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!

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!

36% of English people support independence – for England

A ComRes opinion poll commissioned by BBC Radio 4, published yesterday, found that 36% of the English-only people questioned felt that “England should become a fully independent country with its own government, separate from the rest of the United Kingdom”. By any account, this is an extraordinary finding. However, if all you had heard about the poll was what was said about it on last night’s Newsnight programme dedicated to discussing Scottish independence, and its impact on England and Britishness, you wouldn’t know about this particular finding, as it was not referred to.

This appears to be another, all-too typical, instance of the establishment suppressing discussion of the English Question: the question of how England should be governed. For all that the programme represented a refreshing attempt to deal with the impact Scottish independence might have on the rest of the Union, and to consider an emerging sense of Englishness and English nationalism, it glossed over what for me is the most important issue: England’s democratic deficit and how this should be remedied, irrespective of Scotland gaining independence or not. The programme did not dwell on this issue or treat it with any degree of seriousness, nor did it link it to the issue of an emerging English consciousness, to which it is central: one of the main purposes of an English parliament or English independence being that they would give England a national voice and institutions, around which a confident English identity could coalesce.

How significant is the 36% support for English independence, though? Another finding of the ComRes poll that was reported is that 36% of English people favour independence for Scotland (versus 48% who oppose it). This is also, incidentally, a striking finding. The programme did acknowledge that this represented a significant increase on the last time support for Scottish independence in England was canvassed, when it stood at 16%. However, one suspects that there is a close correlation between the 36% of English people who favour English independence and the 36% that support Scottish independence. In other words, people must be assuming that English independence would result from Scottish independence; and in that, I can’t help feeling that they’re sadly mistaken.

This was another thing that the programme didn’t explore (well, I guess you can’t cover every aspect of the question): what sort of residual United Kingdom, if any, would be the by-product of Scottish independence? My own feeling is that if the Scots voted for independence in a referendum, the inhabitants of the rest of the UK would not be given the opportunity to decide in a referendum how they wish to be governed (although 45% said people in the rest of the UK should have a say in whether Scotland became independent, while 47% thought they shouldn’t).

Specifically, I think the English people would not be given the chance to choose whether to have a parliament of their own, still less independence. Instead, the UK Parliament, which is presently sovereign in such matters, would simply decide what sort of state the residual United Kingdom would be. Overriding any consideration of whether the United Kingdom as such should be considered dissolved as a consequence of Scotland separating from the Union (because this breaks up ‘Great Britain’, and hence dissolves the union of Great Britain with Northern Ireland, which is what the UK is), Parliament would simply decree that a new United Kingdom (e.g. a ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’) should inherit the legal personality and constitution of the old UK. And Parliament would then carry on governing England as the UK, as if nothing had changed – except it would be less likely, but still not impossible, for a UK government to be formed based on a majority of UK MPs without enjoying a majority of English MPs.

The programme did not nail down this issue, which is central to the whole debate: would Scottish independence be a separation from a United Kingdom that would carry on pretty much unchanged as a consequence (in which case, it could be considered to be a purely Scottish matter, although the Welsh and Northern Irish might wish to dissent from that view if it meant they were dragged into what they perceived as an even more England-dominated UK); or would it involve breaking up the UK altogether by virtue of dissolving the Union of 1707 – in which case the other party to that Union (England) should have a say in its own constitutional and political future.

These are two quite distinct questions, and the ambiguity in the Newsnight discussions in part resulted from a failure to make a distinction between them. And that further reflects the establishment’s reluctance to explore any avenue that might lead to something such as a distinct English nation deciding how it wishes to govern itself. Because, surely, that’s the logical outcome from the Scots opting for independence: that each of the UK’s remaining nations should then be allowed to choose whether the UK itself remains, or whether they follow Scotland’s example and decide for independence.

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.

Parliamentary sovereignty won’t protect us from the EU, because it’s already dead

So I didn’t call it right: I thought David Cameron would at the very least call a referendum to give a Conservative government the mandate to re-negotiate some of the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU. In the event, today, he merely committed to a pledge that there would be a referendum over any further proposed transfer of powers to the EU (a so-called ‘referendum lock’). In addition, he promised a Tory government would enact a ‘United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill’ guaranteeing that the UK Parliament would retain ultimate sovereignty in the governance of the UK.

However, as Cameron acknowledged in his speech, the Lisbon Treaty contains provisions enabling national vetoes to be abolished and further powers to be transferred to the EU without requiring additional treaties. This means that the ‘referendum lock’ is null and void: by virtue of the same principle making a post-ratification referendum on the Lisbon Treaty pointless (the fact that it has already passed into EU law), referendums on subsequent transfers of sovereignty could also be futile, because the same EU law authorises those changes.

Cameron referred to these provisions in the Treaty as ‘ratchet clauses’ and indicated that they should not be used to transfer additional powers to Brussels: “we would change the law so that any use of a ratchet clause by a future government would require full approval by Parliament”. So, in practice, any future transfers of power to Brussels would not be submitted to the people in a referendum but would be decided by Parliament: the same Parliament that voted to ratify the Lisbon Treaty in the first place, in violation of the Labour Party’s manifesto promise and in defiance of the people’s wishes in the matter. So how can we be confident that a Conservative or subsequent Labour government, commanding a parliamentary majority on the basis of a minority of the popular vote, would not mobilise its whips to rubber-stamp a further EU appropriation of UK sovereignty if it felt this were in the ‘national interest’. Clearly, the Conservative leadership feels it is in the national interest to remain very much committed to EU membership, notwithstanding the considerable erosion of UK sovereignty brought about by Lisbon. Would similar considerations regarding the overriding strategic importance of Britain remaining in the EU be used to justify further transfers of power should they be demanded by our EU partners?

Effectively, all that Cameron’s speech offers us is a reaffirmation of UK-parliamentary sovereignty, both in the form of the proposed UK Sovereignty Bill and the insistence that any use of ‘ratchet clauses’ in the Lisbon Treaty would require parliamentary approval. The referendum pledge isn’t worth the manifesto paper it’s written on, not just because there won’t be any further treaties on which to hold a referendum, nor because it’s hard to trust an incoming Tory government’s promise on this after the Labour government’s breaking of theirs; but because the principle of parliamentary sovereignty itself is being held up as supreme. Therefore, if Parliament decides that something is in the national interest, it regards itself as the ultimate arbiter in the matter without recognising any legal, let alone moral, requirement to seek popular consent for its decision through a referendum.

In other words, the real problem with Cameron’s assurances is that he is basing his defence of the UK-national interest on the supreme sovereignty of Parliament at the very moment at which the legitimacy of that sovereignty is being called into question as never before.

In a sense, Cameron is merely offering us parliamentary business as usual. He refers to a Conservative victory in a general election as sufficient to give him a mandate (without a referendum) to re-negotiate certain aspects of EU law that Britain has signed up to (e.g. the Social Chapter, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and areas of jurisdiction over criminal law) over the first five-year term of a Tory government. Then, if Britain has still not succeeded in re-negotiating these things, a tougher series of measures could be presented to the British people in the Conservative manifesto for a second term in government – but still without questioning the fundamental commitment to EU membership.

However, all of this is predicated on there being no fundamental changes to the way Britain itself is governed, let alone Britain’s relationship with the EU:

  • Cameron’s serene confidence, as the leader of one of the two governing parties, that the absurd electoral system will afford him at least two terms in government despite securing less than half of the popular vote even in England, let alone in the other countries of the UK
  • those ‘terms’ themselves being extended at the government’s choosing to a full five years rather than fixed terms of, say, four years, which would probably be approved by a majority of the electorate if a referendum were held on it . . .
  • the insistence on the ultimate authority of the UK Parliament both as a general principle and in the particular matter of our relationship with the EU: as much as to say ‘Parliament knows best’; and the only ‘referendum’ the people are going to be offered in reality is a general election whose result doesn’t even reflect the will of the people, but on the basis of which the government ascribes to itself a mandate to do as it chooses.

Parliament proved itself to be unworthy of the British people’s trust by surrendering our sovereignty to the EU without seeking our consent. Now we’re supposed to base our entire confidence that further erosions of our sovereignty can be prevented on the same Parliament.

The point is sovereignty doesn’t even belong to Parliament, whether in the act of giving it away or in the act of exercising it in the supposed defence of our national interests: it belongs to us, the people. Indeed, you could even argue that the venality and spinelessness with which Parliament surrendered our sovereignty to the EU by agreeing to ratify Lisbon without our consent demonstrated the nullity of the very parliamentary sovereignty through which those powers were given away. This was not only a case of ‘you can’t give away what you don’t have’ but ‘you can’t keep what you don’t have’: Parliament’s ‘letting go’ of our sovereignty illustrated the fact that it had already lost it
and any valid claim to it.

So, on the specific matter of Europe, nothing less than a referendum on whether Britain continues to be a member of the EU will do. This will be an exercise of true, popular, not parliamentary, sovereignty. But beyond this particular matter, it’s time that UK-parliamentary sovereignty became truly subordinate to the will of the people, and more specifically, the will of the peoples of the different nations that make up the UK.

The days of a single UK parliament claiming sovereign jurisdiction over every aspect of the British people’s lives are numbered. But it’s up to us, the people, to ensure that we take it back from the EU ourselves and do not leave it to Parliament to do so in our name. Because Parliament has already lost it.

The Conservatives must support a referendum on EU membership

For me, support for a referendum on whether, or on what basis, the UK remains a member of the EU is the only viable option for the Conservative Party in the event of the Czech Republic ratifying the Lisbon Treaty, as now appears inevitable. This conclusion is based on a logical reading of the Party’s policy statement on the matter – albeit that our political parties don’t exactly have a glowing record of adhering to logic and apparent policy commitments!

The phrase “we would not let matters rest there” (meaning the Tories would not just accept the Lisbon Treaty as a done deal if all 27 EU states ratified it) was frequently quoted during the European Parliament election campaign earlier this year. However, the context in which this phrase occurs is revealing: “if the Treaty is in force we will be in a different situation. In our view, then, political integration would have gone too far, the Treaty would lack democratic legitimacy in this country and we would not let matters rest there”. If the Treaty lacked democratic legitimacy, and if it meant that the EU had gone too far down the road of political integration, this can only mean the Tories would seek to obtain democratic backing for realigning the UK’s membership of the EU along the lines that they think it should assume: essentially, a free-trade alliance and a means to pursue common action where co-operation is vital, such as on climate change and global economic issues.

The most obvious means to seek a democratic mandate to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership would be a referendum. Maybe the question put to voters would be along the following lines: ‘Do you believe the UK should renegotiate the terms of its membership of the European Union along the lines envisaged when the UK originally joined it as the European Economic Community (EEC)?’ The basis for putting the question in that form is the view that none of the changes in direction and transfers of power to the EU that have taken place since the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the then EEC have been legitimised by adequate consultation of the British people. This would be consistent with the Tories’ line, in the same policy statement, that: “any future EU Treaty that transfers powers from the United Kingdom to the European Union would be subject to a referendum of the British people” (Conservatives’ own emphasis in bold). So, if future transfers of power need a referendum, by definition all the past ones need to be legitimised (or not) by some sort of retrospective referendum. Hence, the Tories can seek a mandate to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership in a new referendum in which a ‘yes’ vote effectively vetoes all the previous transfers of power since 1975.

Putting the question in this form – rather than, for instance, asking whether people backed full withdrawal from the EU in its present form – is also more likely to achieve the Tories’ policy objective of greatly modified UK membership of the EU. I think a clear majority would vote ‘yes’, albeit that many of them would also vote ‘yes’ to total withdrawal if that option were put to them. On the other hand, if the option was ‘support the EU, Lisbon Treaty and all, or withdraw completely’, I would be concerned that political and media scare tactics would persuade enough people to reluctantly back our membership of the EU along post-Lisbon lines. In addition, a pledge to carry out such a referendum would be a sure-fire vote winner for the Conservatives at the general election; whereas, if they decline to stand up for our constitutional and democratic rights, it would be handing potentially millions of votes to the BNP, UKIP and even the Liberal Democrats if they continue to support a referendum on EU membership.

So the Tories have got to back a referendum. It would be both unjust, counter-productive in terms of their own policies on Europe, and electoral suicide on their part if they don’t.

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.