AV referendum: for the sake of England, don’t vote!

Do you think the First Past the Post voting system used for electing UK MPs should be changed to the Alternative Vote? Do you even care?

Firstly, should anyone who supports the idea of an English parliament give a monkeys about the voting system used to elect the UK parliament? On one level, no: the fact that this AV referendum is being held on the same day as the elections for the Scottish parliament, and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, but that the English have never been consulted about a parliament of their own; and the fact that we’re being offered only the disproportional AV system, whereas those very devolved elections use a different, proportional system, is a downright insult. So not only is there no representation for England as a nation on offer, but there is to be no proportional representation for England even within the UK parliament. So I know where I’d tell them to stick their AV.

On the other hand, a ‘better’ electoral system for electing English MPs would surely be a gain for the nation even while we’re being governed by an unrepresentative UK executive and parliament. Does AV constitute such a gain? Well, in my view, AV is marginally – very marginally – better than FPTP. It does ensure that parliamentary candidates have to secure the explicit support of a larger proportion of their local electorate in order to win – though it doesn’t guarantee that MPs must obtain the support of a majority of voters: that depends on how many voters don’t express a preference for either / any of the candidates remaining after the less popular candidates have been eliminated.

However, in reality, this greater share of the vote MPs have to win, which includes the second and subsequent preferences of voters whose first-choice candidates have been unsuccessful, already exists in latent form under the FPTP system. The only difference that AV makes is that it allows voters to explicitly express that support with their preference votes, so that – for example – a winning plurality of, say, 40% is turned into a winning ‘majority’ of 52%. That extra 12% of voters who are broadly content for a candidate to win on 40% of the vote are still there under FPTP; so AV in a sense just legitimises what happens under FPTP: the election to parliament of MPs who fail to be the first choice of a majority of voters.

AV is, therefore, mainly a means to secure buy-in to an unfair system that has ill-served England. That’s what FPTP has been: over the past few decades, it’s given us Tory and Labour governments that have never commanded the support of a majority of English men and women. It gave us the divisive, confrontational and egomaniacal Thatcher regime; and it was responsible for Blair’s New Labour, with its legacy of asymmetric devolution, British-establishment Anglophobia, public-spending discrimination against England, and the overseas follies of Iraq and Afghanistan, with so many brave young English people exploited as cannon fodder in unwinnable, unjustifiable wars.

FPTP has failed England. AV is only a very slightly mitigated version of FPTP. Both will lead to more disproportional, unrepresentative UK parliaments that will continue to ignore not only the just demands for an English parliament but England’s very existence. Under the present UK political settlement, England as such is completely discounted and passed over in silence. The pro-AV campaign says that, under AV, your vote really counts. But England will still count for nothing, whether we have AV or FPTP.

So make your vote really count this Thursday in the AV referendum by greeting it with the silent contempt with which the political establishment treats England. England’s voice is not being consulted; so respond with sullen, stern silence in your turn. Don’t vote for a system – the UK parliament itself – that disenfranchises you. And let the result – whether a win for AV or FPTP – be rendered as meaningless as it really is through a derisory turn-out across England.

England will have its say one day in a meaningful referendum: on an English parliament. And I bet neither AV nor FPTP will be on offer as the voting system for a parliament that truly represents the English people.

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Vote for England and St. George?

That’ll teach them not to officially fly the flag of St. George atop our dual-purpose English and British parliament! Serves them right – although, apparently, the police stopped the Power 2010 activists from projecting this giant Cross of St. George onto the Palace of Westminster after only about two minutes, no doubt on some spurious counter-terrorist or public-order grounds. British police state!

The Power 2010 campaign, which was, to say the least, a reluctant convert to the cause of English votes on English laws at the time of their online poll to determine the most popular ideas for constitutional reform, which culminated in February, is now urging people to write to their parliamentary candidates to ask them for their views on the English Question. Good for them, and great idea to project the flag and create this image!

There’s no doubt that if all English people who support an English parliament – 68% according to an ICM poll commissioned by Power 2010, due to be published today – could back just one party in support of that aim, then that party would romp to victory at the general election and reclaim Westminster as the English parliament. But in practice, the idea of voting for a pro-EP candidate puts me in something of a quandary. I devoted my last post here to promoting the idea behind the Hang ‘Em campaign, which seeks to mobilise voters to back the candidate most likely to advance the cause of a reforming parliament, principally by achieving a hung parliament. In accordance with that objective, I’ve decided to vote Lib Dem, as their candidate in my constituency is the only one who could possibly defeat the existing Tory MP, thereby furthering the goal of a hung parliament. But should I switch my vote over to the Tory if he turns out to support an English parliament?

I’m definitely going to take the opportunity to ask him and should have done so when I bumped into him in a local street canvassing last week (!); but I’m not sure he or one of his campaign team are going to have time to reply before 6 May now – talk of doing too little, too late, myself included in the criticism! In any case, I think it’s highly unlikely he would support such a radical constitutional innovation, as he never seems to deviate in any way from official Conservative policy, which doesn’t even propose a workable solution to the West Lothian Question, let alone address the English Question. But what if he does turn out to support an EP?

Well, there’s no point voting for a candidate who favours an English parliament who, if elected, wouldn’t do anything to advance that cause. But I’ll ask him whether he would do anything about it, if he does support an EP, and give him the chance to set out his views. I’ll let you know what answer I get to my question, if any. But my default position remains that the best way to promote the goal of an English parliament is to vote for a hung British parliament; and, in any case, voting Lib Dem is entirely consistent with both objectives, as they at least say in their manifesto that the English Question needs to be dealt with as part of an overall British constitutional convention.

So I still say ‘vote hung parliament’ until the Cross of St. George hangs from an English parliament!

Have a good one, by the way.

The article ConservativeHome rejected: To be a party of the Union, the Conservatives must also be a party for England

On the day after the Conservatives published a draft manifesto for the English NHS that failed to mention ‘England’ a single time, I thought it would be fitting to publish an article of mine that was originally accepted for inclusion in the ‘Platform’ section of the ConservativeHome blog back in November of last year. However, they subsequently got cold feet and decided not to publish.

The rejection of the article, coupled with the Conservatives’ refusal to accurately present their English-NHS policies as limited to England, doesn’t make me optimistic that the election campaign will be marked by honesty over English matters. Here’s the article:

It has been said by some – and I would tend to agree – that the biggest threat to the continuation of the Union is likely to come from England, not Scotland. There is a groundswell of feeling and opinion throughout England that our present constitutional and political arrangements have left England in both a democratic and financial deficit; and it is arguable that the wave of disaffection with Parliament and our political system that broke in May and June of this year was primarily an expression of English alienation and disenchantment with the status quo. At the very least, the UK-wide eruption of disgust at MPs’ perceived corruption was more acute in England, which does not have a parliament of its own, thereby exacerbating the feeling that the political class has become unaccountable to the public.

There are now many people in England who secretly or not so secretly wish that the Scots will get their independence referendum and will vote to leave the UK. Indeed, if the English were offered a referendum on independence for England, it would not be surprising if the percentage in favour exceeded the 29% of Scots who reportedly back independence for Scotland at present. Arguably, in any case, all UK citizens should be allowed to participate in any definitive independence referendum for Scotland, as opposed to the SNP’s proposed consultative referendum asking for a mandate for the Scottish government to negotiate an independence settlement with the UK government. This is because Scotland cannot technically vote to ‘leave’ the Union. The effect of a vote in favour of Scottish independence would actually be to dissolve the Union: Great Britain would cease to exist, as this entity is the product of a union between two nations (Wales being subsumed within England at the time); and if one of those nations decides to go, that breaks up the union. In other words, Great Britain is the name of a marriage; and when a divorce arises, there is no more Great Britain – just separate entities known as England (and Wales) and Scotland.

So part of any deal for Scottish independence would have to be a new constitutional settlement for the residual nations of the UK to form, for instance, a new ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’. And it would only be right and proper that the prospective citizens of the new state should be asked whether they wanted to be part of it. So perhaps you’d need two referendums, in fact: one for the Scots about their national future; and one for the rest of the UK.

This is, of course, a scenario that traditional unionist Conservatives would like to avoid at all costs. But you can’t deal with English disaffection with asymmetric devolution and with the lack of a representative parliament for England by denying English-national feeling and identity, as the Labour government has tried to do. New Labour has tried to manipulate English people’s traditional patriotic identification of England with Great Britain – the two often being interchangeable in English people’s hearts and minds – to engineer a ‘New Britain’ that denies the existence of a distinct English nation altogether: a Britain / UK that no longer comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but is viewed as Britain + the devolved nations – Gordon Brown’s ‘Britain of nations and regions [formerly known as England]’.

Whilst this new British-nation building has arguably mediated a profound Anglophobia at the heart of the liberal establishment, it has also been a reaction by the Westminster establishment as a whole to the traumatic shock to the 300-year-old Union that was delivered by an ill-thought-through devolution settlement. The fear was that a new English nationalism would build up in parallel to the growing national consciousness and self-confidence of the Scots and the Welsh; and that the English would start to demand their own parliament and national institutions that could rip open the Union from within. But instead of acknowledging that it was an inevitable consequence of devolution that the English would start to become more aware of themselves as a distinct nation, and would consequently start to demand English civic institutions like those of the other British nations, the approach has been virtually to deny that England even exists, which – politically and constitutionally speaking – it in fact doesn’t. In this way, the Union parliament can be presented as a perfectly adequate representative democratic body for England because there is no England, only the UK. As Tony Blair’s first Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine memorably put it, “The way to deal with the West Lothian Question is not to ask it”.

Given the Conservative Party’s profound attachment to the Union, it would be understandable if a Tory government were to continue along this path of denying any distinctly English dimension to national politics and constitutional affairs. Clearly, this is the case not only because of the perceived threat of a growing English nationalism but because the Conservatives are desperate, for electoral purposes, not to be perceived by Scots as an English party – which they mainly in fact are. But to replicate New Labour’s actions and attitudes in relation to England would not only be unjust but would also be alien to Conservative tradition and counter-productive to the aim of preserving the Union. Traditionally, that is, the Conservatives have been adept at balancing the competing English and British identities and patriotisms of the English people: channelling English national pride into a One Nation Britishness that yet did not deny Englishness. If, on the other hand, the response of a forthcoming Conservative government to the contrary challenges of English and Scottish nationalism is, like New Labour, to make it unacceptable to publicly articulate pride in Englishness, then this will in turn be unacceptable to the English public in the long run. The Union cannot be sustainable if its largest constituent part has to deny its own identity and democratic aspirations indefinitely while allowing its other parts to affirm their own – indeed, in order to allow the other nations to affirm their distinct identities, requiring England in a sense to become the Union by itself: the place of Britishness from which only the other nations are allowed to differentiate themselves; whereas if England becomes merely England, not Britain, then there is no more Union, just four distinct nations.

So what are the alternatives? Well, Ken Clarke’s answer to the West Lothian Question, which has been dubbed ‘English pauses for English clauses’, manages to avoid really asking the question, too. While it makes it possible for English MPs to amend England-only clauses of bills at the committee stage, Clarke’s recommendation still leaves the structural West Lothian anomaly in place: bills affecting England only or mainly can still be put forward by an executive comprising MPs from across the UK’s nations, and still need to be passed by a parliamentary majority made up of MPs from all four countries. In any case, such a procedural titivation is hardly likely to stem the growing tide of public dissatisfaction with the workings and representative character of Parliament in general, let alone the aspirations towards English self-government.

It seems to me, then, that if the Conservative Party genuinely seeks to preserve the Union as a true, undivided Union of equal nations, then it will have to seek a way to allow a distinct and healthy English-national politics and civic life to develop and prosper, even if this is within the broad confines of the existing Union structures. This may in fact be a last-ditch chance to save the Union as we know it from the alternatives of a federal UK of four nations or a total break-up of the UK into its component parts. Quite what shape the new English politics would take once the English genius is let out of the asphyxiating British lamp is not something that can easily be foreseen. But it seems to me that the Conservative Party is the natural party to guide and steer this process, precisely because of its deep roots in English society and traditions, and the naturally conservative (small ‘c’) character of the English people.

To begin with, the Party could start honestly referring to its England-specific policies and, in government, laws as English, rather than maintaining the present pretence that its policies in areas such as education, health or policing relate to the whole of the UK. In their manifesto at the general election, the Conservatives should reserve a dedicated section to their policies for England, which in fact will make up the majority of their legislative activity in government, given the very many policy areas in which UK governments now have competency for England only. This would be a hugely refreshing change and would demonstrate to people in England, including those that might otherwise be tempted to vote for more nationalist alternatives, that the Conservative Party is mindful of the specific social and economic concerns and needs of English people alongside its responsibilities to the whole of the UK in areas such as the economy or national security.

Such a degree of honesty about England-specific policies need not provoke a cry of indignation from the nationalists and Labour alike that the Conservatives are putting the needs and priorities of English people above those of Scotland and Wales. On the contrary, many people in those countries would also find it refreshing that national-UK politicians were finally accepting the post-devolution realities and not talking about England-specific matters as if they were relevant to them, too. This sort of honesty would be in stark contrast to the behaviour of Labour, in particular, which is clearly seeking to bolster its traditional support in Scotland and Wales based on an appeal to its traditional policies on the NHS and education for which Westminster governments are no longer responsible in those countries. The Tory response to Labour’s gerrymandering manipulation of the West Lothian Question should not be to deny the validity of the question but to show up Labour’s deceit for what it is. The Conservatives can present themselves as a government for Scotland and Wales; but they can’t do so by denying that, in many ways, Westminster administrations are now governments for England alone. There are English matters and there are UK matters, and the way to restore the trust of the public is to recognise the difference and present strong policies in both departments.

The Union is presently under a greater threat than at any previous time in its history, other than in times of war. But the way to respond to this threat is not to deny the identity and democratic aspirations of the largest nation within the Union. New Labour has tried to craft a soulless Britain without England. The challenge for the incoming Conservative government will be to shape a great Britain that still has England at, and in, its heart.

A nice constitutional crisis: Labour win on a smaller share of the vote than the Tories

Imagine this election scenario: the Tories win the largest share of the vote across the UK, but Labour are returned to office with a small majority. It could happen: the Conservatives actually have to win by a margin of around 9% to secure an overall majority, owing to the absurdities of the First Past the Post voting system and Labour’s gerrymandering of constituency boundaries. Admittedly, the ComRes opinion poll last week gave the Tories a 17% lead over Labour; but the most recent ICM poll, also last week, gave them only a 9% lead. (See the BBC’s excellent poll tracker charting the trends shown by different opinion polls over the past few years.)

Obviously, a hung parliament with the Tories having the largest share of seats is a more likely result than a Labour majority despite the Tories gaining the largest share of the votes. Or we could of course have a situation where Labour wins more seats overall, but not enough to form a majority, even though the Tories poll more votes. In all of these cases, the West Lothian Question would really come to the fore, in that it would be Labour’s disproportionate return of Scottish and Welsh MPs that would prevent the Tories from winning a majority or allow Labour to secure one. In all of these scenarios, the Tories would probably win a majority of English MPs.

How aware or concerned would people in England be about the national dimension to this situation of political stalemate or worse (a deeply unpopular Labour government) caused by an election result that failed to reflect the popular will to an even greater extent than normal, in that not even the largest party, in electoral terms, was in a position to form a government? Doubtless the media would conspire with the establishment parties to suppress the uncomfortable fact that the UK result was the consequence of Labour’s relative strength in Scotland and Wales (coupled with the voting system) overriding the will of the English people – although the Tories themselves are highly unlikely to command the support of the majority of voters even in England. But it could become embarrassingly obvious, even to the politically indifferent, that a minority or majority Labour government was totally reliant for its survival on its Scottish and Welsh phalanxes, and that Labour was happy to disregard the way the English had voted so long as the West Lothian Question allowed it to cling on to power.

What would happen in the case of a Labour majority or plurality based on a smaller share of the vote than the Conservatives? Precedent from the last hung parliament, in 1974, would indicate that the Queen would ask the leader of the largest party in parliamentary terms, i.e. Labour, to form a government. Under such circumstances, a man with the genuine leadership qualities that Brown sadly lacks might try to form a unity government: a coalition with the Tories and perhaps the Lib Dems, too, although not with the Lib Dems alone, as that would be correctly interpreted as simply a tactic to shut the Conservatives out of power and to retain a supposedly centre-left government. The more likely outcome would be that a Brown minority or majority government would attempt to soldier on despite its lack of a mandate – at least in England – and would try to morally blackmail the other parties into allowing it to function, on the basis that the economic crisis made political stability imperative. A minority Conservative administration would, I’m sure, behave in like manner: the Conservatives want to hold the reins of power on their own, regardless of the actual will of the electorate. So they’d probably set their stall out with an emergency budget and painful cuts in English public services (bearing in mind their direct spending in most areas relates to English (and occasionally Welsh) services only) and would then go to the polls for a second time to try to win a ‘mandate’ – defined as a parliamentary majority, not a majority of votes across England, let alone the UK.

Whichever party forms the next government is in a strong position to work this two-election poll vault into power, as Labour in fact did in 1974: carry out some emergency measures, and then seek a mandate and win a majority in a second election. The real political-credit crunch would come if a Labour government with an unrepresentative small majority tried to carry on for a full term, or if a second election produced an equally unsatisfactory result. Then, and probably only then, a constitutional crisis might occur that could lead to some fundamental reforms being made.

For example, a Labour government (after the first election) would probably try to force through legislation on electoral reform, including the proposed referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system. Any second election might well be conducted using AV, if a majority of voters backed it. This change would probably be decried by the Tories as an attempt by Labour to keep them permanently out of power, as AV – which is not a proportional system – would be likely to favour the centre-left majority in England and would bolster the leading unionist party (i.e. Labour) in Scotland and Wales. (You wouldn’t expect the Gerrymander Party to support a voting system that was not biased in its favour, would you?) In fact, based on the very same national electoral logic outlined above, AV might well return another majority Labour government based on a smaller share of first-choice votes than the Tories. However – and here’s the clever part – Labour would try to make out that this was a more genuine mandate as AV allegedly ensures that each MP enjoys the support of the ‘majority’ of their constituents. In fact, it does no such thing, as the 50%+ support each elected MP has to obtain through AV is merely an artifice of the voting system itself: in theory, you could carry on eliminating all of the last-placed candidates in an AV-based vote until only the last man, or woman, was left standing, and they could then be said to command the support of 100% of voters. But that figure is no more real than the 50%+ share proponents of AV say it engenders.

Imagine the Tories’ fury if they were frustrated in their lust for power by a change in electoral system for a second election in 2010 producing a majority Labour government from a smaller share of first-choice votes than the Conservatives! Not only would they be furious but so, this time, would many people in England, as, once again, the Labour majority would be dependent on the West Lothian Question.

The alternative scenario – a minority Conservative government seeking but failing to obtain a majority in a second election – would also be likely to add momentum to calls for fundamental reform. Under such circumstances, the Conservatives would have to rely on support from the Lib Dems in order to govern, perhaps in a coalition. The Lib Dems might then find themselves in a position to demand some meaningful reform measures, such as a move to a genuinely proportional voting system and a constitutional convention. Knowing the Conservatives, they would probably insist on ‘postponing’ such measures till later in the parliamentary term, or to a subsequent term, in the hope – no doubt – that they could put them off indefinitely.

For those, like me, that support the goal of an English parliament, what would the most favourable scenario be? The ‘best’ options would be the small-majority Labour government based on the West Lothian anomaly or a strong Conservative majority with very little representation in Scotland, as these are likely to get up the hackles of the English- and Scottish-nationalist constituencies respectively. On the other hand, a minority Labour or Conservative government, having to rely on the support of the other parties in order to govern, would be the least desirable outcome, as they would be able to appeal to the need to preserve ‘national unity’ and political stability to steer the UK out of its economic and fiscal crisis.

So as a supporter of an English parliament and of fundamental constitutional reform, one is in the invidious position of wishing for the election to bring about a constitutional crisis. But such a crisis would arise only because the established parties are determined to continue exploiting the unrepresentative character of the present system for their own advantage rather than realigning politics so that government is genuinely accountable to the people it affects. The refusal to remedy the West Lothian Question and address the more fundamental question of the governance of England are just part of a general unwillingness to reform a system that gives the main parties such unaccountable power: Labour needs its disproportionate representation from Scotland and Wales to govern England, and the Tories need their disproportionate representation from England to govern the UK. It may perhaps require a situation in which the UK becomes ungovernable – i.e. unworkable minority governments, a Labour government hated in England, or a Tory government hated in Scotland and Wales – to force the hand of the political elite and to bring about a situation in which all the nations of the UK can genuinely elect the government of their choice.

So we should perhaps wish for the Tories to win the election (on votes) but for Labour to return to power (on seats). Such a nice constitutional crisis may bring about political and economic turmoil in the short term; but in the long term, it may be the route to restoring English democracy.

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.

How should national-UK parties present their English policies?

On the Waking Hereward blog, there’s an interesting reply from Nick Clegg to some questions raised by the author. The first of these was why, in his speech to the Lib Dem conference in September, Nick Clegg never once mentioned the word ‘England’, even though many of the policies he outlined related to England alone. Clegg fails to answer the question, merely describing the difficulty in separating out purely English aspects of parliamentary bills, where some clauses can indeed be exclusive to England but others might apply to England & Wales; England, Wales & Northern Ireland; Great Britain; or the whole of the UK.

But the question wasn’t about the structure and geographical extent of UK legislation: it was why can’t you say ‘England’ when you mean England? And Clegg basically avoided answering that question, even though the whole premise of the Barnett Formula, to which he alluded, involves the separation of spending – and hence policy making – in England from that in the other UK nations: “it’s worth bearing in mind that the level of bloc grant in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is automatically linked to total ‘English’ spending”. Note, however, that Clegg couldn’t resist putting ‘England’ in inverted commas. This is almost a typographical analogue of his failure to refer to England as England in his speeches: as a real nation and not the portion of the territory of the United Kingdom to which all UK-parliamentary legislation applies, and for which ‘England’ is merely a historic name of convenience.

But Clegg’s response does raise some interesting questions in its turn about the nature of policy making by the national-UK parties. The implication of Clegg’s remarks is that the Lib Dems and, by logical extension, the other parties cannot formulate policy for England alone because, in any actual policy as set out in a parliamentary bill, different parts of it relate to different parts of the UK. This was in evidence in the recent Queen’s Speech where the BBC, for once, excelled in picking out the parts of the UK to which the proposed bills applied. E.g. Children, Schools and Families Bill: “Whole bill applies to England. Other parts cover Wales and extends in part to Northern Ireland”. Or the Crime and Security Bill: “Most aspects of the bill apply to England and Wales only”. Etc.

These are all UK bills; it’s just that different bits of them relate to different parts of the UK, though all of them, without exception, apply to England. They relate to different parts of the UK not only because of the different sets of powers that have been devolved to the various UK nations, but also because they cut across government departments, some of which are now England-only, and some of which still have responsibility for some or all of the UK nations. For instance, despite the fact that the competency of the UK-government Department for Children, Schools and Families is limited to England, parts of the bill of the same name – referred to above – relate to crime and policing, where the UK parliament’s responsibilities presently extend to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So, technically speaking, it is indeed highly complicated to disentangle the England-only bits from those affecting one, two or three of the other UK jurisdictions as well. But on another level, it’s extremely simple: as all UK legislation relates to England, you could simply make a distinction between English legislation, on the one hand, and UK-wide legislation, on the other. Then, instead of picking out the England-specific bits, it would be a case of saying, where relevant, ‘parts of this bill also relate to Wales and Northern Ireland’ or ‘parts of this bill also apply to Scotland and Wales’, etc.

It comes down to which country the politicians actually think they’re governing. Institutionally and legally, they’re legislating for the UK; therefore, it’s technically correct to set things out as they are done at present: UK bills, parts of which relate to different parts of the UK. But this also entrenches and expresses the establishment mindset, which is that the business of the UK Parliament and of national-UK politicians is to govern a homogeneous ‘nation’ called the UK or Britain – irrespective of the fact that perhaps the majority of what they do relates to only one part of that nation (England), and all of it applies to England alongside one or more of the other UK nations. So in their mind, the politicians think they’re governing Britain; but in reality, they’re governing England
plus.

However, the consequence of adjusting their language to more adequately reflect the post-devolution realities of UK governance would be revolutionary and would blow apart the pretence that the UK is a unitary polity. If MPs thought and, more importantly, openly said and acknowledged that the country they are really governing and legislating for, in all genuinely non-UK-wide matters, was England, this would in effect involve describing the UK parliament as a combined English and UK parliament, whose remit in English matters was occasionally extended into the other UK countries. Of course, this would be unsustainable in the long term and would inevitably lead to an increase in calls for a separate English parliament and further devolution for the other countries involving a clear, consistent separation between the powers devolved to each national parliament and purely UK-wide matters.

This is the real reason why Clegg and the other establishment politicians can’t say England. They’re stuck in a British mould many parts of which have now been chipped out leaving just England, but which they continue to think of as Britain. And they’re afraid that if they start calling it England, the whole thing will fall apart. But in reality, this is what’s needed to free them to create a new politics that is genuinely accountable to the nation – England – it actually represents. Only in this way, perhaps, will the Liberal Democrats finally realise their 1980s predecessors’ ambitions to ‘break the mould of British politics’.

More than our trust, Parliament has lost our respect

The strict new pay and expenses regime for MPs announced by Sir Christopher Kelly yesterday has been presented as a necessary, if not sufficient, measure to restore ‘the public’s’ trust and faith in Parliament: as if Parliament were still fundamentally deserving of that trust. However, I’d put it the other way round: the fact that we’re no longer prepared to tolerate MPs’ enjoyment of a relatively cushy and lax system of perks indicates that we’ve lost our respect for Parliament and MPs; and hence, they no longer command our trust.

Our answer to the question of what kind of pay and conditions we think MPs ‘deserve’ reflects the esteem, or lack of it, in which we hold them: the amount we are prepared to pay them (because it is we the taxpayer who are their paymasters) is an indication of their ‘worth’ to us, in both a financial and social / moral sense. And right now, the ‘value’ we invest in MPs (in both senses) is pretty low.

I heard part of a programme on the radio the other day (I can’t remember which station or show) in which they invited a specialist consultant on executive pay to come up with a figure for how much MPs should really be paid, based on comparison with other professions or careers requiring similar levels of expertise, skill and dedication. The figure he came up with was between £100,000 and £120,000. Most MPs are actually paid ‘only’ around £65,000 per year. However, the same radio programme carried out a vox pop in which they asked members of ‘the public’ what they thought their members of parliament should be paid. Most said in the region of £30,000 to £40,000. That sort of figure is in fact completely unrealistic: primary school teachers in England get paid that much. But it reflects a feeling that MPs are ‘nothing special’ – no better than the ordinary hard-working folk they’re supposed to represent – and so are not deserving of special treatment. If you told the same members of the public that MPs’ pay would be increased to £100,000 based on the recommendations of an independent specialist advisor on pay, there’d be outrage.

MPs, for their part, were outraged when they were told yesterday that Sir Ian Kennedy – the man appointed to chair the independent body advising on MPs’ pay and expenses – would indeed be paid up to £100,000 per year: a mere unelected member of the public effectively carrying out a civil service-type role (albeit a hugely important one, in practical and symbolic terms) to administer MPs’ pay getting paid 50% more than those MPs themselves. ‘It should be the other way round’, you felt the unvoiced sentiment was in the Chamber.

But MPs should stop moaning about the withdrawal of their privileges – including that of setting the level of their own pay and allowances – and start focusing on the privilege of actually being MPs. If MPs’ ability to serve their constituents in Parliament properly is dependent on the financial compensation they receive for doing so, then they really are focused on their own finances, status and perceived needs more than those of the constituents they’re in Parliament to represent. If they moan about receiving ‘only’ £65,000 per year, then how can they really connect with constituents who are struggling to hold their own lives and families together on much less? MPs might think they are worth more than they’ll now be getting. But it is not they but the public that determines their worth and, indeed, their worthiness to serve as MPs in the first place; and, at the moment, the public thinks they’re worth far less than they’re getting. And it’s this lack of esteem that MPs should be worried about, not their pay and perks.

Once MPs truly take on board the idea that being an MP is not a profession like any other, and that they are no better than the people they represent, then perhaps they’ll actually deserve better pay and conditions because they’ll be doing their jobs properly. In those circumstances, people might once again look up to their MPs and, yes, trust them as their representatives in parliament to look after their interests and needs. But in the present, I expect most people would think Sir Ian Kennedy was worth the money he’ll be paid for representing the people’s concerns about parliamentary abuses, and for preventing MPs getting more than they deserve: Sir Ian would be seen as more of a people’s representative than the MPs.

So let those MPs become true servants of the people. And then perhaps they’ll get their just rewards, even if not financial.