An essential tenet of classical liberalism is the right to self-determination. Individuals ought to have the power to influence who may govern them, with freedom of association and personal autonomy. Sovereignty does not lie with national governments nor supranational governments, but with the individual. The sovereignty which a nation state exercises is simply an extension of individual choice, and when people are free to choose, we can expect them to choose freedom over any alternative.
In 2016, the majority of British people wanted to be free of the European bureaucratic state, and chose to leave the EU. The trouble is that the popular slogan of “Take Back Control” is looking increasingly misleading. There is a real risk that, having reclaimed control from a foreign supranational body, the domestic political machine that is Whitehall won’t do anything with it.
As a member of the EU, the United Kingdom’s government implemented decisions made in Brussels. Policy formulation and execution must now be done entirely at home, and we must accept full responsibility for the policies enacted in our sovereign territory. There can be no further scapegoating of the European Union’s institutions – it is up to the British electorate to put enough pressure on its ruling elites to form a government in its desired form with a truly democratic mandate. If we don’t like how things are, it is up to us to change them.
However, as has been seen with recent turmoil in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is a lack of unanimity regarding the “ideal” form of British governance. Currently Whitehall operates as the Cabinet sees fit – it has very little oversight from Parliament, and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The powers that are devolved to the respective nations of the union are meagre in comparison to the centralised apparatus of Westminster.
This situation has only been further exacerbated as the British state has appropriated numerous emergency powers in its protracted war against Covid-19. It is worth acknowledging that it was fair of the British Government in passing the Coronavirus Act 2020 to devolve the Government’s emergency powers to deal with the pandemic to the subsidiary nations of the United Kingdom. The different nations have had to face different challenges in regards to fighting coronavirus and maintaining stability for the security of the Union. The recent move to introduce vaccine passports in Scotland is one controversial examination of the growth of state powers – the rest of the UK may follow them as they are set to vote on an extension to these powers this month.
The combination of these crises – Brexit and Covid – has led to a massive appropriation of powers by the British state and its devolved administrations as well. One of the only avenues available to help devolve power back to individuals and the constituencies they live in is to hold a Constitutional Convention between the various nations of the United Kingdom. The unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom will not survive populism and nationalism unless clearly defined powers are established for each nation and these defined boundaries are respected by both politicians and the electorate.
In order to stem the tide of fragmentation and division, taxation, business regulations, and public order powers should be devolved to each constituent nation to give people a greater degree of control and responsibility for their affairs. For better or worse, “Devo-Max” as it has been called is the best option available for preserving the union, creating a federal system whereby each nation can govern itself and still respond, when necessary, as one nation. In this instance, the English must be willing to give the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish the ability to govern themselves and look after their own internal affairs. It must also be said that the English must have the bravery themselves to take on the Whitehall machine in London which continues to regulate our daily lives in minute detail with little to no democratic input.
Devolution may fly in the face of what many economic liberals believe, but it may be necessary for the survival of the United Kingdom. It must be noted that one of the reasons the British economy was able to be liberalised by the Thatcher government was that many of the local authorities that governed many of our cities were abolished. This was due to the belief, rightly or wrongly, that these locally elected authorities were dominated by left wing doctrine and would stand opposed to liberalisation in the economy. Spreading the ideals that we classical liberals believe in – those of self-reliance, thrift, and limited government – can only be done by giving people a greater degree of influence over their regional government, rather than relying on a remote and opaque institution like Whitehall.
The danger that devolved governments might adopt a more socialist approach is real, but it is the duty of those who oppose it to argue for the strength of markets and the fallibility of the state’s central planning. If democratic elections result in outcomes we disagree with, then it is again our responsibility to fight harder against the expansion of the state.
British liberalism is at a crossroads. Both of the major parties are advancing statist policies at the expense of civil & economic liberty, with many of the minor parties supporting similar viewpoints as well. However there are winds of change that are in our favour. The public is exhausted by the pandemic and the isolation and despair that has dominated the public mood. Now is the time to promote real change and to advocate for a shift in the public’s understanding of governance: local governments which are responsive to their communities while trusting their constituents with the responsibility and possibilities which liberty provides.
Brexit and Covid provides us with the opportunity to rewrite the social contract of the United Kingdom and give back to people their right of self-determination. Further devolution will hold back the tide of populist nationalism which will fragment our cultural and social ties to each other, whilst devolved governments must be pressured to revoke emergency powers and restore the British people’s autonomy.
The public may require some convincing in what has been proposed above. However, the alternative is a broken nation embittered by nationalist and populist demagoguery which pits communities and individuals against each other. And in this alternate scenario, the state will grow more powerful and our economy and public life will be worse off because of it.