and Scottish Labour will be selling their own people short if they do not present a united front to Westminster governments.

At the same time, I would suggest that supporters of the union from across the UK – politicians and ordinary people alike – take steps to strengthen relations between our countries at the grassroots level.  Part of this should involve a national dialogue between England and Scotland about our relationship.  It is a well-known beef of Scots that the English do not pay much attention to Scotland and can be very insensitive to them.  This is not to be overblown but it is an issue which has not gone away during my lifetime (I am 42) or ever been seriously addressed, to my knowledge.  “No” voters will be perfectly placed to initiate this kind of dialogue, having cast their vote for the union, when independence was a reasonable alternative.  Perhaps “Better Together” could continue after 18 September in some form to make its name more of a reality.  Those of us who have been critical of its negative campaign tactics may find a new respect for them. 

Finally, I am not a politician or political theorist and so please forgive any simplifications and lack of referencing in this article. I am happy to be corrected and challenged.



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