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In the Shadow of the No Vote: What Next for the United Kingdom?

Campaigners on both sides are agreed that yesterday’s referendum represented a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland to vote for independence. The settled will of the Scottish people is therefore now clear. But whilst this morning’s result marks the culmination of a constitutional debate that has been taking place over decades in Scotland, in other parts of the United Kingdom, the discussion has barely begun. In such circumstances, it is hard to imagine exactly how and within what timescale a truly sustainable constitutional settlement can be arrived at, let alone the likely shape of that settlement. It is therefore essential that a new debate should begin, across the whole of the uk, regarding our respective futures and how power should be distributed across our nations and regions.

The Prime Minister has already sought to pre-empt this debate by promising to deliver a draft bill in January that will offer additional powers to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved institutions, whilst also addressing the West Lothian question by ensuring “English only votes for English only issues” within the UK parliament. Yet listening to David Cameron’s statement this morning, its tone was striking, giving the distinct impression of a man seeking desperately to unite an increasingly split and restless Conservative party, rather than national leader seeking to bring together a fractured union. Barely hours after the polls have closed in Scotland, the smell of fudge is already in the air from Lands End to John o’Groats.

A UK-wide Constitutional Convention is now required, in order to examine all of these issues in minute detail and to engage people from all parts of the UK in the debate. It is clear though that the place where this debate is most urgently required is in England, where to date, the response to Scottish and Welsh devolution has been largely characterised by indifference and there is nothing even approaching consensus, amongst English politicians or the English general public, regarding the future governance of the country and its regions. Achieving such a consensus will not be easy, but it is essential if further, regular, constitutional crises are to be avoided.

Here in Wales it seems inevitable that events in Scotland will lead, sooner or later to a significant increase in the powers of the Welsh Assembly. Indeed, it seems very likely that it will only be a short period of time before the institution evolves into a genuine Parliament. However, whilst this prospect is undoubtedly exciting, the continued structural weakness of the Welsh economy means that increased devolution (particularly fiscal devolution) could also bring immense challenges. It is therefore essential that there should be a strong and unified Welsh voice at the negotiating table, so that we can secure a settlement that protects our interests. It is also essential for Wales that the future of Barnett Formula and the issue of ensuring fair funding for all parts of the UK (based upon economic need) should also be on the table.

A further difficulty in achieving a permanent constitutional settlement relates to the electoral timetable. It is inconceivable that a lasting deal can be arrived at before next May’s General Election, whilst the likely outcomes of that election make it equally difficult to imagine that the next government will have a sufficiently strong mandate to take controversial legislation through parliament. Opinion polls also point towards the prospect of next year’s election seeing the arrival of four party politics in England (five party politics in Scotland and Wales). This threatens to fatally undermine the authority of whatever government is elected, via a First Past the Post electoral system designed for a bygone era. It is therefore essential that the electoral system should also be placed within the remit of the Constitutional Convention, with all options (including Proportional Representation) up for consideration.

Make no mistake, the dramatic events of the past two weeks mean that radical change is now on its way across the whole of the United Kingdom. As with all sorts of change, an element of risk is inevitable. However, the opportunity to forge a more democratic, more engaged, less centralised Britain, that is better placed to make the most of the talents of all of its people is immense. The debate on how this can be achieved begins today.

Ben Lester