The national dimension to constitutional reform

I’m a supporter of the Power 2010 initiative that is attempting to keep radical constitutional and parliamentary reform on the political agenda. However, I have serious qualms about the organisation’s ‘British’ dimensions and the way in which it conceives of constitutional reform, ironically, in rather conservative terms: within the framework of the present United Kingdom state. For example, it has grouped the suggestions for reform of Parliament it has received from the public into categories that leave the current status of Parliament as the combined legislative body for reserved UK matters and all English matters fundamentally unchallenged:

  • Fixed-term parliaments
  • Normal holidays and working hours for MPs
  • Elect the second chamber by “sector”
  • Abolish party whips
  • Charitable representatives in the second chamber
  • A second chamber selected by lot
  • Accommodate MPs in the Olympic village
  • Give backbenchers control of parliamentary business
  • Limit government’s use of whips
  • Reform consultations
  • A class of MPs who won’t serve in government
  • Fully elected House of Lords
  • Local councils to nominate MPs
  • Lords to represent organisations
  • Independent Parliament watchdog
  • MPs accountable to their constituency

How about ‘prevent MPs from non-English constituencies from voting on English bills’, or ‘replace Parliament with a new body responsible only for reserved UK matters’? Indeed.

You won’t see ‘Establish an English parliament’ in this list because it appears under the heading of ‘Devolution and local government’ rather than that of ‘Parliament’. In this list, an EP appears third (although I assume these suggestions are listed ‘in no particular order’, as the reality-TV shows say) after ‘A stronger Parliament for Wales’ and ‘More power to regional government’ [in England, you understand]. The way these things are presented creates the impression of a smorgasbord of tasty options that could be mixed and matched according to individual preference, without thinking through their implications and the cross-overs between them. In particular, what would be the implications for England of a Welsh assembly or parliament with powers to enact primary legislation? And what sort of changes to the constitution and structure of the UK – and to the governance of its other nations – would the creation of an English parliament make necessary; in particular, how would the role and responsibilities of the UK parliament need to be modified?

In part, this pick-and-mix character of Power 2010’s options for reform is the product of the way it has been put together: out of a total of around 4,000 random suggestions from the general public, including mine, which was for an English parliament (surprise, surprise). But what is of concern to me is the UK-level process that Power 2010 is proposing in order to whittle the suggestions down to a short list of the five most urgently needed reforms, which prospective parliamentary candidates will be asked to commit to at the election:

“All of the ideas submitted are being looked at as we speak. They will be fed into a representative assembly of 200 citizens from across the nations and regions of the UK – people of all backgrounds and political persuasions.

“The assembly will meet in London in the new year to distil the ideas into a manageable shortlist for the public to vote on, weeding out irrelevant and weakly supported proposals.

“It’s then up to, you, the British public to choose the 5 reforms our democracy most desperately needs in a nationwide vote”.

I have already commented on the Power 2010 website (under my David Rickard pseudonym) about this use of the odious ‘nations and regions’ phrase and all that it implies. My main issue is that a UK-wide ‘representative assembly’, followed by a UK-wide public vote, is not really qualified to come up with constitutional recommendations for England, such as an English parliament. On the other hand, it is not justified in excluding an EP, either. Basically, it can’t make, pass or reject proposals about the governance of England, because only an English citizens’ convention and referendum is qualified to do that. Anything else is just replicating the West Lothian Question, if anything in an aggravated form: Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish representatives laying down England’s constitutional future.

By contrast, I feel sure that Power 2010’s proposed 200-strong citizens’ assembly will not take it upon itself to make recommendations about the ongoing process of transferring ever greater powers and sovereignty to the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales. Indeed, on Monday (St. Andrew’s Day), to coincide with the SNP’s launch of its ‘Your Scotland, Your Voice’ white paper on the options for the governance of Scotland to be included in a possible referendum, the same Power 2010 website published a contribution from Canon Kenyon Wright – one of the leading architects of the 1989 Scottish Claim of Right – outlining the ongoing work in Scotland to establish a written constitution for Scotland and the UK, and to reform the Scottish parliament. This work is going on entirely independently, as it were, of Power 2010; and there’s no suggestion from the Power 2010 team that it should be integrated with the broader UK-wide movement for constitutional reform that it is trying to steer. Nevertheless, Canon Wright himself is of the opinion that the work of the Constitutional Commission in Scotland, of which he is the honorary chair, can help to inform and drive the process of overhauling the decaying and defunct UK constitution and political system.

My question is this: if the ongoing progress towards full Scottish self-government, founded on the sovereignty of the Scottish people, is truly consistent with the aim of arriving at a “written constitution which creates a truly constitutional monarchy, and sets standards and principles which are above the common law, and redefine the sharing of power [and which] would be the basis for a very different and radically reformed Union” (in Kenyon Wright’s words), then why does the Scottish Constitutional Commission not make common cause with Power 2010 and other movements that are campaigning for radical UK constitutional reform?

The answer, I believe, is that Canon Wright’s movement is not primarily concerned with UK-constitutional reform at all: it is a Scottish-driven, Scotland-centred process focused on the Scottish national interest, which – in addition to the principle of popular sovereignty – was the other key pledge that the signatories of the Scottish Claim of Right committed themselves to: “We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount”.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a movement for Scottish self-rule putting the Scottish national interest first: that’s only what you’d expect. However, what I object to is the pretence that this is consistent with a joined-up approach to comprehensive reform of the UK constitution carried out in the interests of all its nations and not just one of them. The Scottish Constitutional Commission is basically out to procure a form of government that is both genuinely autonomous and in the Scottish interest, something which Canon Wright elsewhere terms ‘Secure Autonomy’ – a position similar to the third of four possible options presented in the SNP-government’s white paper: a sort of independence within the Union, with Scotland managing virtually all of its own affairs (including taxation) apart from things like defence and foreign affairs. In other words, this is having the cake of independence and eating the cake of security within the Union. Quite what the impact of these new constitutional arrangements would be on the remainder of the Union – if, indeed, anything remained of the Union at this point – is not spelt out by the Canon:

  • “The powers of the autonomous Scotland would certainly include constitutional matters, and full fiscal autonomy, though much more work needs to be done both on powers and on the implications for the Union.
  • “Links with a reformed Union, probably of a neo-federal nature, would be retained”.

Well, yes, a lot more work does need to be done on the implications for the Union. But that’s not Canon Wright’s concern. Scotland will get it wants, and the rest of the Union will just have to accommodate itself to Scotland’s wishes. As the Canon puts it: “Much can and must be negotiated, but sovereignty is non-negotiable”.

That’s all well and good; but this is not constitutional reform carried out in a way that shows much care either for the complex fabric and history of the UK’s unwritten constitution, nor much concern about the damaging impact on other parts of the Union of piecemeal reform to individual pieces of the jigsaw, motivated by partisan interests, that then loses sight of the bigger picture. This exemplifies the cavalier and short-sighted approach to constitutional reform that has characterised New Labour, and in particular the asymmetric devolution settlement designed to see off the nationalist threat in Labour’s Celtic heartlands without any thought for its impact on England. And I see a danger of more of the same being perpetrated through the Power 2010 initiative: the UK-wide representative assembly and vote will not impinge on the evolving devolution / independence processes in Scotland and Wales; but it will make decisions that affect every aspect of English governance by virtue of the fact that the UK parliament has the ultimate sovereignty over all English affairs. Will UK-parliamentary sovereignty simply be replaced by the sovereignty of the British, not English, people in matters of English governance?

I don’t see anybody in the Power 2010 movement rushing to acknowledge the principle of English popular sovereignty, in parallel to the principle of Scottish popular sovereignty of which Canon Wright is such an eloquent exponent. The reason why they do not embrace such a principle is that it would undermine the Power 2010 movement’s assumption that it can serve as the unified vehicle for a ‘national-British’ popular sovereignty and an integrated reform of the whole UK political system – or, as it puts it, “you, the British public [choosing] the 5 reforms our democracy most desperately needs in a nationwide vote”. So it’s not ‘we the English people’ deciding on the forms of governance best suited to our needs, but ‘we the British public’ once again making decisions on England’s behalf. The choice of the word ‘public’ here makes me think that my earlier comparison of Power 2010’s approach with the process of picking TV talent-show winners through a ‘public vote’ was not altogether misplaced. This is like a talent show of original reform ideas, in which the winners are those that are most ‘popular’ with the British public. But this sort of popularity does not necessarily correspond to a genuine exercise of popular sovereignty by and on behalf of the people (the English) who will be most affected by the decisions; nor does it automatically equate to real merit, as we know only too well from the mediocrity of so many talent-show winners.

So what I fear we will get from Power 2010 is a campaign for UK-wide constitutional reform that is meant to be adequate for England and yet will foster a piecemeal approach that allows Scotland and Wales to continue on their own paths to greater autonomy without considering the coherence of the Union as a whole or the rights of the English people to also exercise their sovereignty. Instead of rushing to come up with five glittering, vote-winning competition ‘finalists’ ahead of the general election, what is needed is a much more joined-up, deliberative approach that genuinely seeks to reconcile the currently opposing national interests and aspirations that otherwise risk breaking the Union apart altogether. If the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish people that aspire both to greater national autonomy, and to a continuing and revitalised Union inspired by common principles of democracy, solidarity and liberty, are unable to bring together their different national projects and perspectives, then there is no hope for the Union. A sustainable United Kingdom cannot be based on a multi-track, multi-system set-up where the different nations have different degrees of independence from the centre; and where England is governed as the UK, in the interests of the other UK nations, by UK-wide structures that ignore the will of the English people.

For these same reasons, there’s simply no point coming up with a list of the top-five options for constitutional reform if these are not linked in a logical way that sets out a coherent path towards real change. Certain pre-conditions need to be laid out and satisfied in order for the reform process to be genuine and to stand a chance of long-term success. In brief, here is what I would have as such a list of the five most important principles and objectives, without which the whole exercise lacks coherence:

  1. Formal recognition of the fundamental human right of national communities to determine their own form of government (popular sovereignty), and to decide whether they wish to constitute a national community or not
  2. On this basis, a formal process to determine which actually are the national communities of the United Kingdom, including, for instance, a referendum in Cornwall to decide whether Cornwall should be considered as a nation or not; and an even more contentious process for the Northern Irish to decide whether they regard the Province as a nation in its own right. If the people of Ulster chose not to become a nation, the Province could probably be considered as a self-governing British region, which would not be very different in practical terms from being a self-governing British nation
  3. Following this, referendums in each of the UK’s nations about membership of the EU. Based on the possibly divergent results (e.g. England voting ‘no’ and the other nations voting to remain in the EU), recognition that the UK’s nations may need to have separate responsibility for their international relations. The EU question needs to be resolved first, as it sets the parameters for the amount of genuine sovereignty each nation can have over its own affairs
  4. A genuinely multi-nation, cross-UK consultative and deliberative process to establish the core principles of a new written constitution for a new UK state. Creating written constitutions tends to arise when new nations and states are being established; and the process of constitutional reform in the UK should be no different: any written constitution for the UK must set out details regarding the relationships between the UK’s autonomous nations, and between each nation and the UK state
  5. A series of referendums in each of the UK’s nations to decide on the answer to two questions: a) Do you accept the core principles of the proposed new constitution?, and b) Do you wish those principles to apply to a new (con)federal UK or separately to your own nation as an independent state? Such a combination of options allows for a unified constitutional-reform process for all the UK’s nations as well as keeping open the possibility that some or all of them may seek to go their own way, albeit on the basis of common principles worked out in collaboration with their fellow-British nations.

These are the type of fundamental question that any meaningful process of constitutional reform for the UK must deal with if it is to do justice to the divergent and competing interests of the UK’s nations. The alternative is simply to carry on with the same fundamental identity and structure of the British state as it is now, requiring any idea of English popular sovereignty to be suppressed. But this is neither just nor sustainable in the long run, particularly if the other UK nations are allowed to pursue their own destinies and preserve their influence over England via the Union out of increasingly self-interested motives.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m wondering how random the proposals are. I did notice that email notifications from Power2010 tended to suggest reforms to the electoral system, the Lords, expenses, etc. I don’t recall them ever mentioning an English parliament – although, to be fair, they did feature that suggestion on the blog.

    Power 2010, Unlock Democracy, Charter 88 present themselves as radical but they have never really thought outside the box.

    There is, I think, an element of not wanting to appear too radical lest they are not taken seriously.

    It will be fascinating to see what they come up with.

  2. Muddling along … it’s what we’ve always done …

    I haven’t looked at the Power 2010 website in detail but take that first point on fixed term parliaments – it can hardly be considered independently of the devolved institutions.

    We have fixed terms of four years, so would Westminster’s fixed terms be of the same length and ‘match-up’ with us, i.e. with dual elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Or would devolved elections always be mid-termers to the Westminster elections (or vice versa, if you prefer). If the latter is the case, then it has the potential to (really) bugger up the LCO system, should that system remain in place. A Welsh Assembly Government, from its election, would only have a two year ‘window’ to put forward a LCO and get it through to Royal Consent before the Westminster government changes and it would have to start from scratch again (presumably even if the same Government is returned to power).

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