The Constitutional Case

Historical background

England has been a unified country for more than 1000 years. England and Wales were united by the Acts of Union (1536-43), which gave Welsh representatives the right to attend the English Parliament. The union of Scotland with England and Wales in 1707 saw the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Thus, the English parliament became the core of a new British parliament and a new British state. Both were further enlarged when the Act of Union with Ireland (effective 1st January 1801) created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.The United Kingdom cultivated an inclusive British identity that was symbolised by the institutions of Parliament and the Monarchy. Thus the English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh have had their separate national identities and a common British civic identity. For the English, more than the others, the two identities became confused. Nelson, commanding a British fleet at Trafalgar, had no hesitation in phrasing his famous signal “England Expects…” although it is said that a Scottish sailor hoisted the flags. In a patriotic song, at a critical stage in the Second World War, the title was “There’ll Always be an England” although the verses referred also to the Union Flag, Britain and the Empire.

The British state, which was at its most powerful in the nineteenth century, began its decline early in the twentieth century. A long-lived campaign for home rule for Ireland was marked in its later stages by the Easter Rising of 1916, and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921. The 1920 Home Rule Act incorporated six counties of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 1921, Northern Ireland was granted limited self-government. The Irish Free State, consisting of 26 counties, became Eire in 1937, and then the Irish Republic in 1949.

The success of Irish nationalists was an important factor in the formation of Plaid Cymru in 1925 and the Scottish National Party in 1928. These parties were created with the aim of gaining home rule for Wales and Scotland. With the demise of the British Empire, after World War II, British identity meant less than it once had. The glue that bound the Union together became weaker and in Scotland and Wales, the expression of national identity and a desire for self-government became stronger. The SNP had its first MP elected in 1945; Plaid Cymru had to wait until 1966. In the October 1974 general election, the SNP gained 30% of the Scottish vote and won 11 parliamentary seats. Plaid Cymru gained 10% of the Welsh vote and had 4 MPs elected. In order to dampen support for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, the UK government made separate financial and constitutional arrangements for Scotland and Wales. These included departments of state for each country and, in 1978, favourable financial arrangements under the Barnett Formula. Because of exceptional circumstances, Northern Ireland was already receiving extra funding.

Despite special treatment, support for Scottish independence grew. In a referendum in 1979, a majority of the votes cast favoured a directly elected Scottish Assembly. However, the rules of the referendum stipulated that for the proposal to be successful it needed the support of the majority of all those eligible to vote. As a consequence of that, the proposal for a Scottish Assembly failed. This proved to be a setback for the SNP but with the approach of the 1997 general election support for the SNP was again growing. The Labour Party responded by offering the people of Scotland and Wales a form of devolved self-government, subject to a referendum, the result being decided by a majority of those voting.