Has Ed Miliband gone far enough in his devolution promise? Photo: Getty
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Ed Miliband’s Constitutional Convention: is he letting a crisis go to waste?

The Labour leader has responded to David Cameron’s ideas for constitutional change with a plan of his own. But does it go far enough?

Ed Miliband has responded to the Prime Minister’s post-referendum speech with his own plan for a constitutional shake-up. While David Cameron’s proposal for English votes for English laws was expected, as I predicted at 3am this morning, what the opposition’s would be was less clear-cut.

It’s a tough situation for Miliband, whose party – which could be governing in 2015 – has far more Scottish seats than the Tories’ one representative over the border. This makes the West Lothian Question a particular pain for the Labour party, who could end up being in charge of Britain, but significantly weakened when it comes to voting through their own legislation.

To add to the pressure, Miliband and key members of his team, such as the policy review chief Jon Cruddas MP, have been proposing that powers be further devolved to the regions for some time. For example, Miliband gave a big speech in April this year promising “the biggest economic devolution of power to England's great towns and cities in a hundred years”. With devolution now a fraught part of the national conversation, and his party having devolution on its manifesto, Miliband cannot delay nor dilute any of his plans.

So he’s come up with what he calls a “Constitutional Convention” for the UK. This aims to address the need for further devolution in the UK by rooting the debate in its nations and regions. These debates will bring together not only elected representatives, but also ordinary people. As laid out nice and clearly by LabourList, Labour’s plan – which will be set out in the coming weeks – will involve each region in the UK producing a report outlining recommendations, which include:

  • How sub-national devolution can be strengthened
     
  • How the regions can be given more of a voice in our political system
     
  • How we can give further voice to regional and national culture and identity
     

This consultation would then be followed in the autumn of 2015 with the Constitutional Convention itself, which would determine the future of UK-wide devolution.

In a speech following his arrival at Labour party conference in Manchester, Miliband laid out this plan, saying that he didn’t want to use “this moment to be used for narrow party political advantage”.

Opinion among Labour insiders on Miliband’s approach is mixed. One source tells me their view is that it’s “a sensible approach” for Miliband not to go all-out in attacking Cameron, or make hasty plans to rival those of the governing party. “There’s no point being bounced into responding to Cameron when he just looks increasingly desperate,” they tell me.

However, there is also a lack of enthusiasm among some in the party’s ranks, because Miliband hasn’t gone far enough. One source close to his frontbench tells me there’s a definite feeling of “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” among MPs who want further English devolution. From what they’ve heard of this Convention, they don’t see it tackling the huge disaffection there is with Westminster on both sides of the border. This echoes what Tory chairman Grant Shapps says of Miliband's plan: that it "would kick this vital issue into the long grass".

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”