I am introducing a Bill to Parliament on constitutional referenda concerning the constituent nations of the United Kingdom within the Union.
I have been moved to take this step having witnessed the acrimony following the UK’s departure from the European Union on a very narrow majority. The sense of unhappiness following that decision, which only related to an external relationship which lasted less than fifty years, has set me thinking about what might happen in the event of referenda that would seek to terminate internal UK relationships that have been in place from between more than two hundred and twenty years, in the case of Northern Ireland, over three hundred years, in the case of Scotland, and nearly five hundred years, in the case of Wales and nearly five hundred years in the case of England.
While we cannot revisit the Brexit referendum, it seems to me that going forward we need a much better understanding of what would constitute a fair expression of national consent for dissolving our United Kingdom.
At this point some might be thinking to themselves: “Given that no Parliament can bind its successors, what use is a general bill concerned with potential future referenda on the place of nations within the union?”
That observation is correct in so far as it goes but this is an issue we cannot afford to leave entirely to the moment when necessarily our attention is more absorbed with the question about whether a referendum should take place than what constitutes a legitimate manifestation of consent for a constituent nation of the United Kingdom to dissolve it.
We need to have a conversation now, when the question of whether there should be a specific referendum is not urgently pressing itself upon us, to ask that other key question, what constitutes a legitimate manifestation of consent for this change whether that is in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
My Bill can facilitate a conversation about these matters and, while (unless Parliament agrees to an entrenchment clause) it will not bind future Parliaments, I hope it will influence them.
Of course, there are wider issues that need to be addressed. The logic of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was that the Union could be dissolved by a mere majority of 50 plus 1 vote in one constituent part of the United Kingdom.
That is not a recipe for resolution and stability.
The purpose of my Bill, however, is to help facilitate a narrower conversation about what kind of referendum vote constitutes a just and stable foundation for ending hundreds of years of history.
It has long been recognised, including by figures such as Leo Varadkar, that 50% +1 is not a recipe for stability. My Bill concurs and proposes that 50% + 1 can only constitute a sufficient majority to end a union that has lasted for over two hundred years, if at least fifty percent of those entitled to vote, vote in this way. There should arguably be additional protections.
Some may try to argue that the Belfast Good Friday Agreement does not expressly state that a majority of those entitled to vote must vote to end the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but in truth that is its plain meaning in requiring that termination ‘must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.’ (Good Friday Agreement).
Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, we must learn lessons. Seamus Mallon and I were opponents on practically every area of politics but even he latterly recognised that narrow victories in referenda rarely lead to stability.
Whilst my Bill is now introduced, I will engage with stakeholders around the United Kingdom about how it should be shaped going forward.
Our goal must be stability across the United Kingdom, not further instability.