From the United Kingdom to the Federal Kingdom?

Forget the referendum on AV, Britain is going to enter into a fascinating period in its constitutional history. The reason? The victory of the SNP in the Scottish Parliament election. The SNP has won 69 seats, out of 129, therefore constitutes a majority in the Holyrood Parliament. This is simply an amazing result: Labour in 1999 won 56 seats. The system that combines first-past-the-post and proportional representation made a single-party majority unlikely. Now, some political analysts will have the interesting task of explaining how the system in Scotland has managed to produce a singe-party majority, whereas the 2010 UK general election where seats were contested exclusively in the first-past-the-post system, supposedly conducive for single-party majority, produced a hung parliament.

The results in Scotland mean that there will almost certainly be a referendum on the question of Scottish independence at some point during the term of this Holyrood Parliament. Naturally, the big question is what independence means. There will be interesting debates in Holyrood, and in Westminster, over the next few years on the issue of Scottish independence. It is a question that can no longer be ignored.

Whatever the eventual outcome of a referendum, there is no doubt that the Holyrood Parliament will demand more powers from Westminster. And that will also raise the questions about the lack of an English parliament. It has always been interesting to observe that in party-political terms, the Conservatives would probably be better off with a separate English parliament, which they have a better chance of winning a majority, than winning an overall majority in the UK Parliament as it has failed last year, but they are ideologically opposed to the notion of the dilution of the UK. Labour is in favour of devolution, but it is slightly more difficult for it to dominate a devolved English parliament or the UK parliament, even though Labour had managed to obtain a majority of seats in England in the successive elections under Mr Blair (1997, 2001 and 2005).

The West Lothian Question – where MPs in the UK Parliament from Scottish and Welsh constituencies can vote on English matters, but MPs elected in English constituencies cannot vote on Scottish and Welsh matters since they are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly – may become acute. It is not a problem for the current coalition government, however, unless the constitutional arrangement changes, it has a potential to become a huge problem in the future, where the majority in the UK Parliament is different from the majority in the English constituencies.

The following is a wacky solution to this problem: it’s a shift from a unitary to a federal state with autonomous regions, with a British executive voted separately from the legislature. Firstly, there will be an English parliament as well, with broad powers that resemble the current Scottish Parliament, but perhaps each national parliament enjoying more extensive competence. Secondly, there will be a separate British executive, independent of the legislature. The British electorate will vote directly for the prime minister, who will be responsible for foreign affairs, defence, and other matters that are beyond the national parliaments and assemblies. Perhaps there is a room for a reformed, elected House of Lords to act as a consultative body for the executive.

The chances of anything in the preceding paragraph taking place are slim, however, like it or not, there is a distinct likelihood that major constitutional issues will surface in the near future. The UK may break up, not because Britons wish and seek that to happen, but because the current constitutional arrangement cannot cope with its inherent contradictions, complexities, and anomalies.