Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Home rule is the answer – it just needs a rebrand – Siobhan Mathers

This post by Siobhan Mathers, which first appeared in the Sunday Times on 20 September 2015, is a summary of her chapter from a forthcoming publication, ‘Reforming Scotland’, produced by Reform Scotland.

Think of home rule and it’s not hard to hear the words being uttered by Gladstone or Asquith over a century ago – or even Heath or Steel in the 60s and 70s.

The term now seems strangely antiquated and its implied meaning has morphed considerably over time. Nobody seems sure what it means and whether Scotland has it, or will soon have it, under pending constitutional changes.

Is it the existence of the Scottish Parliament, the vow, the conclusions of the Smith Commission, Devo Max, Devo Plus, Full Fiscal Federalism or Full Fiscal Autonomy? Or is it something subtly different, depending on who is using the term, and in what context?

Home rule has become the Robert Burns of constitutional dialogue meaning that a lively mind can twist its principles to suit the occasion. I will use the fiscal definition that Scotland under Home Rule should raise what it spends – self sufficiency – and the sovereignty-focused philosophical definition of David Steel: “The principle of home rule is different from devolution. Under home rule, sovereignty lies with the Scottish people and we decide when it is sensible to give powers to the centre on issues like foreign affairs and defence.”

But it’s enlightened self-interest which should drive us to pursue Home Rule rather than Independence, Federalism or the post-Smith Commission status quo.

Home Rule is not Federalism, which has the allure of structure, order and symmetry. Federalism constitutionally entrenches powers at sub-national level, usually with each sub-national unit holding the same powers – Germany or Canada. From a legal perspective federalism is attractive, but several factors make it less likely in the UK.

One adverse factor is differential demand and the dominant position of England in the UK, as it contains 84% of the population of the UK. Wales and Northern Ireland have requested, and been granted, limited devolution of powers.

There are signs of some devolution of powers to areas with strong identities, such as Cornwall and Northern Powerhouse city regions like Manchester. The demand for further powers is not as strong outside Scotland. It is only a decade since John Prescott’s ill-fated Regional Assemblies plan fell at the first hurdle of a referendum in the northeast.

There are those who would like to sit down with a clean sheet and carve up the United Kingdom in a logical, fair, comprehensible way. But it is just not going to happen.

Federalism would necessitate constitutional clutter busters to come in and impose order on the labyrinthine UK constitutional set-up. Armed with constitutional IKEA boxes they would decree a suitable place for everything and strictly define its purpose. Following their work, constitutional Britain would be neat and tidy and fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

Evidence suggests Britain would need to be dragged kicking and screaming towards constitutional reform. What about the slightly broken and faded, but beloved, things that give our country character? From King John’s Magna Carta, to the 300 year old Act of Union, to Beveridge’s Welfare Act, they’ve made us what we are today. Even Blair’s Scotland Act of 1998 is held up as part of what we are.

Burying our heads in the sand and hoping that the moderate proposals of the Scotland Bill currently under discussion will sate desire for further control over our own affairs is unlikely to work, according to latest opinion polls.  But a unilateral home rule settlement for Scotland, where we raise what we spend and sovereignty lies with the Scottish people, might head off desire for independence.

It strikes me as an act of misguided altruism to wait for the constitutional laggards, our bedfellows in the United Kingdom. Yes, it would be nice to help sort everyone else’s problems in how they relate to the constitutional parents in London. But it is not a priority for many.

During an air emergency passengers are advised to put on their own oxygen masks before helping anyone else. I would argue that Scotland’s relationship with Westminster is at such an emergency point and we need to pursue enlightened self-interest by focusing on our own problems first.

We don’t yet have the sort of sovereignty, or mature financial self-sufficiency, implied by Home Rule and it could be a twisty road to get there. Travelling that road is desirable and feasible. It could be helped by ditching the Gladstonian terminology and commissioning ad men, rather than academics and politicians, to give Home Rule a 21st Century rebrand!

Siobhan Mathers is a former Liberal Democrat policy convener and member of Reform Scotland’s Advisory Board.