Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Robinson attempts to go widescreen, but betrays narrow vision of unionism.

Yesterday Peter Robinson delivered an address at an event organised to ask ‘how can devolved government work for citizens?’. The DUP leader’s speech was called ‘Making Devolution Work’. Jack McConnell also made a contribution, which I have not read, and, therefore, cannot comment upon. The former Scottish First Minister spoke on the benefits of devolution at Holyrood and his remarks have remained largely unreported.

However, from a unionist perspective, there is certainly a significant omission from Robinson’s analysis. Although he takes a relatively wide look at devolution in Northern Ireland, and its workings, he does not attempt to place it in a wider UK context. How have the new devolved institutions effected the integrity of the nation and the internal arrangements by which it is governed?

We have references to the ‘real benefits of devolution and the dangers of Direct Rule’, and ‘unionists’ controlling their ‘own destiny’, but there is no allusion to unionism as a Kingdom wide phenomenon, or the larger conundrums with which it must tussle.

If, as has been speculated, this speech represents the DUP’s attempt to construct a unionism which answers civic arguments and meets challenges posed by the Conservative / UUP pact, then the philosophical scaffolding which might support any new strategy already looks distinctly rickety. Surely any genuinely unionist survey of devolution and its future prospects, would include an assessment of the larger constitutional issues which it raises for the United Kingdom? Far from confronting such matters in his speech, Robinson gives no indication that he recognises they even exist.

Vernon Bogdanor’s ‘The New British Constitution’ is a book which does a fine job of describing what he regards as the contours of a new and evolving constitutional settlement in Britain. Although parliamentary sovereignty still forms the underlying principle of the UK constitution, Bogdanor argues that, in fact, devolution has fundamentally altered the nature of power, which still formally resides in the House of Commons. Britain is already functioning as a quasi-federal state, in the author’s opinion, and the Human Rights Act, which is exempt from the doctrine of implied repeal, has many of the characteristics of codified constitutional law.

Having examined the transformative effect of devolution on UK institutions, and described the constitutional difficulties which are raised, Bogdanor attempts to reconcile devolution with continuing Union. He approaches his task mindful of the many ‘endist’ critiques which have proliferated since Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each acquired some degree of ‘home rule’.

The West Lothian question and the associated matter of special arrangements for England, the author does not consider fatal. Although there is an argument that resentment might accrue, given the rights of Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh MPs to vote on devolved matters for which Westminster legislation only applies to England, English MPs still comprise a vast majority in the Commons.

There were asymmetries within the British constitution prior to devolution and there are asymmetries now that devolution has been introduced. Until a more serious brand of nationalism manifests itself in England, we must not insinuate popular disillusionment where none exists. Under direct rule unpopular provisions could often be imposed across the regions, where they enjoyed no popular support. There is a much lesser chance that Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs could help impose upon England, measures which it does not support. Britain was always a ‘union state’ as opposed to a ‘unitary state’ Bogdanor argues.

I happen to agree with the author’s contention that devolution need not be incompatible with a strong and confident Union, although I believe that at times he underestimates the profound nature of the problems which Labour’s approach to constitutional change has created.

The broader point is that unionism, worth the description, should be aware of the difficulties which devolution entails for the Union and at least attempt to acknowledge them. In the DUP’s narrative there is rarely an indication that it considers itself part of a broader pro-Union movement, beyond Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson’s speech, which deals directly with the effects of devolution, is no exception. It is preoccupied with ‘unionism’ as an Ulster phenomenon, opposed to, though prepared to work with, Irish nationalism. Given the broad swathe of subject matter which the DUP leader’s address purported to deal with, it was disappointingly narrow in scope.

1 comment:

Loki said...

Ah Chekov, you forget. Peter Robinson and the DUP are not truly unionists. They are Ulster Nationalists and unless the Treasury is giving out vast wads of cash the DUP reckons the whole UK system can go hang.