The governance of England must not be left out of the process of constitutional reform

Over the past week or so, I’ve been attempting to write a rather long post on the implications of the ongoing MPs’ expenses scandal. I started to write it last week, when I was concerned that the initial reaction was tending to ignore the fact that public outrage about MPs’ behaviour was symptomatic of a much deeper disaffection with the whole UK political system. However, over the course of the following week, more and more of the themes I felt needed to be aired did start to be debated in the media: the need for fundamental reform of parliament, the voting system and, indeed, the whole UK constitution. So the piece I was intending to write has now been superseded by events and will probably not see the light of day.

However, the one major constitutional issue that has not been widely discussed is that of the relationship of the different nations of the UK to any redesigned UK parliament. Indeed, there is a real danger that the English Question could be completely sidelined as the political and media establishments click into gear and debate how the UK Parliament should be reformed and what form a new UK constitution should take, without any challenge to the implicit assumption that the UK Parliament and government would continue to run England in every respect.

All the discussion so far has been focused on Westminster, and the advocates of change are not factoring in that their proposals would leave in place an intolerable democratic deficit and asymmetry of governance for England: laws and policies that apply to England (or England and Wales) only formulated and decided upon by the MPs for the whole of the UK, whilst the corresponding laws and policies for the other UK nations are made by separate, properly representative, devolved bodies.

It is possible that unionist defenders of the imbalanced status quo may attempt to use the introduction of proportional representation as a means to circumvent the problem of the English democratic deficit. For example, the party-political composition of an English Parliament elected under a perfectly proportional electoral system, based on the 2005 general election results, would not have been very much different from that of a UK parliament: 36% of voters chose Labour in the UK as a whole, versus 35% in England; 32% voted Tory, compared with 35.5% in England; etc. In either case, there would have been a need to form a coalition or minority government, which would probably have been of the same political hue in the UK or in England alone. Therefore, it could be argued that – owing to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the UK population live in England – a coalition UK government elected under PR will almost always reflect the voting preferences of the majority of the English people. As a consequence, the West Lothian Question loses its relevance, as the composition of parliament will be a much more accurate reflection of the will of the English electorate.

But this of course misses the whole point: such a parliament, however much it represents an improvement on the present travesty of democratic fairness, would still not be an English parliament elected by the people of England to look after their needs and interests, and to speak and act on their behalf. England would continue to be governed as the UK by the UK parliament for the (debatable) benefit of the whole of the UK, rather than for that of its own people – in contrast to every other nation of the UK (with the possible additional exception of Cornwall) that would presumably continue to benefit from devolved government under any new UK constitution.

Changes in the relationship between Parliament and the people, and between Parliament and the Executive, are indeed desperately needed, and PR is a vital component in bringing about the greater accountability of Parliament and government. But what must not be omitted from the process is changes in the relationship of the UK nations to Westminster and to each other. Unless and until this nettle is grasped, any constitutional reform will be flawed and will not address the problem of Parliament’s democratic illegitimacy that is the underlying reason why the expenses scandal has caused so much outrage.

Another siren call that must be resisted is the demand that a general election be held right away. David Cameron upped the ante on this issue on Monday of this week, at the launch of the Tories’ European Election campaign, by initiating a petition for an election to be called in June. Clearly, it would be in the Conservatives’ interests to hold an election sooner rather than later given the fact that they would be likely to win an outright majority, as they are the only viable alternative to a government that people were already desperate to get rid of even before the expenses scandal. The fact that the Lib Dems have joined in with these calls is clearly also self-serving: the Lib Dems are hoping to capitalise on Labour’s unpopularity and the fact that they’ve come off relatively lightly in the expenses scandal to assert themselves as the centre-left alternative to Labour.

But this is party politicking of the kind we need to do away with: parties putting their own interests and opportunism ahead of the UK’s and England’s needs. A new Tory government would lack legitimacy for the same reason as the present government: it would be elected under a monumentally flawed and distorting electoral system. In addition, if an election were held now, it’s likely that there would be an even higher rate of abstentions than in the 2005 general election: around 39%. A lot of people, such as the former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit last week, have already been calling for voters to abstain in the forthcoming European Parliament elections as a protest against the parties’ failure to put their Westminster House in order. As a result of the low turn-out in the 2005 UK general election, the present Labour government was elected by only 22% of eligible voters. With a high rate of abstentions in 2009, a new Tory regime might well command the support of an even smaller – or at least, not significantly larger – share of the population. Hardly a recipe for re-engaging the people in politics and for driving fundamental reform!

And Prime Minister Cameron would be highly unlikely to do anything significant to address the English Question. In all probability, the Tories will continue to govern England as if it is the UK and will have no qualms about enlisting the votes of the precious few MPs the Tories have in Scotland and Wales, along with those of his allies the UUP in Northern Ireland, to push through legislation that affects England only – especially if the Tories’ overall parliamentary majority is slim. Having said that, the Campaign for an English Parliament has today issued an open letter to David Cameron calling on him to work towards the establishment of what would be a de facto federal system of government in the UK: parliaments for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a much smaller UK parliament dealing only with reserved matters such as taxation, defence, overseas aid, immigration and macro-economic policy. It remains to be seen how, or indeed whether, David Cameron will respond to the CEP’s challenge. If he does recognise that we are facing a ‘constitutional moment’ – indeed, an Oliver Cromwell moment – then he will really be showing true leadership and vision. He would be a worthy Prime Minister for a re-shaped UK, who could be accepted by the people of England – as opposed to a Prime Minister for the UK who does not want to be a Prime Minister for England, even though that would be what he effectively was under the present system.

We have to find ways to make sure that the English Question – the issue of how England should be governed – comes and remains to the forefront of the discussions about parliamentary and constitutional reform. How do we do this? Well, at a basic level, we keep on doing what we have been doing: bringing up the topics of asymmetric devolution and the need for an English parliament in conversations with friends, workmates, down the pub, etc. Now that people generally are talking more about the need to change parliament, this is the best chance we’ve ever had to push the case for an English parliament. Then there’s all the blogging and campaigning of one sort or another we’ve been doing to inform people about the unfairness of the present system to England and the British government’s suppression of English-national identity and political rights. So it’s keep up the good work, and more so.

But is this enough? One of the ideas I was going to float in my aborted long post (yes, even longer than this one) was that we could form a new political party to stand at the next general election solely on a platform of wholesale constitutional reform at the three levels I referred to above: the relationship between Parliament and the Executive; between Parliament / the Executive and the people; and between the UK and its nations. If the mainstream parties are not going to answer the constitutional challenge on all of these levels – and the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ eagerness to have an election under the present defective system, without a clear programme of constitutional reform, appears to suggest that they may not do so – then it is up to us, the people, to assert our just demands. In fact, it is the people that is the lynchpin and raison d’être of this whole process: government should be for and of the people in both our distinct national communities, and as a united federation of nations across the British Isles.

I’m still interested in canvassing people’s views about this, although the situation is changing so fast, I wonder whether my ‘Change Party’ idea will soon also be superseded by events, as was my previous draft post: maybe Cameron will surprise us and accept the need to factor the English Question into a constitutional reform process; maybe the Lib Dems, too, will start to acknowledge the English dimension of constitutional reform, rather than referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ in every second sentence and avoiding the ‘E’ word almost as pathologically as New Labour. Maybe even the ‘national’ (i.e. English) media may also belatedly realise that you cannot – simply cannot – now talk about meaningful reform of ‘Parliament’ without recognising that something has to be done about those Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs that have so little to do – other than meddle in English affairs that do not concern them – that it’s no wonder they just see Westminster as a gravy train and an English golden goose to be exploited for their constituents’ and their own maximum benefit.

To design a new UK constitution setting out shiny new responsibilities, powers and duties for MPs, and a brand-spanking new proportional voting system, without remedying asymmetric devolution, and without allowing only the English people – let alone English MPs – to vote on English matters, would be such a gross absurdity and injustice that it would be bound to fail and lead to many more years of disaffection with politics and parliament on the part of the English people.

Surely our political representatives must see that. And if they don’t, they deserve to be voted out. And that’s our final sanction: if any of the established parties do not include the need to re-examine how England is governed as part of their manifestoes for the next general election, whenever it comes, they do not deserve our support.

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7 Responses

  1. Unlock Democracy have long advocated proportional representation in order to mitigate the West lothian Question.

    However, it might be that wipe-out for Labour in Scotland takes the party-political sting out of the WLQ before PR is even introduced, especially as the SNP and Tories observe a self-denying ordinance on English matters (apart from exceptional cases).

  2. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, a Conservative Government with a majority in England does much the same thing.

  3. “Asymmetric devolution”, is not the problem. Devolution is by its very nature asymmetric.

    Devolution is designed to delegate some powers to provinces while keeping the political systems and structures of the devolving central power intact.

    In the UK this is exactly what has happened. NI, Wales and Scotland have all been given regional parliaments or assemblies which have not radically affected the way government is conducted in the centre.

    All the powers of the Scottish Parliament such as a separate law system and education system pre-dated the creation of the Scottish Parliament and had already been incorporated into the procedures of Westminster and in Whitehall before devolution.

    Devolution hardly affected Westminster at all and caused almost no changes in the way that Westminster governs the UK or the UK constitution.

    If you’re going down the road of an English Parliament that’s Federalism which changes the structure of the UK from a centralised state with provinces to a state which is made up of four semi-independent parts with a small federal government at the apex. This would require the wholesale reorganisation of the UK constitution and it would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. A huge undertaking and not one that I see ever happening.

    I can see that a lot of tinkering will go on with how Westminster operates but the basic structure of the UK constitution will not change. It’s going to be a centralised UK/English state with provinces unless Scotland leaves the UK and England, Wales and NI have to work out how they create the structure of the new state they’re left with.

  4. When David Cameron and George Osborne attended the Welsh Conservatives spring conference a few weeks back we began to get a clearer idea of how they would deal with constitutional matters in general and Welsh devolution in particular.

    Basically they seemed to be aiming for a ‘killing with kindness’ strategy: Cameron would be terribly, terribly nice to everyone (including the English – no more ‘sour Little Englander’ type jibes) and pop down to see us once a year in the hope of heading off further developments such as a referendum on primary powers in Wales. He knows another Welsh referendum will only make the English electorate even more restive but he faces a problem with timing. Even if a general election isn’t held until next year, there would still be enough time for the Welsh Assembly to bring forward and vote on a resolution for a referendum on primary powers before May 2011. This of course would land in the lap of a Conservative Secretary of State for Wales who has 120 days to respond. Would he/she dare veto the resolution and what reason could be given for doing so? That’s the dilemma facing the Tories.

    It’ll be interesting to see whether this strategy is revised in the light of the expenses scandal and calls for a constitutional convention. My feeling at the moment is that Cameron would still prefer the old Etonian charm option rather than embarking on major constitutional change.

  5. […] The governance of England must not be left out of the process of constitutional reform and we must push this point whenever anyone suggests a UK constitutional convention. […]

  6. Killing with kindness? Well, you can see from today’s article in the Western Mail on the Tory Shadow Welsh Secretary’s suggestion to return powers on higher education to Westminster that the smothering process has begun!

  7. […] have previously suggested in this blog that one possible tactic would be to form a new political party – for instance, called the […]

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