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Making together better for Scotland and the UK

- February 18, 2015

In this screen shot from Parliament, the debating chamber at the House of Commons after Members of Parliament backed mitochondrial donation techniques aimed at preventing serious inherited diseases, in London. Tuesday Feb. 3, 2015.  (AP Photo/Parliament, PA)
The following is a guest post by political scientist David Lublin of the School of Public Affairs at American University, the author of the author of “Minority Rules: Electoral Systems, Decentralization and Ethnoregional Party Success” (Oxford 2014).
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Scotland’s decision to stay part of the United Kingdom was a great relief not only in London but also in Washington, as it hardly benefited American interests to see its closest military ally weakened and in turmoil. Proposals to increase Scottish autonomy likely played a critical role in saving the UK.
But some fear that sending further powers to Edinburgh will just give Scottish nationalists more resources and leverage while antagonizing England. Scholarship on decentralization in multinational countries suggests that designers of British institutions must tread carefully if they wish to avoid inadvertently stimulating the divisions that they seek to manage.
Proposals that devolve more power to Scotland but do not give it more power at the center have the best shot of success based on my cross-national examination of decentralization’s impact in over 70 democracies. Decentralization satisfies the Scottish people’s desire for local control—and their leaders’ for more power. At the same time, devolving powers to regions does not consistently strengthen ethnic or regional parties in national legislatures. In many countries, it has had little impact or may even weaken regional parties at the center.
Some proposals on the table would might render UK governance less functional even as they propel forward regional nationalism. Reshaping the House of Lords into a chamber appointed by regional governments would disastrously incentivize regional parties and divisions by providing opportunities for power over the central government as well as within Scotland. Countries that allow regions to appoint senators, such as Belgium and Spain,  face even stronger nationalist challenges than the UK.
Britain also seems too overwrought with the West Lothian Question: the problem of Scottish MPs voting on English laws but English MPs lacking the same right over Scottish laws. In more bluntly partisan terms, the Conservatives fear a Labour government dependent on Scottish MPs for its majority that would make decisions for England—their base. Nonetheless, since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, when Conservative support in Scotland began to nosedive, the House of Commons has always been led by the party that won the most seats in England. The issue is now even less likely to arise, as the act that established the Scottish Parliament cut Scotland’s overrepresentation from 72 to 59 MPs.
The Conservative Party’s proposal to require English MPs to have a veto over English laws could create an even worse mess. Determining what is an “English” law could prove impossible in many cases. If a UK government did end up depending on Scottish MPs for support, Parliament would end up with two competing majorities—one for the UK and one for England—led by opposing parties at loggerheads in the same legislative chamber, which would make the deeply divided U.S. Congress look almost functional.
A competing proposal to create an English Parliament loses its luster on closer examination. Single regional governments for the dominant partner in multiethnic countries have exacerbated divisions and regional nationalism in countries where it has been tried.
Fortunately, there are better ways to satisfy English demands. The UK can allow regions within England to vote for various regional powers. Other regions can remain governed by Westminster, not a problem despite devolution to other regions as long as they possess the same option. Splitting the dominant nationality into multiple regions can help the UK retain its unity and cohesion by spurring regional identities within England and undercutting an England versus Scotland dynamic.
Studies by Dan Posner on Africa and Kanchan Chandra on India show vividly how borders can augment or tamp down ethnic differences. Multiple regions within the majority group help channel political clash away from linguistic differences. In Switzerland, the division of German majority among several cantons has led to greater emphasis on regional rather than linguistic identities. The interests of cantonal governments often shift and extend across the language barrier, creating alliance options not possible in an “us” and “them” setup.
Regional differences already exist within England and English regional governments would often differ with one another and sometimes agree with Scotland. Even as England and Scotland retain their larger identities, multiple English regional governments would help limit the growth of English nationalism and antagonism with Scotland that could prove fatal to the Union. England’s dominance could then prove an asset, as analysis by John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary reveals that multinational federations with a dominant nation have a much better survival rate.
Finally, as British Prime Minister David Cameron has already identified, all partners must be at the table. Though more difficult, negotiations have a far greater chance of long-term success if they receive input and buy-in from both government and opposition parties in all UK countries. As the lengthy peace process in Northern Ireland taught painfully, solutions imposed from outside, or that have the support of only one side, promote division rather than reconciliation.