Sunday 14 September 2014

A New Constitutional Settlement for England

We could well be days away from ending the 307 year old union between Scotland, and England and Wales. This penny has finally dropped with establishment politics. They have looked into the abyss and are terrified that irrelevance could be staring right back at them. Characteristically, their attempt to ward of the spectre has been threat and promise. The former has been the gift of Scottish financial institutions this week, pledging to move headquarters down to London in the event of a Yes vote. Particularly amusing was Deutsche Bank's David Folkert-Landau warning that Scottish independence would be a decision right up there with those that triggered the Depression. No need to pull your punches, David! On promises we've had the peculiar resurrection of Gordon Brown. Our political Lazarus dusted off the backbench cobwebs by manfully seizing Better Together by the throat. He threw down proposals for new Scottish powers that were eagerly seized upon by the Westminster parties, even though all three are signed up to further devolution (not that you'd know it thanks to BT's negativist campaign). Now is not the time for a novice indeed.

What's missing from all this is England and Englishness. Yes or no, the constitutional settlement has to be redrawn. With Scotland in more powers for it, Wales and Northern Ireland will surely follow. That means devolution for and in England has to be addressed. And if Scotland goes, it likewise means the rump UK is in for some major renovation. With the EU crowded out by existential crisis, already some on the right have begun staking out territory. Farage has been talking about federalism. Likewise Paul Goodman at ConHome, raising the prospect of nation specific referendums on devomax as well as House of Lords reform. And John Redwood is banging the drum for an English Parliament. From the centre left are Ed Miliband's proposals to hand more power to Wales and local authorities generally and that's about it. Not good enough. Every trade union should follow the lead given by Paul Emebery, the London regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. Now is not the time for leaving politics to the politicians. Questions of how we are governed are in the direct interests of working people, and our movement needs to wake up to it. Leaving the field to our opponents and our enemies is folly.

What could a new constitutional settlement look like? I think we need to keep two intertwined principles in mind. We need a politics that is accessible and as close to the electorate as possible to overcome the rancid legacy of anti-politics, a system that does not disenfranchise massive numbers because they happen to live in safe seats, and a settlement that encourages and rewards an active citizenry.

I would like to see devolution in England handed to regional assemblies. It makes practical sense that Scotland/Wales-style settlements would work for the likes of the South East, the WestMids, etc. because of their roughly proximate sizes. London, of course, already has its own regionalised devolution. The problem with an English parliament is that England is so much larger and more diverse than the UK's other nations and may replicate all the sins of Westminster. Then there is a certain wariness of giving English nationalism a boost. Understandable as it has come to be associated with insularity and xenophobia (ably assisted by UKIP). Yet I think the left needs to bite this bullet. We can't really start talking about remaking England if, at the outset, we regard England and Englishness as something illegitimate. An English Parliament it is then. One would assume it would be subordinate to the federal parliament at Westminster on foreign affairs, energy policy, UK-wide tax regimes, etc. and pick up responsibility for the NHS, education, social security, and so on. But if the left are serious about making it work, we need to work to establish its legitimacy from the off. It means setting it up away from London - Stoke-on-Trent or Derby will do! But requires a voting system that presses the democracy on offer downwards, so the relationship is much closer. The left should advocate the Single Transferable Vote, which combines the much-vaunted constituency link with proportionality. (See here and here).

An English Parliament is not the be-all and end-all of devolution. Ed Miliband's commitment to give more power to local authorities is a good idea, and one I hope will be implemented across all of the UK (assuming Scotland votes no). In addition, it's high time the state had a written constitution specifying the legal, political, and social rights and responsibilities of UK citizens, and how the organisation operates. If the overwhelming bulk of countries, never mind organisations from chess clubs to local authorities have constitutions, then we should have one too. The moment is also ripe for Lords reform. Peerages should no longer be the province of Westminster cliques. Direct elections are the only way a second chamber can hope to retain legitimacy. Questions around accountability, including the right of recall require implementation. And while we're at it, party funding reforms need bringing in. It is not right that the Tories get around transparency rules in relation to donations. It's time these were toughened up. I would also like to see tough rules governing private lobbying of political offices (civic organisations are fine, big business is not), a professionalisation of the arrangements governing MPs expenses and offices, and - as the constituency link is embedded into the English Parliament - a shrinkage of Westminster MPs and their election via a PR system. FPTP is probably best retained for local elections only. Lastly, so the federal parliament is properly constituted the reserve powers held by the monarchy should be invested in and subject to democratically elected and accountable authority.

Proposing a new settlement is not a matter for the wonks, nor is it an exercise in constitutional cretinism. It is driven by the kinds of politics you want to see prevail. As a socialist, I hold to the old idea that our politics are everywhere and always conditioned by the need to shift the balance of power and wealth decisively in favour of working people and their families. In that regard, the shopping list above are just some suggestions. But whatever happens on Thursday, the Scottish referendum gives us an opportunity to reforge politics anew. The labour movement should seize it.


Speedy said...

The Deutsche Bank report was for private consumption but just about nails it.

Scottisjh independence is going to piss over everyone's parade - the starry-eyed cretins on the Left who support it are not only going to royally shaft their own people, they're going to propel the whole island to the right. These are facts, as laid out by DB, not those laid out by social science graduates in the pub.

In a sense they almost deserve it, except they won't be the ones who really pay the price. It will be the young and poor (incredible - a campaign that has managed to brand itself progressive by keeping all the oil to itself! Fuck the poor in Birmigham and Bradford!).

The great irony of this whole decadent endeavour is that it will give birth again to England - the Scots who have been humoured in a vastly disprortionate say in the running of the country, though plainly it has never been enough, will awake English consciousness and it will be fucking angry, especially when its own economic recovery is up ended by this reckless act of national narcissism.

Parties will compete to hammer the Scots unleashing ever more antagonism. UKIP will stand in the elections on an England First ticket. Until England feels sufficiently confident qgain - which could take decades - expect scorched earth pro business policies.

The english will have learned that tolerance, compromise, partnership only leads to humiliation and contempt. Expect much harder lines not only against the Scots but also against minorities - british has absorbed a multiplicity of identities. Scottish independence will wake England from its sleep, and it won't be happy.

Fucking nationalists.

David Timoney said...

I agree that the referendum is an opportunity for constitutional reform, whichever way the result goes, but I'm disappointed that greater devolution, STV and gradualist "Lords reform" are what you envisage.

Devolution is a double-edged sword because all regions are net debtors to London/SE. Fiscal autonomy therefore gives London greater control, not less (i.e. same power, less responsibility). The impetus for regionalism is often to deny funds to the centre (e.g. Catalonia and Lombardy). In the UK, this imbalance risks creating bantustans.

The Lords does not require reform but abolition. An independent Scotland would be unicameral, like its similarly-sized peers Denmark, NZ, Norway etc. There is an argument for a second chamber in the UK, essentially to provide a regional check on central power, but that case is arguably undermined by greater devolution.

One constitutional anomaly we should address is the privileges of the Corporation of the City of London. Done right, that could do more to advance the interests of the working class than any number of new regional assemblies.

Gareth Young said...

Whether Scotland votes for independence or not an English parliament elected under a more proportional system, with a commitment to localism and, possibly, regional grand committees, would seem like the best response.

Devolving power to a new regional layer or city regions without solving the West Lothian Question or providing England with a national voice (and civic/political national identity) is a recipe for English discontent.

The House of Lords should just be abolished. It can become a federal chamber if the Commons returns to its original purpose as an English parliament.

Anonymous said...

Assuming the Scots vote 'no' an English Parliament with equal power to the Scottish Parliament must be created. Wales' assembly should rise to Parliament status too.
If there is to be any Devolution within England it must filter down from an EP.
By removing all non-English MP's from Westminster an English Parliament will be created at zero cost.
Remove 850 peers from the House of Lords (what Lefty could object to that ?) Massive financial saving. In their place create a Federal body of 'Senators'
Result a fully Federal UK.

Old Albion

Anonymous said...

The argument against an English Parlaiemnt are based on a political parties selfishness and predjudice.
You cannot create regional bits of a country without the overall Assembly of a national Parliament to control this, the infighting will get us back to where we are n ot. the sadest thing is it Shows Labour and the Libdems panicking for screwing upo the Union but hre happy to break up England, Not only is their combined idea rediculous and unworkable, their Racism and predjudice against the English is outstanding and sickening. There are currently four Countries in the UK, equality would suggest their needs to be four Parlaiemnt and no more of Labours anti England hatred.

Bob said...

The argument against an English Parlaiemnt are based on a political parties selfishness and predjudice.
You cannot create regional bits of a country without the overall Assembly of a national Parliament to control this, the infighting will get us back to where we are n ot. the sadest thing is it Shows Labour and the Libdems panicking for screwing upo the Union but hre happy to break up England, Not only is their combined idea rediculous and unworkable, their Racism and predjudice against the English is outstanding and sickening. There are currently four Countries in the UK, equality would suggest their needs to be four Parlaiemnt and no more of Labours anti England hatred.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with everything speedy says. I do think the success of the Yes side means that Britain will have to change. A big win for the No side would have sent all the wrong messages. A narrow win for the no side is probably the best result. Though i totally reject the idea that Scotland becoming independent would be a disaster and would send politics to the right. I don't think they can go much further to the right.

There would be some ironic justice in seeing the British state split, and Scotland taking all the oil, seen as this has been a tactic of British imperialism in the Middle East (think Kuwait!).

asquith said...

This has been the best proposal I've yet seen, and all from someone I don't in general have time for.

Seperation would be bad for Scotland but much, much worse for the rUK. A shrunken, diminished country run by the City of London with the support of nasty, right-wing onanists like Nigel Farrago. We can both imagine and be horrified by what our city would look like if Scotland left.

The thing is, Salmond is nearly as bad as Farrago and can't possibly deliver everything he's promised. But there are legitimate grievances against the bedroom tax, the narrowness of the Westiminster elite, and things it's too soon after tea to think what they are, thanks mostly to Shameron's stupidity and nastiness, and the bloodlessness of the No campaign, Salmond seriously might lead to victory a movement whose "arguments" are so awful that they have no right to exist at all. We might find ourselves cursing Webcameron's name for generations.

But what would you expect from the party that pintlessly sabotaged my attempts to bring in Home Rule more than a century ago? If I'd got the support I needed to deliver something that would have benefited us all back in 1912, so much bloodshed and suffering would have been averted.

Speedy said...

"I disagree with everything speedy says"

Well, you wouldn't be anonymous if you didn't!

Oh, i think it can go much further to the right - think USA, the original home of English liberty.

Just saying.

I am TREMENDOUSLY depressed about this. Win or lose the country will be changed forever - this is what nationalism does. It divides, and too often conquers. It is mobs at the BBC and marches to the polling station. OK, this is fascism lite, but still... People never learn. It is like watching a whole country - my country - step off a cliff.