The unionist Edward Carson signs the Ulster Covenant in 1912, protesting against Irish home rule. Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Vernon Bogdanor: The crisis of the constitution

Although the spirit of British democracy is in good health, its mechanisms are under threat. The task now is to transform crisis into opportunity.

We tend to think of single-party majority government as the norm in Britain. And so it has been in the postwar era. But from 1885, when the single-member constituency became standard, until 1945 such governments were rare – indeed, there were just three, one of which lasted for only a year – the 1906-10 Liberal government, the 1922-23 Law/Baldwin Conservative government and the 1924-29 Baldwin government. Every other government was either a minority administration or a coalition.

Until 1914, the prime reason for this was the return of a solid bloc of Irish nationalists to Westminster – at least 80 in every general election from 1885 to 1910. In 1885, 1892 and from January 1910 the Liberals, the leading party of the left, were dependent on the Irish nationalists for their majority.

The Irish nationalists (who formed the Irish Parliamentary Party), unlike the Scottish National Party and unlike Sinn Fein, which supplanted them in 1918, were not explicitly separatist. They claimed they wished to remain within the United Kingdom and sought no more than home rule – large-scale legislative devolution. But as Charles Stewart Parnell, the IPP’s greatest leader, had put it in 1885, while home rule was the most that could be demanded under the British constitution, “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’ . . .”

Had it been implemented, therefore, home rule might well have evolved into something like dominion status – independence for Ireland within the Commonwealth – but peacefully, without the repression and civil war that marked the birth of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Home rule, however, required the consent of not just the Commons but also the House of Lords, then composed almost entirely of hereditary peers and with a permanent Conservative majority; and before 1911, the powers of the Lords were unlimited by statute. After the House of Lords had rejected Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” in 1909, the Liberals decided to reform it, but following the sudden death of Edward VII in May 1910 they sought a “truce of God”, a compromise with the Conservatives.

The two parties came together in a constitutional conference, which sat from June to November 1910. This conference attempted to distinguish between different categories of legislation – ordinary, financial and constitutional – proposing different procedures for each and with the powers of each house to be laid out in statute. Use of the referendum was also discussed. The conference was attempting, in fact, nothing less than the production of a written constitution for Britain.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it broke down, primarily because the parties could not agree to which legislative category home rule belonged and whether special procedures were needed to implement it. Instead of an agreed solution, therefore, the Lib­erals, prodded by the nationalists, decided to replace the absolute veto of the Lords with a suspensory veto of two sessions – reduced to one session in 1949 by the Attlee government.

During the constitutional conference, Lloyd George, the Liberal chancellor of the Exchequer, made a startling proposal – nothing less than a Liberal/Conservative coalition, which would impose on both Irish nationalists and unionists a system of “home rule all round”, a quasi-federal solution for the whole of the United Kingdom. If the Irish demurred, then (so Lloyd George predicted), the Liberals would “wash their hands of the whole affair and leave the Irish to stew in their own juice”. But the coalition proposal got nowhere; nor did home rule all round. It involved pulling up the British constitution by its roots to solve the Irish problem and imposing upon England a form of government it did not want purely to satisfy the Irish nationalists.

Once the Irish left Westminster in 1918, declaring their independence and setting up their own parliament in Dublin, pressures for constitutional reform faded away. “The two supreme services which Ireland has rendered Britain,” Winston Churchill wrote mischievously in 1929, “are her acces­sion to the Allied cause on the outbreak of the Great War, and her withdrawal from the House of Commons at its close.”

The SNP has now resurrected the constitutional debate. The Scottish Nationalists, could well, after next month’s general election, exert a stranglehold over British politics similar to that of the Irish nationalists in 1910. But whatever the outcome, the Scottish Question and the English Question will come to the fore.

A second Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition or a Conservative majority government will lack, as the 2010 coalition lacked, legitimacy in Scotland. Scotland will once again have a government it did not vote for. A government of the left, by contrast, will almost certainly lack a majority in England, and the issue of “English votes for English laws” will be raised with even greater intensity. Either way the Union will again come under threat.

As in 1910, there are many who suggest a federal solution. But that implies some similarity between the wants and desires of all four parts of the UK and the imposition of a new and probably unwanted system of government in England purely to accommodate the Scots. Plus ça change.

Kenneth Baker, the former Conservative education secretary, has suggested another way out of the deadlock – a grand coalition of the Conservative and Labour Parties that might, as was hoped in 1910, impose a solution to Britain’s constitutional problems. Yet that, too, is an unlikely development.

 

***

 

The 2015 general election, then, is likely to raise a question mark over the very future of the UK. But the difficulty we face in confronting our constitutional problems is that they are interconnected. The Scottish Question is intertwined not only with the English Question but also with the question of whether Britain remains in the EU, and with the electoral system. It would in fact be easier to resolve the Scottish Question, were there to be electoral reform.

In the 2010 election, the Conservatives won just one seat in Scotland. Yet they won one in six of the votes – around 17 per cent; just 3 percentage points fewer than the SNP – while Labour won 41 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies on just 42 per cent of the Scottish vote. A proportional system would have given Labour 24 seats and the Conservatives ten. In May, the SNP could make a clean sweep in Scotland on less than 50 per cent of the vote. First-past-the post makes Britain appear more divided than it really is and exacerbates the West Lothian problem because it exaggerates the imbalance in strength in Scotland between Labour and the Conservatives. First-past-the-post therefore threatens the unity of the country. Proportional representation, by contrast, would alter the dynamics of the conflict between England and Scotland and make it more manageable.

Resolving the English Question is also intertwined with other constitutional questions, and in particular with the status and reform of local government. George Osborne’s commendable attempt at devo-max to Greater Manchester requires, if it is to be successful, the devolution of real taxing powers to local government and of ministerial powers over such matters as health. But above all, a successful policy of devolution and decentralisation requires a clear understanding of what matters are fundamental to the UK as a whole – what are the basic constitutional, social and economic rights that should be enjoyed by every citizen – and what matters are capable of different treatment in different parts of the UK. That understanding is best embodied in a written constitution.

It is indeed because our constitutional problems are so interconnected that there is so strong a case for a constitutional convention. Speaking in Edinburgh in 2013, Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, called for a Scottish convention to consider the future of the Scottish constitution, similar to that of the convention of 1989 which paved the way for devolution. But the future of Scotland should not be seen in isolation from that of the rest of the UK; nor can further devolution be considered in isolation from such matters as reform of local government and electoral reform. What is needed is a UK-wide convention, with popular participation, to consider the constitution as a whole.

In 1910, the crisis of the constitution was resolved in an ad hoc manner and the chance for a real constitutional settlement was missed. Will the same happen in 2015? Or are we, on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, approaching a genuine constitutional moment?

If we are, as I believe, approaching such a moment, it is because our constitutional problems have not arisen in a vacuum but reflect real pressures of social change – in particular, the end of deference and the breakdown of old class and party loyalties. There is a growing conflict between new social forces and our traditional constitutional forms. It is becoming increasingly clear that these constitutional forms are relics of a past era. Our political system needs to become more congruent with the public philosophy of what David Cameron has called a post-bureaucratic age, whose watchword is fluidity and whose leitmotif is a politics of openness and transparency. This means publicly stated constitutional rules rather than the tacit understandings that have hitherto served us as a substitute for a constitution.

The democratic spirit in Britain is not unhealthy. The Scottish referendum showed that there is a huge reservoir of civic potential that the political parties have largely failed to tap. It is the institutions and the mechanisms which seek to represent the democratic spirit that are at fault. Disenchantment with politics flows from the conflict between a maturing democracy, in which voters are accustomed to wider choices than in the past, and a political system that still bears all too many of the characteristics of a closed shop.

The task now is to funnel the democratic spirit down constructive channels so that crisis can be transformed into opportunity. That is the fundamental case for a constitutional convention and, if it comes about, it will repay a debt of gratitude that we owe to the Scots for voting to stay within the UK.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at King’s College London. His pamphlet “The Crisis of the Constitution” has just been published by the Constitution Society

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

Chris Ball/UNP
Show Hide image

The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496