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So the stand off continues. Cameron et. al. are determined that any Scottish referendum should be a straight choice between independence and the status quo. Alex Salmond meanwhile, plans to give voters a third choice. The so-called “devo-max” option, would give the Scots autonomy on virtually every matter other than foreign policy and defence.
Salmond is right to argue that such an option chimes with a substantial body of Scottish opinion. Yet it is also a choice which would necessarily mean a very big change, not only in the way Scotland is governed, but also in the way in which the rest of the United Kingdom is run.
Without a doubt, devo-max would push the West Lothian question beyond its limit. Should Scotland be granted autonomy over nearly all domestic matters, the position of the country’s Westminster representatives would almost certainly need to be altered. They could not continue casting potentially decisive votes on the huge range of English only issues, for which they would not be accountable (since their own constituents would not be affected).
Yet resolving the West Lothian question is more troublesome than many people appear to realise. Typically, we hear calls for Scots MPs to be excluded from votes on English only issues. The difficulty, however, is that we could very plausibly end up with a Prime Minister and a cabinet that could not command a majority of English MPs, and as such could not effectively govern in England. If the UK were made up of numerous small nations of roughly equal size, this would not be so much of a problem. Yet a PM who could not govern in a territory that accounts for five sixths of the population, would not be Prime Minister in any recognisable sense of the term.
In England the whole system of government that has existed hitherto – wherein the cabinet governs, as long as it maintains the support of a sovereign Parliament, would be turned on its head. We would likely end up with a system more akin to America’s “separation of powers”, where governing happens through the often adversarial interface between the president and Congress.
What this means is that, unlike independence, devo-max is not Scotland’s prerogative alone. If Scotland were to separate, England and Wales could maintain their existing constitution. The territorial extent of the polity would change, but the way in which the polity functioned would not. If, on the other hand, the Scots plump for devo max, things are different. They would be asking to enjoy a particular relationship with the British state which would be impossible without a reworking of the entire constitution. As such, it is an option which cannot be determined in a Scottish referendum alone, but which clearly requires a constitutional convention of the entire United Kingdom.
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