It’s an editorial from The Times (a London newspaper). It could have been written yesterday. Or even tomorrow. It’s actually from the issue dated 7th July 1853.
Here’s another item from that newspaper, this time reporting a Commons debate on Irish Home Rule, held on 2nd July 1874. J.A. Roebuck was first elected to Parliament for Bath, in 1832, when he was among the most radical of the radicals, even leading the campaign in 1834 to free the Tolpuddle Martyrs. By 1874, now representing Sheffield, he was among the most reactionary of the reactionaries:
“Mr Roebuck said he wanted before he left the House to express his opinions upon this great question… He had to ask himself whether this proposition to give a limited Parliament to Ireland was for the benefit of the whole United Kingdom. The arguments that had been used in support of this motion were arguments which, if carried to their natural and logical conclusion, would call back the kingdom of Wessex and re-establish the Heptarchy. That was the real effect of the arguments of hon. gentlemen who had talked about Nationality... he called upon hon. gentlemen who represented Ireland to desist from talking about a fantastic Irish Nationality and calmly to consider this question in the large and generous spirit in which he wished to address himself to it.”
The point common to Roebuck and the editor of The Times is that constitutional change produces a domino effect. Before you start, it helps to know where you’ll end up. The Irish Home Rule debates inspired the first faint movements for Home Rule in Scotland and Wales. It was the breakthroughs by Scottish and Welsh nationalists in the 1960s and 1970s that inspired our own founding. Suppose England does become an independent state, shorn of its Celtic dependencies. What sort of England should it be? A mini-UK, continually sucking power, wealth and talent to London? Or an England with strong regional institutions to hold that trend in check?
The frequent response from those in England is that events among our neighbours have no effect upon us. It’s all put down to being part of the English character, which it is, but only in the sense that the English seem to have given up on politics in the belief that in our top-down society we have no ability to change anything. (We don’t, which is why we need to build our own.) A history of our future might reveal that our surroundings mattered quite a lot. Joining the EU has been hugely beneficial in exposing English thought to ideas previously judged unsound by the London regime, ideas like popular sovereignty and subsidiarity. That the EU itself does little to honour these ideas is not the point; the point is that our own thoughts now have other tracks to follow than those laid down by ever-suspicious Normans and Tudors. Devolution, or even independence, will go on surprising us too. Without leaving our own island, we can go and see things being done differently, then come home and ask ourselves why we can’t equally be constructing a new society.
One recurrent theme in politics is the divide between the revolutionaries and the gradualists, between those who believe that nothing will change until everything changes and those who believe that concessions can be wrung, and wrung to the point where a real transformation is clearly visible. In one sense, it’s a false distinction, since only a movement that has gradually built itself up is in a position to launch revolutionary change. The real distinction is perhaps between those who push on to the goal and those who pause half way. Always bearing in mind, of course, that the goal itself may be changing over time as the context for your community’s life also changes.
Reading the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence, it’s not hard to see it as a claim that, while everything is capable of changing, nothing will actually change very much. Many more decisions will be made in Scotland, but a host of cross-border arrangements will remain in place. Scots will still be able to watch EastEnders and Doctor Who. Independence will deliver all of the positives that are claimed for it, while the cross-border arrangements will mitigate all of the negatives to the point that no-one will think them worth noticing. It all sounds so reasonable that you wonder why it hasn’t happened already.
It very well might be as reasonable as it sounds, a simplification of our constitutional architecture that will benefit both sides of the border. A long-overdue unbundling that will turn the anomaly that is Scotland within the Union into one part of a grown-up family of nations with enduring social ties. No-one outside the far Right will argue today that the Republic of Ireland should re-join the UK. One reason for that is not its treasured independence but the continued diluting of it where this makes sense: all those cross-border arrangements that allow life to go on without unnecessary hassle. Some are quite unexpected: the Department for Transport in London remains partly responsible for lighthouses around the whole of Ireland, 91 years after the south left the UK. Attempts to alter this following the Good Friday Agreement have been abandoned; the legal complexities are just too great. Transitional arrangements for Scottish independence may be equally complex, and equally not as transitional as they first appear.
Independence then is NOT the final step if what you seek is total separation. But why would you seek that extreme solution, if you can make your own decisions as a sovereign entity but still be on good terms with the neighbours? It’s not just a question for the Scots. It’s a question for us too. It’s a question for those who say that England can’t be regionalised, nor can local self-government be constitutionally guaranteed, because the fruits of sovereignty are indivisible. It’s centralism or nothing; London power or nationalist revolution. Only if you insist.
In 1956, the party that we (among others) can claim as our predecessor, Common Wealth, published Our Three Nations jointly with Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Besides names familiar to WR members, like John Banks and Douglas Stuckey, the authors included names familiar on a wider stage such as Gwynfor Evans and Robert McIntyre. (Despite the title, O3N is one of the first books to acknowledge the possibility of autonomy for Cornwall, as well as for the English regions.) We can hardly fail to wish Scotland luck as it first debates, then judges how much autonomy it currently requires.
The Victorians were often a far-sighted lot. They recognised that the dispersal of decision-making would alter the character of these islands irrevocably. They were right to predict that, but quite wrong to fear it. The post-imperial era will only truly begin when power returns to where the story began. When it returns to Wessex.