UKIP adopts an English parliament policy: great news, but is it too late to save the Union?

I’m delighted that UKIP leader Nigel Farage announced on Friday that his party now supports the creation of an English parliament. In so doing, he’s almost certainly secured my vote at the next general election. And I’m sure that many thousands of other supporters of democratic fairness to England will now also switch their allegiances to UKIP, including the growing ranks of Tory voters disaffected with their party leaders’ new-found europhilia and inaction on the West Lothian Question, which in the case of David Cameron represents a betrayal of promises made during his campaign for the Tory leadership.

The fact that a credible mainstream political party – the fourth-largest in England in terms of electoral support – is now backing an English parliament should mean the issue is discussed more frequently and seriously. And as UKIP chips away at the Tories’ support, this will apply considerable pressure internally on the Conservatives to do something about the West Lothian Question. (On that topic, I note in passing that I’ve drafted an amended version of my previous post on the ‘English Majority Lock‘ mechanism for dealing with the WLQ, which I’ve sent to Tim Montgomerie at Conservative Home for potential publication. Still waiting to hear back.)

Full details of the UKIP English-parliament policy have yet to be published, but it seems likely it will be along the lines of the proposals by Paul Nuttall, which are available here. Basically, this is a federal model involving separate parliaments for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within a continuing sovereign Union. There would also be a Union parliament to deal with reserved matters such as defence, macro-economics and foreign policy; and the Union parliament would double up as a second house, providing scrutiny of legislation emerging from each of the four national parliaments.

In the UKIP document, it is spelled out clearly that the primary aim of the policy, alongside democratic fairness for England, is to preserve and stabilise the Union state, which would be unsustainable the longer English people’s grievances about asymmetric devolution and unfair public spending are not addressed. While I absolutely welcome the UKIP change of direction, and will be voting for UKIP and backing their support for an English parliament in any way I can, I do wonder whether it’s already too late to be pushing for a federal UK. For the present at least, there appears to be an unstoppable momentum towards Scottish independence, and I’m not sure that any sort of federal solution that preserves sovereignty with the UK parliament and state has any chance of being supported north of the border.

Or south of the border, for that matter. I’ve written before that I think a solution that stops short of full sovereignty for England will not satisfy English people’s growing aspiration for integral nationhood. For a start, an English parliament would eventually demand so much fiscal autonomy that this would be practically tantamount to de facto independence. I can’t imagine that any English parliament worthy of the name would be content to have its budget handed down to it from a Union parliament while the vast majority of taxes raised in England continued to wing their way into the Treasury and, doubtless, would continue to subsidise higher spending in the Union’s other nations. Ultimately, I feel the only way any sort of enduring Union can be secured would be through confederalism (which involves full sovereignty for each of the Union’s nations) rather than a federal but sovereign UK. This might also offer Scotland an option for remaining within a much looser UK, akin to existing SNP ideas around ‘independence lite’.

Despite these reservations, I’m going to get fully behind the UKIP policy. It’s the only one on the table, and even if it never works out in practice, it’ll move the debate forward and take the argument to the unionist parties. So well done, UKIP: you’ve just done yourselves and England an immense service!

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Comment about John Major’s speech from the IfG blog

Following the censorship of a comment of mine about Englishness on the Labour Hame website, here is another comment that’s been stuck in the limbo of ‘awaiting moderation’ for several days. It refers to an article on the Institute for Government website discussing John Major’s recent contribution to the Scottish devolution max versus independence debate. I expect the comment will be published in due course; but I’ve just got fed up waiting, so I thought I’d put it on the record here.

 

Major’s proposals on extending devolution to Scotland are unworkable on a number of levels, as I argue elsewhere. From the Scottish perspective, this is mainly because Alex Salmond has a mandate to consult the Scottish people on independence and to choose the options that will be on offer, which will probably include devolution max anyway.

Politically, it would be absolutely bonkers for David Cameron to organise a referendum of the sort Major advocates. If he lost, which would be a distinct possibility, he’d throw the UK establishment into an even greater disarray and crisis of legitimacy than it is already having to contend with in the shape of the Hackgate scandal, following on from the expenses furore. And even if he won, this would be a pyrrhic victory, as Salmond would just go ahead with his own referendum anyway, for which he has a democratic mandate, as I’ve said.

And then Major’s solution does absolutely nothing to address the West Lothian and English Questions. If anything, it only aggravates these issues in that the Scots have the maximum degree of self-government without independence while the English have . . . nothing, and continue to be governed as the UK by a parliament in which Scots (albeit fewer in number under Major’s proposals), Welsh and N. Irish MPs are still allowed to vote on England-only matters even though the Barnett Formula would probably have been abolished.

In reality, the full logic of Major’s position points towards federalism. There’d be no justification whatsoever for non-English MPs voting on English matters, and you might as well just make the Commons an English parliament, and grant equal powers and responsibilities to each of the national parliaments / assemblies. All of which would then nullify Major’s suggestion about non-elected MPs, as the Commons would no longer even be a UK parliament – or, putting it another way, this second suggestion of Major’s is predicated on the Commons remaining a UK parliament and the English Question not being addressed.

Major’s suggestion about non-elected parliamentarians does, however, make sense for the Lords, which in the scenario I’ve just mapped out would naturally evolve into the UK-federal parliament, dealing with those matters that remained the responsibility of the government / parliament for the whole UK. Indeed, it’s far more appropriate for non-elected experts to sit in the Upper House, which fits with its natural role as a revising and deliberative chamber.

And the seats for non-elected members (whether Lords or MPs) should be allocated in proportion to vote share, not seat share. It makes much more sense for these non-elected seats to be distributed in accordance with share of the vote (not seats) even if Major’s proposals were to be adopted for the Commons as presently constituted, as this would help rectify the gross distortions of First Past the Post and make the Commons more not less representative of the electorate.

John Major’s devolution endgame points towards full federalism

Former prime minister Sir John Major has made a suggestion about how to mitigate the risk of Scottish independence. This is basically that Scotland should be granted ‘devolution max’: the maximum degree of devolution that stops short of actual independence. In practice, this would mean devolving responsibility for everything except “foreign policy, defence and management of the economy”. In addition, the Scottish block grant would be abolished and would be replaced by fiscal autonomy: the Scottish government would have to raise in taxes and borrowing everything it required to cover its expenses. And the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster would also be reduced.

The rationale for this suggestion is that the ‘separatist’ case in Scotland “thrives on discontent with the status quo”, and that ‘devo max’ would remove that discontent because it would provide substantially all of the advantages of independence without any of the potential disadvantages, such as “the loss of funding and potential knock-on effect on free prescriptions and university tuition”. There’s a bit of an inconsistency here, surely: if the block grant were withdrawn and Scotland had to fund its generous public spending from its own taxes, as would happen under devo max, there’d be just as much of a risk that free prescriptions and university tuition for all would have to end.

However, ultimately, Major’s position is that if devolution is applied to its full extent, the Scots will finally be satisfied and content to remain in the Union. But we’ve heard that argument before: it was exactly what was said by the proponents of devolution back in 1998, who said that devolution would see off the Scottish-nationalist ‘threat’ once and for all. Even assuming that the Scottish people endorsed devo max in a referendum, what’s to say that independence wouldn’t be back on the table in ten years’ time, and the same arguments in favour of it that are made now would be made then: that devo max had proven a success and given the Scots confidence that they could run their own affairs, and that independence was just the next logical step forward?

In any case, the Scots probably will be offered the choice of devo max as a / the alternative to independence in the referendum that the SNP government plans to hold towards the end of its term in office, probably in 2015. So in a sense, Major’s contribution adds nothing, other than reinforcing the impression that the unionist establishment is in denial about the full extent of the Scottish people’s aspirations towards self-rule and continues to think that so long as they’re offered the carrot of ever greater devolution, they won’t want to take it to its logical conclusion: independence.

Major’s point of view is also blind to English dissatisfaction with the Union and with the present arrangements for England’s governance. For Major, English discontent comes down to exasperation with “Scottish ambition [that] is fraying English tolerance. This is a tie that will snap – unless the issue is resolved”. To be honest, irritation of this sort might be the mood in the English High Tory circles in which Major moves; but as far as a significant and growing minority of English people are concerned (36% according to the BBC poll published last week), they would be all-too happy for Scotland, and indeed England, to be independent of each other.

Major’s devolution endgame might well – temporarily – appease Scottish ambitions for independence, but what about English aspirations towards self-government? What is Major in fact proposing for England? The answer is nothing, at least not directly, and in this he is at least being consistent with devolution as it has been asymmetrically applied to date – but just how this would remedy what Major calls “the present quasi-federalist settlement with Scotland [which] is unsustainable”, I don’t know.

In fact, Major’s proposals are completely untenable with regard to England. What would they involve? Abolition of the Scottish block grant, which would presumably mean replacing the Barnett Formula with a needs-based solution for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And yet, Scottish MPs (though fewer in number) would still be able to sit in the House of Commons and, presumably, vote on English legislation, as would their Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts. Why? What possible justification could there be for that in the absence of Barnett, which is the only factor that makes those MPs’ present participation in decisions on English matters in any way legitimate, because of the knock-on consequences for expenditure in their own countries?

In reality, once you take away the Barnett Formula, and even more so when you grant fiscal autonomy to Scotland, you might as well just have done with it and make the House of Commons an English parliament, and grant fiscal autonomy to the Welsh and Northern Irish to boot. Otherwise, the participation of non-English MPs in English matters hangs on the slenderest thread of the indirect consequences that English bills might have for the UK’s other countries, and of setting the needs-based funding formula for Wales and Northern Ireland. So slender would that thread be, in fact, that this smacks of desperately coming up with false pretexts for preserving the Commons as the / a UK parliament come what may.

If, on the other hand, you draw the logical conclusion from devo max and extend it all the UK’s nations, then the House of Commons becomes an English parliament without any further ado, thereby alleviating much, if not substantially all, of English people’s dissatisfaction with the present devolution settlement, and making that settlement genuinely sustainable and federalist, rather than quasi-federalist and unsustainable as Major himself calls it.

This is the logical conclusion to be drawn from Sir John’s premises. Asymmetrical, incomplete devolution is not capable of satisfying the aspirations towards self-government of either the Scots or the English. Completing the devolution process for the Scots only would be even less so. But if devo max is extended to the whole UK, making it a genuinely federal state, then this might, just might, save the Union – although, as I argued in my last post, I think we may already have passed the federal moment, and only full independence with or without confederalism will now work.

But will Major and unionist establishmentarians like him perceive the federalist logic of their own position in time for it to be of any practical consequence?

Is now the confederal moment?

In my previous post, I commented on the finding in this week’s ComRes opinion poll of 864 English adults that 36% of them felt that: “Irrespective of the outcome of the Scottish referendum . . . England should become a fully independent country with its own government, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom”. I observed that there appeared to be a close correlation between this 36% and the 36% of respondents who said they supported independence for Scotland; i.e. that people felt that Scottish independence would result in English independence. I went on to argue that this view was mistaken and that it was by no means certain that the people of England would be offered any sort of choice about how they wish to be governed in the wake of Scottish independence, but that England would probably just be incorporated into a new United Kingdom (of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) that would inherit the constitutional status and legal personality of the existing UK.

Although it might be mistaken in terms of political realities, I think this popular equation of Scottish independence with English independence does reveal a hidden, subconscious truth: that the Union at its core is the union between Scotland and England – the Union of 1707. English people feel this in their gut: if Scotland breaks away from the Union, this means that England’s situation reverts to what it was prior to the 1707 Union. In other words, England would again stand alone to govern its own affairs and the Westminster parliament would become an English parliament once more.

This is not a logical thing; nor, as I say, are English people’s expectations that they should be allowed to actually choose whether to be independent or remain in some sort of continuing union with Wales and Northern Ireland likely to be fulfilled. But it’s the truth, and one that the British establishment is going to do its utmost to prevent from emerging from the collective English subconscious into national self-awareness. The establishment’s game plan will be to present Scottish independence as something that would seriously weaken the UK (loss of international prestige, including perhaps the UK’s seat in the UN Security Council; ‘stronger together’; blah blah) but not something that would bring the UK’s existence as such to an end. Scottish independence would constitute ‘secession’ from a UK that would essentially continue unchanged – albeit damaged – once Scotland leaves.

But this strategy on the part of the unionists could prove futile if the emerging English-national consciousness becomes strong enough and the English people en masse demand the right to choose their constitutional and national future. As nationalists, we should do all we can to encourage the development of this national self-awareness, and try to translate what the ComRes poll canvassed as support for a “referendum [to] be held in the rest of the United Kingdom before Scotland is allowed to become an independent country” (45% in favour) into the insistence that the English have a referendum on their own governance – whether that means being part of a new UK, an English parliament within a federal state or full independence. So, for example, whenever the subject of Scottish independence comes up in conversation, we should say we think England should also have a referendum on her independence or at least her own parliament. This way, up and down the land, more and more people will be discussing as a realistic and reasonable option what until recently would have seemed outlandish to most people: that England could be an independent country.

But what would become of Wales and Northern Ireland if Scotland opted for independence and then the English people ratified in a referendum the independence for their own country that this implied? Well, just as England has the right to choose between independence or some sort of continuing union with Wales and Northern Ireland, so do those two countries. In Northern Ireland, of course, an independence referendum might include the option of a united Ireland, which would probably be rejected. But is full independence really a practical or desirable option for either Wales or Northern Ireland?

This is where I think confederalism comes in as a fourth option alongside a new UK without Scotland, a federal UK (with or without Scotland) or independence for all of the UK’s nations. The difference between confederalism and federalism is that, in the former, each nation involved is fully sovereign and independent but chooses to transfer responsibility in certain areas such as defence and macro-economics to a common confederal government. The commitment to participating in shared governance in those areas could be withdrawn at any time, as each nation is fully independent and could choose to go it alone. By contrast, in a federal UK (with or without Scotland), it is the UK parliament and government that would retain ultimate sovereignty, even if the powers of each constituent nation in policy areas of the sort that are presently devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were protected by a written constitution. I.e. federalism would differ from the present devolution settlement in that the UK government couldn’t arbitrarily claw back the devolved powers if it saw fit (e.g. in some sort of ‘national emergency’) and, more importantly, self-government would be extended to England.

Subject to this caveat, the present devolution settlement is in effect a form of asymmetric federalism: semi-autonomy and semi-separation of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from the British centre, but none for England, which continues to be governed as the UK. It looks likely that the choice that will actually be offered to the Scots in their independence referendum will be between an extension of devolution (‘devo max’) and a form of independence in which certain links and areas of common governance with the residual UK would be retained (‘independence lite’). These continuing links with the remaining UK are rather like those of independent states within a confederation, except they would apply only to Scotland: a joint ‘head of state’ (the Queen); common defence and security; shared foreign embassies; macro-economics (i.e. the same currency, with policy in areas such as interest rates continuing to be set by the Bank of England); and social union, i.e. common employment, benefit and residency rights.

The distinction between devo max and independence lite is ultimately about national sovereignty: the actual degree of autonomy for Scotland would be similar under both options, but with independence lite, Scotland would have sovereignty rather than the UK state as under devo max. So the confederal option I’m proposing is essentially independence lite for all the UK’s nations, with a confederal government to look after areas of shared interest rather than the present sovereign UK state. This way, the right of the English people to choose independence if they wish could be fulfilled, while the interests of Wales and Northern Ireland would be protected in that they could also be independent but as part of a continuing, confederal, social / economic / defence union with the other countries of the former UK.

I think we should seriously start pushing for the confederal option now. My feeling is that the Scots simply aren’t interested in being bound into some sort of permanent constitutional, federal union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which would fail to satisfy their aspirations to full popular sovereignty and self-rule. It’s already too late to ‘save’ the UK – if indeed it’s worth saving – via the federal route, and the smug British establishment has already missed that boat. Will it have the wit and imagination to put the confederal option on the table – perhaps in a second referendum to ratify Scottish independence, but one in which all the UK’s nations could choose independence lite, not just Scotland?

I think many in Scotland would welcome confederation, because it means full independence but continuing close links with England and the UK’s other nations out of friendship and mutual interest. If unionists want to save some sort of continuing union, this is their most realistic hope. But never mind the unionists: if Scotland has a right to independence lite, so has England – and we should demand it!

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.

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.

Constitutional reform: time for new wineskins

“Nobody puts new wine in old wineskins; otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins and run to waste, and the skins will be ruined. No; new wine must be put in fresh skins. And nobody who has been drinking old wine wants new. ‘The old is good’, he says”. The Gospel According To St. Luke, 5: 37-39.

They just don’t get it, do they, the establishment types? They talk the language of reform, but they basically think the old system works and knows best. It certainly works for them.

So, in the interests of ‘reform’, they elect a ‘maverick’ speaker in what turns out to be essentially a put-up job, with Labour and the Lib Dems ganging up to choose a Tory that the Conservatives despise, in the hope that he will provide a useful counterweight to a Tory-dominated Commons when the Conservatives ‘inevitably’ achieve a landslide victory at the next election (why? because they won’t in fact have reformed the First Past the Post voting system by then, despite their fine words?) – up to their old party-politicking tricks again in filling a position that is supposed to be above all that. This reformist speaker then makes an acceptance speech affirming that the vast majority of MPs are in fact honest and motivated by zeal for public service. So the expenses scandal doesn’t in fact bespeak a systemic problem of corruption and venality on the part of a parliament that is largely unaccountable (comprising mainly ‘safe seats’) – despite the fact that you, Mr Speaker, are one of the biggest flippers of them all.

One of the proposed reforms the new speaker will have to oversee, announced on Tuesday, will involve the creation of a new government-appointed body, provisionally entitled the Parliamentary Standards Authority, that will not only supervise and advise on MPs’ pay and expenses but will administer them, including via a statutory power to take possession of Parliament’s assets and property rights. So instead of greater accountability of MPs to the people, what we are in danger of getting is MPs becoming effectively employees of the government whose new body has draconian powers to expel or even imprison them if it deems they have violated the rules to a serious extent. No less than the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is at stake.

We may feel that Parliament has demonstrated its unworthiness to exercise sovereignty over its own affairs in this particular area; but shouldn’t the reforms involve proposals that put the power to hold MPs to account in the hands of their own constituents (for instance, through the power for the people to call by-elections if, say, 10% of constituents demand it), not in those of an unelected, unaccountable quango? And of course, it’s Parliament itself, not the people, that will get to vote through this legislation with potentially devastating consequences for the UK’s constitution and parliamentary democracy.

The same goes for House of Lords ‘reform’, with MPs keen to rush through legislation for a new mainly or wholly elected House, an issue of principle on which they already voted last year. In addition to party-politicising a House that has acted as one of the few scrupulous sources of revision and scrutiny of an authoritarian and unaccountable government, these changes could result in expelling the Church of England bishops from the Lords, adding momentum to the drive to disestablish the Church altogether. All very well, on one level, if you don’t think the Church should have a privileged position at the heart of the establishment and the right to be involved in revising legislation proposed by democratically elected politicians. But this involves changes to centuries-old constitutional arrangements that pre-date the creation of the British state and which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, represent possibly the only way in which England continues to have any official, constitutional status as a nation. But are the people of Britain, let alone the people of England, going to be consulted in a referendum on these fundamental constitutional changes? If they are, I haven’t heard anything about it.

And then there are all the shabby, venal goings-on around the parliamentary enquiry into the Iraq War, with Gordon Brown showing last week that he’d learned absolutely nothing from the furore over expenses, insisting that the enquiry should be conducted in private despite all his mealy-mouthed advocacy of greater transparency in the way parliament conducts its business. Of course, he’s had to back-track; but even last night, the Labour party whips managed to corral enough of their troops into the voting lobby to defeat a Tory amendment demanding that the scope of the enquiry should be broader than that proposed and should be down to parliament to determine: the old parliamentary systems clicking into gear to prevent rather than insist on adequate scrutiny of the executive.

It’s all very depressing: it really is as if the whole thing is in a terminal state of decline, disrepair and disrepute. The politicians seem to believe they can carry on in the same discredited way, playing their self-serving, party-political games, with little reference to the people’s wishes and rights. Even the reforms suggested are top-down (proposed, driven and voted for by Parliament) rather than resulting from a genuine process of consultation with the people through measures such as citizens’ conventions and deliberative referendums. And the reforms themselves, far from putting greater power in the hands of ordinary people to whom Parliament should be accountable, seem designed to increase the power of the executive and the party apparatuses over MPs and the legislative process.

Originally, I was thinking of writing a post suggesting that the best, most straightforward and most radical way to reform the House of Commons would be simply to replace it with a new English Parliament, with new structures and procedures, and elected using PR. You’d then also need a new federal UK parliament, which similarly would be drawn up on completely new lines. Not so much reform from within the existing Parliament itself but starting from a blank canvass. A slightly less radical alternative would be to turn the existing House of Commons, including some of its arcane, historic traditions and its present home in the Palace of Westminster, into an English Parliament; while the House of Lords could be transformed into the new federal UK parliament with powers to scrutinise and suggest amendments to legislation arising from all four devolved national parliaments. Both of these options would still preserve a United Kingdom that did not break from the past in its fundamentals: same monarchy; same symbolism and ‘identity’ of the historic UK state; and probably the same emphasis on the ultimate sovereignty of the British parliament, or shared British-parliamentary sovereignty distributed across the national and federal parliaments in their respective areas of competence.

But somehow, I just can’t see this happening. I think the events of the past couple of weeks, described above, demonstrate that the old Parliament is incapable of driving through radical democratic reform from within. It is too profoundly wedded to the idea that its sovereignty and power – intimately allied with that of the executive – is somehow timeless and unchallengeable, and gives it the right to dictate the shape of reforms that consolidate the unaccountable dominance of the main parties and the executive, rather than restoring and renewing Parliament’s authority and sovereignty from its true source: the will of the people.

In reality, maybe the situation needs to be framed the other way round: instead of thinking of the dynamic towards the creation of an English parliament and a federal UK as resulting from a process whereby the present system reforms itself from within, maybe the present crisis is the symptom of a much deeper rift and sense of division between the people and the government (parliament and executive), and between the different nations whose union in the United Kingdom Parliament is supposed to symbolise and embody. On this view, the authority of Parliament has ebbed away because it is no longer a ‘national parliament’ worthy of the name: a parliament for, and of, the people as a united national community. Parliament cannot exercise sovereignty on behalf of, and in the name of, the people until there is agreement on who the people are: England or Britain; a single British nation-kingdom, or a federation of multiple nations.

But the politicians want to carry on much as before. In the words of the evangelist, they think the old parliament and the old Britain is good, and that they can pour the new wine of reform into the old wineskin of the present system. But maybe, in doing so, they risk destroying both the wineskin of the old establishment and the possibility for genuine democratic renewal.

Instead, isn’t what is needed a whole new start, with the citizens of the respective UK nations deciding for themselves on a new politics and constitutional settlement that match their aspirations, priorities and identities as national communities in their own right? Reform should start from new foundations; from the bottom up. Yes, new wine must be put in fresh skins.