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

 

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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

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

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The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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