Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, has made headlines by arguing that any attempt to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union should have the backing of all four nations.
At the moment, foreign affairs are the exclusive domain of the British Government. HMG is under no obligation to consult any of the devolved administrations, and David Cameron has ruled out giving individual nations a say on Britain’s EU membership.
Part of the problem is that there are divergent attitudes toward the EU on either side of the Tweed. A recent study by researchers from Durham University and the University of East Anglia suggests that English voters would support a Brexit, while the Scots would opt to stay in the bloc. This puts Cameron between Scylla and Charybdis. If he sticks to his guns and insists on a single UK-wide referendum on Britain’s EU membership, the UK could embark on a policy that is deeply unpopular in Scotland, and that might finally persuade a majority of Scots to leave the Union.
On the other hand, giving each nation a veto gives rise to its own set of problems. England has 53 million people; Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined have a little over 10 million. Voters in England might well question the fairness of allowing 19% of the population to gainsay the other 81%.
The debate over how to decide whether Britain stays in the EU underscores the need for a comprehensive constitutional settlement instead of piecemeal changes. It seems pointless to squabble over referendums when the relationship between the various nations of the UK is still very much in flux.