Why won’t the Cabinet Office release the 1997 devolution minutes?

On 14 January 2013, I wrote to the Freedom of Information Team at the Cabinet Office to request the release of the 1997 Cabinet meetings on devolution.

On 6 March 2013, I received a reply in the following terms:

I refer to your request where you asked:

“Under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a copy of the minutes of the 1997 Cabinet meetings on devolution. I am also requesting a copy of the Terms of Reference for the cabinet committee headed by Lord Irvine that the minutes relate to, and any legal or departmental advice provided to the cabinet in relation to these meetings. ”

I am writing to advise you that following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established that the information you requested is held by the Cabinet Office.

Some of the information you have requested is exempt under section 21(1) of the Freedom of Information Act. Section 21 exempts information if this information is reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means. Section 21 is an absolute exemption and the Cabinet Office is not required to consider whether the public interest favours disclosure of this information.

The terms of reference for the Ministerial Committee on Devolution to Scotland and Wales and the English Regions (DSWR) were published in Hansard on 9 June 1997.

I attach a link:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199798/cmhansrd/vo970609/text/70609w03.htm

The remainder of the information you seek is exempt under section 35(1)(a) and (b) of the Freedom of Information Act. This is a qualified exemption and therefore subject to the public interest test.

The information is exempt under section 35(1)(a) and (b), which relates to the formulation or development of government policy, and Ministerial communications. We accept that there is public interest in improving public understanding of the development of Government policy on devolution and the way Cabinet Government operates more generally. We recognise that the decisions Ministers make have a significant impact on the lives of citizens and there is a public interest in this process being transparent. We also recognise that greater transparency makes government more accountable to the electorate and increases trust.

However, there is a countervailing public interest in protecting the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective decision-making. Ministers will reach collective decisions more effectively if they are able to debate questions of policy freely and in confidence. The maintenance of this convention is fundamental to the continued effectiveness of Cabinet government, and its continued existence is therefore manifestly in the public interest.

In relation to the specific documents you have requested, the policy discussions in this area are ongoing and the adverse effect of disclosing these documents now would not be diminished by the fact that the documents date from 1997. The matters discussed at  Cabinet are not matters of purely historic interest, but are important matters of current discussion and debate.

We therefore conclude that the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

I have now requested a review of this decision, in the following terms:

I appreciate your explanation about the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of Cabinet discussions, particularly given the fact that the policy discussions in the area of devolution are ongoing. Equally, however, I would suggest that the very currency of those discussions increases the public interest in disclosing the 1997 minutes of the Ministerial Committee on Devolution.

I would contend that there are at least two, possibly three, current policy discussions that critically need to be informed by an awareness of government thinking and planning at the time:

  1. The debate on Scottish independence leading up to the referendum in September 2014. This is a decision that will be made by the people of Scotland, not Parliament or central government. Therefore, this discussion is no longer the exclusive preserve of government, and the Scottish public is entitled to understand how the Labour government envisaged the devolution settlement at the time it was being developed. Otherwise, how can their decision whether to effectively endorse devolution a second time (by rejecting independence) be adequately informed? Similarly, it would surely not be in the public interest for suspicions to be aroused that the Westminster government is seeking to hide something embarrassing or detrimental to the pro-Union cause. Isn’t it better to have transparency in this matter and not run the risk that the Scottish people vote ‘yes’ to independence based on a false prospectus?
  2. Discussions around UK-wide devolution and constitutional reform. As you are aware, a debate is getting underway regarding options for a new UK-wide constitutional settlement in the wake of a possible ‘no’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Only last week, the Select Committee for Political and Constitutional Reform issued a report urging the establishment of a constitutional convention to bring forward these discussions. Such a convention would again not be the exclusive preserve of Parliament or Government but would – following the Select Committee’s recommendations – be drawn from a broad selection of civil society representatives. The convention would discuss an extension of devolution in Scotland, along with devolution of considerable powers to local and regional government in England. Is it not therefore utterly essential that the minutes of the Cabinet Committee discussing devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions should be released into the public domain? How could a constitutional convention function adequately without this knowledge? Indeed, it is arguably not possible to reach a reliable decision about whether to have a constitutional convention to deal with these matters in the first place unless we have an understanding how the decisions were reached by Cabinet Government in 1997.
  3. West Lothian Question. Last week, too, the report of the McKay Commission on the so-called West Lothian Question was published. Unlike the debate around Scottish independence and the possibility of a constitutional convention, this matter is one for Parliament to reach a decision about. However, do Parliament’s deliberations not also need to be informed by an awareness of how the West Lothian Question was treated in the Cabinet’s discussions in 1997? For instance, if it was said in the 1997 Ministerial Committee that the way to resolve the West Lothian Question was to offer a limited form of regional devolution to England – and if proposals are now coming back on to the table to introduce local/regional devolution in England – do these matters not need to be treated as an integrated whole, so that proper joined-up debate and policy formation can be arrived at?

I trust that you will consider the merits of the above argument, and that you will reconsider the decision not to release the minutes of the Ministerial Committee on devolution from 1997.

Yours faithfully,

Etc.

Let’s see if the Cabinet Office re-evaluates its decision. But what is the real reason why it is so wary about releasing this information? This request has been made several times now, by me and others, and it has been refused every time. What are they hiding?

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The constitutional morass of Scottish independence: is there ANY proper way of doing it?

There’s been something of a storm in a teacup brewing over the question of the legality or otherwise of an independence referendum legislated for by the Scottish parliament. For a summary of the legal and constitutional issues, see Alan Trench and Lalland’s Peat Worrier.

From an English perspective, the crux of the matter, for me, is what say, if any, English people get in Scottish independence and the consequential break-up of the Union. I would argue that, at some point in the process, the English (and the Welsh and Northern Irish) people have an absolute right to be consulted. This is because Scottish independence does not just involve the departure of Scotland from a state or country – the UK – that remains intact or retains its existing identity despite that departure. Independence for Scotland would require the Acts of Union between England and Scotland of 1707 to be repealed, which means the end of the United Kingdom – or technically, the end of the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’ resulting from the 1707 Acts, and hence the end of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland’ of 1800.

No doubt, in the drawing up of the legislation for Scottish independence by the UK parliament, new clauses would be drafted setting out the status and composition of the, or a new, United Kingdom replacing the one dating from 1707 and 1800. And that’s why the people of the new UK state should be consulted: if the very identity and constitutional basis for the country of which you are a citizen is being changed, you have an absolute right to a say on the matter.

So really, I’d now argue we could be looking at three referendums. There are two possible scenarios for this:

  1. The Westminster parliament takes over the process and passes a Bill authorising a Scottish independence referendum in, say, 2012 or 2013. At this point, you could argue that all UK citizens have a right to take part, because the vote involves deciding whether or not to break up the UK. In addition, if you restrict the referendum to Scottish residents, you are already implicitly allowing a large number of non-Scottish people to take part, e.g. the hundreds of thousands of English people who currently live there. By the same token, you are excluding potentially over a million Scots living in other parts of the UK or the wider world. However, if you regard this first referendum as advisory rather than binding, then ‘Scottish residents’ could be a pragmatic approximation to ‘the Scottish people’. Scottish independence may well involve breaking up the UK, but it’s ultimately for the Scots to choose between independence and continuing to be within the Union. But for any subsequent, binding referendum, an attempt should perhaps be made in advance to draw up a more exhaustive list of ‘Scottish nationals’, i.e. those who would become Scottish citizens if independence were carried in a referendum. This is a political hot potato, admittedly, but one that perhaps needs to be grasped: shouldn’t it be only prospective Scottish citizens who should be asked whether they wish to actually become Scottish citizens, which is what Scottish independence would mean for them?

    So let’s say a majority voted in favour of the principle of Scottish independence in this Westminster-enacted referendum. There would follow a complicated process of negotiations and discussions leading up to Westminster legislation enacting Scottish independence. As I’ve been saying, there are two parts to this: what kind of independence ‘deal’ is on offer for Scotland; and what new constitutional arrangements are in place for the / a residual UK. (I’ll return to this question below.) These two questions demand two further referendums: one asking the Scottish people to endorse the independence deal; and one for non-Scottish UK citizens to approve or disapprove the new constitutional arrangements for their citizenship and governance. Incidentally, this is another reason why it might be necessary to draw up a more robust list of prospective Scottish citizens, because just as only Scots should resolve the question of Scottish independence, only the prospective citizens of a UK without Scotland should decide whether to create such a new UK.

    What would happen, in these binding referendums, if the results were contradictory: if the Scots voted for independence, but the other British people rejected the new UK settlement; or the Scots rejected independence, but the rest of the UK supported the new UK state? In the first instance, logically, Scottish independence goes ahead, and it’s back to the constitutional drawing board for the residual UK. In the second instance, the legislation would have to be drawn up in such a way that the structure, governance and constitution of the new UK would be unaffected by whether Scotland were part of it or not. See further below.

  2. The other scenario is that the Scottish government is allowed to go ahead with its own plans for a referendum some time in 2014 or 2015. In this instance, clearly, it is just for the ‘Scottish people’ to take part – as the referendum is purely advisory and seeks a mandate from the Scots for independence negotiations with the UK government – notwithstanding the caveat expressed above that the term ‘Scottish people’ is only an approximation in this instance. Following a vote in favour of independence, then I would argue that the same process as outlined above should take place: negotiations and legislation towards Scottish independence followed by two referendums – one of the Scottish people only (about independence), and one of non-Scottish UK citizens only (about the constitution and composition of the new UK).

    What about the issue of the SNP’s plans to ask two questions in its referendum: 1) whether people want Scotland to be an independent country; and 2) if they do not want independence, whether they want so-called ‘devo max’ or ‘independence lite’: fiscal, and virtually total political, autonomy under the UK defence and macro-economic umbrella? In a sense, if the SNP-organised referendum is purely advisory, I don’t think this matters, as whatever the outcome, there would still need to be negotiations with, and legislation by, Westminster to enact whatever was decided; and, I would argue, there would need to be a second binding referendum in Scotland even for devo max. In fact, it might even be more convenient for Westminster if the Scots opted for devo max, as the UK government could probably get away with not consulting non-Scottish UK citizens about it on the basis that the existing Union remained ‘unaffected’.

Somehow, I don’t think the process in reality will work in such a neat, logical and fair way, because it raises too many intractable questions that neither the Westminster nor Holyrood governments, in their different ways, wish to bottom out. A non-exhaustive list of these questions is as follows:

  1. Who would be eligible to vote in a binding Scottish-independence referendum, and how would a list of eligible persons be drawn up? My contention, as above, is that only prospective citizens of an independent Scotland should vote, including those resident outside Scotland. But how do you determine what constitutes ‘Scottish nationality’?

     

  2. What is the constitutional justification, and what are the constitutional implications, of these referendums, potentially three in number? The UK government might wish to restrict a binding referendum to Scottish nationals / residents on the independence question, in order not to stir up the issue of popular sovereignty for the residual UK: if the UK government’s legislation on Scottish independence and a new settlement for the remaining UK is dependent on the approval of the people in a referendum, then this involves conceding that, in this instance at least, the people are sovereign, which therefore challenges the whole doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty on which the established system of governance in the UK depends.

     

  3. The English Question: a referendum on the new UK, minus Scotland, would involve consulting the English people for the very first time regarding the arrangements for their governance, just as the people of the UK’s other nations have already been consulted about devolution, and the Scots would be being consulted about independence. This potentially establishes a legal precedent that there is such a thing as ‘the English people’ who might have the human and legal right to self-determination. In practical terms, any public debate and referendum on the constitution and governance of the residual UK would inevitably force the Union establishment to engage with the English Question in some form or other, even if only because the option of an English parliament would inevitably come up for discussion.

    In addition, if the establishment tried to reaffirm the existing constitutional and governance arrangements unchanged – apart from the absence of Scotland – there could be a real possibility that the new UK settlement would be rejected by the English people in a referendum. For instance, if the new UK involved no recognition for a distinct English nation, no English parliament and even no attempt to prevent non-English-elected MPs from voting on English legislation, it is quite likely, in my view, that it would not pass. Maybe even the Welsh and Northern Irish would vote in favour of the new UK while the English rejected it. What then? Better to keep the English Question in the bag by not asking it.

  4. What would the composition of the new UK be, anyway, and what would its constitutional status be? The new UK could no longer formally call itself the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, because Great Britain (the product of the 1707 Acts of Union) would be dissolved by Scotland’s departure. But could the new UK even call itself the ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’? I ask this because, at the time of the Acts of Union of 1707, ‘Wales’ didn’t exist as a distinct, separately named kingdom or part of the Kingdom of England: it was fully subsumed into the Kingdom of England, and the Acts of Union involved a union between the two kingdoms of England (including Wales) and Scotland. So if the Acts of Union are annulled, does not ‘Great Britain’ just revert to the two former kingdoms? Where is ‘Wales’ in the equation? Would a new Act have to be legislated actually creating or re-creating Wales as a distinct kingdom? Or would it be a case of ‘re-naming’ the re-emergent, post-Acts-of-Union Kingdom of England the ‘Kingdom of England and Wales’? And how would the English and Welsh people feel about being merged into a single nation and / or kingdom thus named?

    And then what would the status of the union with Northern Ireland be? Wouldn’t the 1800 Acts of Union between Great Britain and Ireland also be nullified by any repeal of the Acts of Union between England and Scotland? That’s because the ‘Great Britain’ that was united with Ireland via the 1800 Acts would no longer exist. So would you need a new Act creating Northern Ireland as a kingdom and / or merging it into a single ‘Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’? And how would that affect the delicate sectarian balance in the Province?

  5. And then there’s the question of the broader constitutional ramifications of repealing the Acts of Union. These are an integral part of a whole host of foundational acts of parliament that make up the delicate constitutional fabric of the United Kingdom, including, among others, the Act of Settlement of 1701, the Bill of Rights of 1689 and, of course, the Acts of Union of 1800. If you repeal one such act, you might have to repeal or fundamentally amend all the others, so you could easily end up needing to produce a completely new written constitution for the new UK-minus-Scotland. That might not be a bad thing in itself, and it could allow for a more flexible, federal constitutional structure in which the UK state is not completely dissolved or fundamentally altered by one part of it deciding to leave or re-join. This flexibility could enable the Scottish people to have a real choice in their binding referendum between independence and being part of a new UK constitutional settlement that would remain in place without them (thus solving the problem discussed above of what to do if the Scots rejected independence but the remaining UK supported the new constitution that was put in place as a consequence of the Scots voting for independence in the first, advisory referendum).

    I feel that, because of the intricacy and potentially unforeseen consequences of repealing any of the parts of this delicate constitutional tissue, this may be considered far too important and technical a matter to be entrusted merely to the people. It could be left to the lawyers, politicians and constitutional experts to resolve. But the net effect could be that profound decisions affecting the nature of our nationhood and our rights as citizens could be decided as it were behind closed doors, and by a sovereign UK parliament that is unwilling to let go of any of its powers even if the original constitutional foundations and justifications for those powers no longer apply.

    But the politicians should be extremely wary of tinkering with elements of the UK constitution whose interdependencies and effects even they do not understand – or they could find that their very authority to make such changes is challenged as never before since the English Civil War. For example, the English Act of Union with Scotland explicitly states: “the two Kingdoms of England and Scotland shall . . . for
    ever after be united into one Kingdom by the name of Great Britain” [my emphasis]. This Act and the corresponding Scottish Act of Union with England also incorporate the Act of Settlement of 1701. This is the Act that specifies that the king or queen of England, and thereafter Great Britain, cannot be or be married to a Roman Catholic, and states that if this provision is ever broken, “the People of these Realms shall be and are thereby absolved of their Allegiance”. In other words, if today’s parliament takes it upon itself to dissolve the Kingdom of Great Britain that was originally instituted as a permanent settlement (lasting ‘for ever’); and if, in so doing, they repeal the Act of Settlement (which David Cameron has recently talked of doing independently of its impact on the Acts of Union, if such were possible), then it is possible they are guilty of high treason and that the people of England are absolved of any allegiance to the new state, whatever it is called, and to its king or queen.

Consulting the English (and Welsh and Northern Irish) people on what would effectively be a completely new constitution – whether a single written document or a series of fundamental amendments to existing constitutional Acts – could be a way to avoid potentially years of contestation and even violent resistance to a new settlement that contravened ancient, hallowed constitutional provisions setting out the rights and responsibilities of the rulers and the ruled. But precisely because it would stir up such intractable issues affecting the constitution and the composition of the UK, and the status and interrelationships of its different national parts, the establishment is likely to seek to gloss over these complexities, and will try to retain the constitutional status quo without consulting the people of the residual UK. So Scottish independence is unlikely to be done properly, and it could be a messy, protracted and painful process for the residual UK: a far more complex process in fact than Scottish independence would be for Scotland itself.

There could be a more rational alternative: a constitutional convention for the whole of the existing UK to work out and through a set of alternatives for the future constitution and governance of the UK, as such, and its constituent parts, which could include a form of independence and confederation for each of its nations. But politics doesn’t work in such a rational manner, at least not nationalist and unionist politics, which can contemplate only their all-or-nothing objectives, and not a happier, clearer and more constructive means to work out how the people of these isles can live and work together in an uncertain future.

What would it take for such a constitutional convention to become a possibility? An overture from the Westminster government to the SNP administration? A willingness on the part of the SNP to engage in such a process so long as full independence was a serious option on the table from day one? Recognition on the part of the Union establishment that England is a nation and should also be represented as such in the discussions?

It’s an exciting vision, but I can’t see it happening. But the alternative could be much, much worse in so many ways.

English parliament

The Liberal-Democrat Accession and the English Parliament

You should always be careful what you wish for and be wary of the law of unintended consequences. Although I will probably be voting Lib Dem this time round – unless my Tory MP astounds me by previously unsuspected support for an English parliament – a Lib-Dem break-through could have far-reaching ramifications for the prospects and nature of any future English parliament.

For a start, as they made clear yesterday, the Lib Dems will make their support for a minority Labour- or Conservative-led government conditional on introducing proportional representation. One imagines this would involve a referendum on changing to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for UK-parliamentary elections.

Many supporters of PR see it as a way to mitigate (i.e. ignore) the West Lothian Question. The logic behind this position is simple, though flawed in my view. For example, under STV, if the actual vote on 6 May exactly followed yesterday’s ICM opinion-poll ratings (Con 33%, Lib Dem 30% and Lab 28%), then the Conservatives would be the largest party both in England and the UK as a whole; and in any coalition of the parties to form a government, the UK majority thus constituted would also be consistent with the parties’ shares of seats in England. Therefore, on one level, it would no longer matter if non-English MPs voted on English laws, as the same laws would be passed if only English MPs voted.

On the other hand, the reverse logic could also apply: if the votes of non-English MPs were no longer needed to pass English bills, why let them vote at all? The only real justification for non-English MPs voting on English legislation presently is when there is a link to spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland via the Barnett Formula. But presumably, the days of that formula itself might well be numbered under a Con-LibDem coalition, as the Lib Dems favour scrapping it and even the Tories talk in their manifesto of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

Indeed, in a proportionally elected House of Commons, the situation of non-English MPs voting on English laws would come to appear blatantly, if not scandalously, anomalous. Under First Past the Post, by contrast, the fact that Labour’s Scottish MPs have occasionally been required to pass the government’s England-only legislation against the will of a majority of English MPs did not on one level seem that outrageous in that the government majority procured in this way was no more disproportionate than the normal majority of English MPs only it would expect to command, as both majorities were merely the product of the absurd FPTP electoral system rather than of the way English people actually voted at the 2005 general election.

In other words, in a situation in which voting majorities in the Commons bear little relation to the way the public actually voted at the election, the misuse of non-English MPs to inflate those majorities even further does not stand out too obviously. By contrast, in a proportionally elected House where the parties’ shares of the seats are meant to reflect the way people voted, and where MPs are meant to be more accountable to their electorates, distorting those shares by allowing MPs not accountable to the people affected by bills to vote on them would be completely inconsistent and unacceptable.

Accordingly, I tend to think that, rather than mitigating the WLQ, PR would render it inoperable. But then if you do not allow non-English MPs to make England’s laws, what arrangements would be made for that little matter of how to govern England? Do you go down the route of an English Grand Committee: English laws debated and voted on by separate sessions of English MPs only? Do you draw the logical conclusion and say that Parliament needs to evolve into an English parliament to deal with English matters, with a separate set of representatives elected from across the UK to deal with reserved matters? Or do you just try to ignore the problem by pretending that England does not exist and that the West Lothian Question simply does not arise, let alone require a solution – the Labour government’s approach?

In this way, by insisting on introducing PR before dealing with the English Question, the Lib Dems might find that question comes and bites them in the bum: they could create a constitutional mess in which the very legitimacy and function of the parliament for which they had finally secured PR was called into question – a British parliament without a valid democratic role and status in most of what it did, i.e. in English matters.

To be fair to the Lib Dems, their manifesto does state that they want to hold a citizens’ convention to help draw up a written constitution, and the English Question would be dealt with as part of this process. But the Lib Dems are not going to be in a position to carry out this commitment in full as part of a coalition government. All they’ve actually said is that they’d make electoral reform a minimal precondition of any deal to support a minority government, not the whole constitutional-reform programme; and neither Labour nor the Tories have any appetite to address the English Question. But as I say, the English Question may impose itself as unavoidable if the Lib Dems do succeed in introducing STV.

There are two possible scenarios that follow on logically from this. Firstly, if the Lib Dems do secure STV (and if, as I argue, this would lead to an urgent need to address the English Question because of the crisis of governance it would bring about), then any English parliament would also be based on STV. Having gone to the trouble and expense of introducing STV, which would require the re-drawing of constituency boundaries and the amalgamation of constituencies into multi-member seats, there is no way the English parliament could then revert to the pre-STV single member-constituency system. Having finally achieved their goal of a proper proportional system, the Lib Dems would never accept an inferior system for England; nor – I think – would the English people.

However – scenario two – what if the British public did not endorse STV in the initial referendum required to adopt it as the system for UK elections? For instance, Gordon Brown favours the Alternative Vote (AV) single-member system, and if the Lib Dems’ referendum were held under a putative Lab-LibDem coalition, it could be a multi-option referendum with AV as one of the systems on offer. Labour could be expected to argue strongly for AV, which is in reality merely a mitigated form of FPTP and would preserve the unfair advantage the present system gives to the party. Who knows, voters might prefer to retain single-member constituencies and the winner-takes-all aspect of the present system, albeit in a slightly fairer form. Under this second scenario, the West Lothian Question could remain in place for much longer, as AV would perpetuate the disproportionality of the present system from which the very ability of Labour to form any kind of government depends and which also disguises the outrageously unfair extra advantage Labour obtains from the WLQ.

In this context, the Lib Dems could find themselves in the unenviable position of propping up an unfairly elected Labour government that exploits its stronger base of support in Scotland and Wales to secure its power in England. Would it not then be both more effective tactically, and give greater moral credibility to their demands for constitutional reform, if the Lib Dems declared now – ahead of 6 May – that they would not exploit the West Lothian Question in the new parliament, even if to do so were the only way in which a coalition of which they were a part could actually form a working majority?

After all, how can the English people believe in the Lib Dems’ advocacy of greater democratic fairness and proportional representation if they are in theory willing to exploit one of the most egregiously unfair and disproportional aspects of the present system simply to have a share in government? If they want England to back them on 6 May and support STV in a referendum, then surely they should back ‘building a fairer Britain’ in the forthcoming parliament, too – including fairness for England.

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.

Censored by Power 2010?

Note to readers: this post needs to be read in conjunction with the comments, including a denial of censorship by Guy Aitchison of Power 2010 and my retraction, and the ensuing post where I acknowledge the reappearance of the comments. However, I’m not withdrawing the post altogether, as that would be censorship in my turn. It’s the record of an experience, even if there’s an innocent explanation.

As an addendum to my last post criticising the lack of engagement of the Power 2010 constitutional-reform initiative with fundamental issues of nationhood, particularly the English Question, I’ve just noticed that they appear to have censored a critical comment I left on a Power 2010 post announcing the completion of the first phase of their process: gathering in suggestions for reform from people across the UK.

They’ve also removed another comment – from ‘wonkotsane’, if I remember correctly – which, like mine, questioned their use of the phrase ‘nations and regions of the UK’ to describe the composition of the 200-strong citizens’ assembly through which they are proposing to whittle down the 4,000 suggestions they’ve received to a list of five major reforms that they’re going to ask candidates at the general election to commit themselves to. So I’ve just left another comment asking them for the reason for the apparent censorship. Here’s the text of what I wrote, in case it disappears again:

“On Thursday, I left a comment here that expressed criticism regarding the lack of an English-national dimension to Power 2010’s proposed citizens’ assembly and the whole process of arriving at a short list of five reforms. You talk of the assembly being drawn from the ‘nations and regions’, implying there will be some sort of national-representative role for the delegates from Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, but no national representation for / of England (‘the regions’). And I questioned the validity of a British representative assembly selecting constitutional and parliamentary options that will affect England more fundamentally than the other UK nations, as only England is governed in a unitary manner as if it were the UK, and the other nations are pursuing separate paths towards constitutional reform and self-government.

“I’m disappointed to discover that my comment and a subsequent comment from someone else questioning the validity of representation from the [English] regions have been removed. Could you explain the reason for this? Is Power 2010 about suppressing open debate and dissent?”

I’ll keep you posted on developments.

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.

Could a vote for the BNP be a good thing?

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not a BNP supporter. I despise their racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. However, I agree with some of their key policies: restrictions to immigration, withdrawal of the UK from the EU, withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and more accountable local and regional democracy. Yes, those last two items are official policies.

For the former reasons, I would not vote BNP. For the latter, I would not be unhappy to see them doing reasonably well at the general election. What would constitute ‘doing reasonably well’, for the BNP? An article on the BNP website discusses the opinion polls conducted since last week’s appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin on the BBC1 Question Time political discussion show. It cites the YouGov poll in the Daily Telegraph, which “found that 22 percent of voters would ‘seriously consider’ voting for the BNP in a future local, general or European election. This included four percent who said they would ‘definitely’ consider voting for the party, three percent who would ‘probably’ consider it, and 15 percent who said they were ‘possible’ BNP voters”. In reality, if the party managed to convert the equivalent of all of the ‘definites’ and ‘probables’ into actual votes – making 7% of the vote in the UK general election – they would probably regard that as a considerable achievement, given that they obtained ‘only’ 6.2% of the vote at this year’s European Parliament elections, which tend to produce more support for minor parties than general elections. Nonetheless, according to the same BNP article, an ICM poll last weekend indicated that “54 percent of voters say there are too many immigrants” and that “43 percent . . . said that, while they shared some of [the BNP’s] concerns, they had ‘no sympathy for the party itself'” – which goes for me, I guess.

What would be achieved by a 7% BNP vote at the general election? Well, this would scare the liberal establishment so much that the incoming government – probably led by David Cameron – would have to do far more than is presently being done to stem the flow of net immigration (let alone, overall population growth), currently running at around 237,000 per year. Secondly, the new government would be under no illusion that it needed to address people’s concerns about the ceding of UK sovereignty to the EU; and if this is a Tory government, it would be more difficult for them to avoid giving us a referendum of some sort on the Lisbon Treaty, even if it has already been ratified, which will probably be the case.

I say if this is a Tory government, because a 7% vote for the BNP might help to bring about a hung parliament – but only if the BNP derives enough of its support from people who would otherwise have voted Conservative, thereby reducing the Tories’ margin of victory and making it less likely for them to win an outright majority. However, at the moment, the BNP appears to be gaining most of its support from disaffected white working-class Labour voters who, quite understandably, feel the Labour government has failed to look after their interests. If a substantial BNP vote serves to reduce still further Labour’s share of the vote at the election, this could turn the tables in favour of a Tory victory.

Personally, a hung parliament would be my preferred election result; so I’m hoping that increasing support for the BNP will somehow help bring this about. Given the absurdities of our electoral system, anything’s possible. Why do I want a hung parliament? This is because it offers the best prospect for constitutional and parliamentary reform. The mere fact of a hung parliament could create something of a constitutional crisis, as there are no hard and fast constitutional rules for dealing with such a situation in the UK; although the precedent is that the queen should ask the leader of the largest party to form a government. Imagine a situation in which the Tories were the largest party but did not have a majority, and in which Gordon Brown refused to resign (as Edward Heath did in 1974) until he’d attempted to build a coalition government. Given how he’s desperately clung to power for so long, you would almost expect him to behave in this way.

Regardless of whether the end result were a Tory- or Labour-led coalition or minority government, the Liberal Democrats would end up holding the balance of power. And unlike either the Tories or Labour, the Lib Dems are genuinely committed to constitutional reform – if not specific proposals for English self-government – including the idea of holding a constitutional convention to come up with the blueprint for a written constitution. It’s debatable how much of this agenda they’d be able to push through in the circumstances of a hung parliament; but at least, there’d be more possibility of movement than under majority Conservative or Labour governments.

However, even if the election results in a majority Conservative government, a large vote for the BNP would probably advance the constitutional-reform agenda. This is again because it would scare the main parties and would be seen as a reflection of people’s disenchantment with mainstream politics and with Parliament. Ironically, then, a strong showing by the racist BNP could become one of the most powerful voices for democratic reform, and the need to make government more accountable to and representative of the concerns and wishes of the people. This is a huge paradox and is to the great shame of the self-serving political elite.

So I won’t be voting BNP at the general election; but, though I find their racial politics abhorrent, I hope they do quite well. The establishment needs the kind of kick in the teeth that perhaps only the thuggish BNP are in a position to deliver. And if, in the eventual shake-up, we get an English parliament, that will be an outcome that I personally will be delighted by – even if neither the establishment nor the BNP will be.