a so dis-United Kingdom
This week there will be a referendum in Scotland about
independence from the United Kingdom. Survey polls predict a tight, uncertain
result. One can wonder how the United Kingdom has become so increasingly
In short: Too simple institutions and too much concentration
of power have lead to polarization between the British central government and the
predicted quite a while ago.
From my book Political
Institutions: Democracy and Social Choice (Oxford 2001):
“In the mid 18th century, the political regime of England
was considered to be the best example of 'one nation in the world that has for
the direct end of its constitution political liberty' founded on the principle
of separation of powers (Montesquieu, 1748). In contrast, by the mid 20th
century, political students widely agreed that the United Kingdom was 'both the
original and the best-known example' of the model of democracy based on
concentration of powers (see, for example, Lijphart 1984).”
How this evolution from wide institutional pluralism to high concentration of
power took place?
“For some time after the union with Scotland in 1707, the
central government in London respected Scottish autonomy, especially in matters
of religion, private law, and the judiciary system. Britain was also highly
decentralized in favor of local governments at least until the early 19th
“However, with the steady expansion of voting rights during
the 19th and 20th centuries, the popularly elected House of Commons came to
prevail over the nonelected King and House of Lords. But the Commons were
elected by means of a highly restrictive electoral system based on plurality
rule, typically producing a two-party system and single-party Cabinets. Thus,
democratization implied increasing concentration of powers in the hands of a
single-winning actor, the party in Cabinet, and, more precisely, the Premier.
The regime was dubbed an 'elective dictatorship', in contrast with the previous
model of limited government. Unification in national government caused
increasing centralization. Whereas some traditional Scottish institutions were
curbed, Ireland seceded before it could be dominated, in 1920. Later, violent
conflict in Northern Ireland
led to the suppression of the local Assembly by the central government in 1969.
Local governments were weakened by the central government through the 1980s,
including the abolition of the Greater London Council.
“Major institutional reforms in favor of reestablishing
pluralism were only initiated at the initiative of those excluded from power
during a long period without governmental alternation. When the Labourites went
back in government, they promoted the corresponding institutional reforms… Regional
Assemblies and governments were created in Scotland and Wales (the latter with
no legislative or taxation powers) since 1999 …
“However, a few remarks are relevant.
“First, the absence of provisions for the establishment of
regional governments across England might induce either unified government (if
the national government party obtains a majority in the regions) or
bipolarization between the central and the Scotland governments, rather than
“Second, although the House of Lords was deprived of most of
its hereditary members, it was not replaced with a corresponding upper chamber
of territorial representation, which also reduces the opportunities for
“In short, the fate of the new vertical division of powers
in the United Kingdom may depend on the further extension of decentralization
to other regional units and the development of institutions of multiregional
ADD 2014: As nothing
of this has happened, then, as predicted, polarization between the central
government in London and the Scottish government has increased, up to the
LINK to the book Political Institutions CLICK
Rein Taagepera said...
Cameron saying in Edinburgh that he would be "heartbroken" if Scotland left may have sealed the issue.
He vividly reminded me of a Moscow colleague who around 1990 told me that the Russians loved the Estonians so dearly they did not want the Estonia to leave.
I responded that escaping such love was a prime reason for escaping the union. Imposed love is rape.
The Scots may well feel the same way.
FYI my "The Second Crimean War: When Decaying Empires Strike Back"
Ivan Bofarull said...
There is abundant business literature (Michael Porter) that explains what a “stuck-in-the-middle” company is like: unable to define a clear strategic position (neither differentiation nor cost). Some have applied this theory to globalization: companies or brands too small to be a global player, too big to be a local player. Countries may not escape from this dilemma. Some nation-states seem too small to tackle global challenges, but too big to deal efficiently with local issues. Being “big” means having to deal with costs of complexity, for instance, cultural diversity within your borders. Being “small” means having to deal with gaining access to greater networks and alliances in order to influence the global agenda or doing business globally. In an increasingly networked economy, complexity management is more demanding (for instance, globalization reasserts local identities), while access to global networks is easier. From the business rationale, it would make sense for the UK or Spain to split and form a network of smaller states, including Scotland and Catalonia, as long as these remain united –networked- in a larger entity, namely a reinforced United States of Europe, able to become a top-notch player at the same level as the US or China.
Salvador Giner said...
JM, sense canviar de sobirà (reina), ni moneda (encara imprimeixen les seves), ni església oficial (ña Kirk de sempre), ni bandera (Creu St Andreu), ni dret privat (sempre vigent i legítim), ni algunes de les millors Universitats, etc. etc. En saben.
[Without changing the sovereign (Queen) or money (they still print its own) or official church (the Kirk always) or flag (St Andrew's Cross) or private law (always valid and legitimate), or some of the best Universities, etc. etc. They know.]
ESADE Business School, Barcelona