Show Hide image

Britain is broken: how to remake the UK’s democracy

Scotland’s referendum showed that the way the UK is governed must change. But what is the answer? Joan Bakewell, Nick Pearce, Helena Kennedy, Adam Tomkins, Carwyn Jones and John Cruddas set out their visions. 

The View from the Lords: Time to answer the West Lothian question

By Joan Bakewell

Anyone who campaigned in Scotland knows how passionately engaged the Scots now are with constitutional change. The absolute priority is not to disappoint them. Anything that delays that change will look like betrayal.

It must have seemed a wonderful wheeze on 19 September for David Cameron to wrap up the issue of English devolution within the pressing and promised matter of Scottish devo max. That would keep Ukip at bay while embarrassing the Labour Party. What could be better for the Tories? In the event, it is turning into a can of worms, with the Scots – who were lured into expecting instant delivery on the three party leaders’ “vow” – sensing they have been tricked.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are now remonstrating that the two issues can’t be conflated and virtually every constitutional authority in the land declares it will take time and thought to get the new constitution right. How could anyone ever have thought otherwise?

Clearly the case of Scottish MPs voting on English matters needs to be addressed. The West Lothian question has been around a long time. So do other constitutional matters, the reform of the House of Lords among them. That is why we need a constitutional convention: not a high and mighty royal commission, rolling on for years, but a broad, grass-roots consultation, riding on the back of the surge in democratic engagement that was the triumph of Scotland’s experience.

As for an English parliament with devol­ved powers of its own: does the public really want another tier of government, more MPs, more civil servants, more expenses rolled out across as small a country as ours? The 2004 proposals for a regional assembly in the north-east fell flat; votes for local police chiefs are making uneasy progress. Who will run for office, who will campaign, who will turn out to vote, if we are already doing the same for the national government?

There already exists one great mainstay in England’s governance: the power and authority of our local government. But local councils, from huge metropolitan authorities to local boroughs, are being hollowed out by deliberate government policy and continuing government cuts. Manchester, Birmingham and many others are robust and democratic entities progressively weakened by budget caps, their services across the board squeezed until their citizens feel marginalised. So, before we hear more pious sentiments about the needs of English voters, let’s restore the power of local government that is already in existence. 

Joan Bakewell is an author, broadcaster and Labour peer

 

 

The Think Tanker: English devolution should be a messy affair

By Nick Pearce

At the root of the energy and exuberance of the Scottish referendum campaign was the exercise of power. It was a startling rebuke to the familiar nostrums of political disengagement and apathy.

It had been a long time coming. Protestant unionism began to decline in Scotland in the 1960s, accompanied by a fall in the Conservative vote share and the first signs of renewal in Scottish nationalism. The desire for stronger self-government built up steadily in the 1980s, culminating in the Scottish Constitutional Convention and the return of the Holyrood parliament. It rose to a crescendo in the referendum. Are any such forces at work in the rest of the UK? English political self-awareness and cultural expression have been rising, under the radar, for years now. This political Englishness is not an aggressive nationalism but it intersects with potent currents of populism and a broader, barely disguised disaffection with established party politics. It is criss-crossed by class divisions, but the demand for greater devolution of power within England is shared by many of the disparate groups agitating for a new democratic settlement.

This demand cannot be boxed neatly into English regions, as these artificial edifices of government administration have little if any moorings in history or popular attachment. Instead, English devolution should be a messy affair, going with the grain of the counties, cities and towns that make up the patchwork of England’s governance.

Some powers should be held by combined authorities, such as Greater Manchester; others by the existing local government. Cornwall has distinct claims. So does London, already endowed with its own city government. A decade of decentralisation should lead to more power and funding being pushed out of Whitehall, at whatever pace suits the various areas. It should be a central theme of next year’s spending review, one of the most important events in the coming parliament.

The evolution of the Union and England’s governance within it also have irreducibly national or Westminster dimensions, which is why it is legitimate to pose the West Lothian question, as well as consider reform of the House of Lords, a written constitution and a host of other matters. All of the main parties have sectional interests at stake here – a fact that has been blindingly obvious in recent days. That is why a constitutional convention should be called: so that a rolling, democratic debate can replace partisan usurpation of the agenda. It should mix deliberative and representative politics, as the Irish have shown is possible, and allow
for wide-ranging discussions of the kind that took place in Scotland. If the political parties can’t agree to it, people should just get on with calling their own meetings.

The referendum put questions of power and sovereignty at the centre of our politics – not as the arcane interests of constitutional theorists, but as burgeoning expressions of
popular sentiment. The issue now is whether these energies can be mobilised for a wider reconfiguration and reform of the state, in England and the rest of the Union. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

 

 

The Legal View: Hasty reforms will only bolster the status quo

By Helena Kennedy

The British establishment is responding to crisis in its usual way. But this is not a new crisis; it has been brewing for decades. When it comes to the boil, the heat is rapidly turned down by making some constitutional concessions, with a few changes to the Commons, then devolution without too many powers and some Lords reform, while retaining political patronage. No wonder public discontent begins to simmer again.

The old democratic structures no longer work. The reason there is a breakdown in trust is that people feel they are not listened to; they feel politicians have too much self-interest. It was what instigated the rise of Charter 88; it was the repeated evidence to the Power inquiry in 2005-2006.

I can hear the discussions now in the corridors of power. How do we fix this? The protest is over, said John Reid complacently after the Scottish referendum. Really?

And down south there is the search for the fix. What they mean is: how do they create change without too much cost to their own power and political priorities? They are looking for a quick nailing-down of anything that could erode the old locus of power. The response is ideological.

The Scottish debate over the past two years was incredible and impressive, but engagement takes time and effort. The Yes vote was not an expression of old-fashioned nationalism and politicians delude themselves if they think it was. It was a bottom-up revolt against the status quo. People want to be heard and politicians pronouncing from sofas on morning television or on the steps of Downing Street or at choreographed party conferences do not meet the need. What happened in Scotland is what democracy looks like – real democracy, where people have sought information, engaged in debate and reached a conclusion. That is what should happen now across these isles.

The suggestion of a constitutional convention with people getting to consider real options, such as various forms of federalism, reform of the Lords and Commons and lowering the voting age, has been derided because the politicians insist we have to act fast. Speed is the weapon of choice of those who are in the ascendancy. They will use constitutional change, which they devise, in order to fix the status quo and maintain power where it is already located.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph of 21 September, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, reminded us why he wants English votes for the English. He wants to denude the rule of law and junk the Human Rights Act and to take us on a trajectory out of Europe.

I would have been a No voter if I had been given a vote in the Scottish referendum, because I believe in solidarity across borders, but I shared much of the concern of those who chose to vote Yes. I think our embrace of neoliberal economics is destroying our values. Selling everything off to the private sector is criminal but Labour is not saying so sufficiently loudly and clearly. I think people would like a better way of expressing their concerns to their politicians.

We have to stop the rush. This is not constitutional change that is truly in the interests of the people. This is profoundly political, and the consequences are serious. Be warned! 

Helena Kennedy, QC chaired Charter 88 from 1992 to 1997 and the Power inquiry (2005 to 2006). She is a Labour peer

 

 

The View from Scotland: The Union can’t withstand English nationalism

By Adam Tomkins

The Union was not saved on Thursday; it merely won a reprieve. The No vote in the Scottish independence referendum was a convincing rejection of the Scottish National Party’s half-baked plans for a new Scottish state, but only a fool would read the result as a ringing endorsement of the constitutional status quo.

I have long thought that the Union could withstand the threat of Scottish separation, once. But if circumstances were to bring us to a second independence referendum any time soon, I would place a large sum on the result being very different.

Unionists have been put on notice. Each of the three main UK parties has made a solemn vow that Scottish devolution will be enhanced, beyond even the terms of the Scotland Act 2012 (not all of which have yet come into force). There will be sub­stantial fiscal devolution, so that Scottish taxpayers will find a good deal of their taxation falling under Holyrood’s and not Westminster’s responsibility. There needs also to be a degree of welfare devolution, so that Scottish lawmakers can alter the United Kingdom’s social security settlement in Scotland if they consider it to be contrary to Scottish needs.

But, as the Prime Minister correctly noted in his statement from Downing Street at dawn on the day after the vote, it is not just Scotland’s relationship with the Union that needs fixing; it is England’s, too. From a Scottish (or, indeed, a Welsh) perspective England is badly governed, especially outside London. The City Deals programme, one of the coalition’s unsung triumphs, needs to be ratcheted up and given a constitutional boost. And at the same time, English national concerns about Scottish over-representation in the Commons, about “English votes for English laws”, and about the funding of devolution, need to be kicked out from the long grass and given the attention they deserve. The one threat that the Union could surely not withstand is that of an emergent English nationalism.

I campaigned hard for a No vote. Victory brought relief, but no rapture. Forty-five per cent of those who voted cast their ballots to leave the United Kingdom and start again: that’s 1.6 million of our fellow citizens. No Unionist should rest easy until we have understood and responded in full to the reasons why the Yes campaign so nearly won. The work of saving the Union starts now. l

Adam Tomkins is a professor of public law at the University of Glasgow

 

 

The View from Wales: There should be home rule for all

By Carwyn Jones

Like the vast majority of people in our family of nations, I am delighted that the Scottish people chose to stay with us. It is a result I campaigned for, but it was right that this decision on their future was made by the Scots alone. It is clear that the majority who voted, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, did not vote for ‘no change’. The promises made by the UK Government to Scotland in the event of a ‘No’ vote were far-reaching and they must now be honoured. That cannot happen in a vacuum. The United Kingdom comprises four nations and there is surely no place in our shared future for any more quick and dirty deals between the Whitehall government and one nation, which excludes the rest of us. This approach would simply repeat the mistakes of the past and reinforce the notion that Westminster just ‘doesn’t get’ devolution. People from across the UK and across the political spectrum campaigned side by side in Scotland to demonstrate what union means. We said we’re better together – let’s now prove it and move forward together.

Some two years ago, I called for a Constitutional Convention for the UK to build consensus around a credible and tangible alternative to Scottish independence. My argument was that a UK Convention would prepare the ground so that when the Scottish referendum took place we would have worked up a comprehensive set of reform proposals for the UK to set against the case for independence. Only late in the campaign did we see a whole slew of proposals coming forward based on the concept of “devo max”. I’m not interested in recriminations, but let’s not make the same mistakes in future. Let’s take the United Kingdom seriously and let’s have a full and inclusive discussion, together, about our future options.

A crucial facet of Scotland’s debate was the energy released elsewhere across the UK. It revealed an appetite for debate and change across the UK, not least in England. There are lots of ideas on the table and the process of a serious multi-lateral UK-wide discussion cannot wait any longer.

I believe that a written constitution for the United Kingdom must be the best way forward. In a diverse and variable UK, a constitution could serve to recognise and protect the rights of the four nations while providing a durable framework for binding the Union together. I would like that constitution to recognise that the Welsh people have established their Parliament and its powers, and its position must be guaranteed and respected by Westminster. My preference would also be for an elected upper house at Westminster to reflect territorial interests of the various parts of the UK. And what’s good for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland must also be good for England. For too long the people of England have been absent from the debate about the Union’s future.

There are many issues on which I and the Prime Minister disagree. But I agree entirely with him that the status quo has been swept away and that now is the time for real change to strengthen the UK. We need a new Union in which sovereignty will be recognised as resting with the people in each part of the UK.

A Union constructed along these lines will need to be founded on a fair system of funding which is responsive to real need in terms of decent public services. Surely, after months of campaigning for a new UK based on solidarity, this must be our starting point. I am not interested in what the nationalists insist must be a zero sum game – I do not want Scotland to lose out as a result of Wales receiving a fair deal. I know that Ed Miliband gets this. I want to be sure David Cameron and Nick Clegg do too.

But once we secure a funding system that is grounded in fairness to all, it is perfectly sensible for devolved Governments within a looser Union to take on greater responsibility for raising their own resources. Both Wales and Scotland have taken steps in this direction in recent years. I have no objection in principle to moving further towards financial autonomy for Wales within a system of UK solidarity.

As in all good families, there must be a seat at the table for each member as these matters are discussed. Only then, will we create a stable constitutional settlement that allows us to focus on people’s real priorities. If we fail, or try again to kick the can down the road, we will see a further fraying of the common bonds that underpin the Union, and a repeat of the chaos and uncertainty of recent times.

I am proud to be both Welsh and British, and I am not one jot less Welsh for being British. No one should forget how close the Union came to ending. No more sleep-walking from Westminster. We now have a once in a generation opportunity to reinvigorate our democracy and to build a refreshed Union based on fairness and home rule for all.

Carwyn Jones is the First Minister of Wales and a Labour politician

 

 

The View from England: Our centralised state is undemocratic

By Jon Cruddas

The English are a patriotic people but they are losing faith that their government will ever listen to them. The Conservatives cannot unite our country; they have become a liberal-market party of the south. Only Labour can speak for England in the Union, but we face five big challenges.

The first is devolution of power. England has a centralised, undemocratic state that hinders our economic and political renewal. Labour’s New Deal for England will be the biggest devolution in a hundred years. We will shift decision-making over transport, housing, regeneration, infrastructure and elements of welfare and the economy closer to the communities they affect.

The second challenge is constitutional. There must be a greater recognition of an England-wide political interest in Westminster. We must find a structure that is democratically legitimate and which compensates for a more federal model of the UK. And the devolution of fiscal powers will involve working out how we create a wide, needs-based resource distribution.

We can’t have a quick fix by Westminster. A people’s convention for England can give English people a real voice. We need a dialogue between government and citizens; a broad alliance for change that stretches from Clacton to Bristol, Newcastle to Penzance.

The third challenge is dispossession. The Ukip insurgency is not a shooting star. It is telling a story that the main parties have failed to tell. In many communities there is a sense of being abandoned in the face of rapid change. The issue of immigration refracts feelings of loss, disappointment and powerlessness into a brittle politics of belonging.

The fourth challenge is integration. This summer brought disturbing images of an alleged British jihadist executioner and of young British Muslims fighting for Islamic State. Islamist terrorism is a mortal enemy and it has to be defeated. Extremist politics offers a sense of identity and meaning to young people who feel they do not belong.

We have one of the most segregated school systems in the rich world. Our housing policy locates rich and poor households in separate enclaves. We can learn from faith and community groups how to build a politics of the common good.

The fifth challenge is our broken politics. The sexual exploitation of hundreds of girls in Rotherham is a symptom of everything that is wrong with our political system. The children came from families that had lost their anchorage in stable work and a common life. There was no one to protect them.

Our political parties were once vital intermediary institutions between the people and the state. But they are hollowed out. The best way to deal with local corruption, failing councils and declining trust is to break open our institutions and democratic process to wider public involvement.

The English want choice and control over how they live. They want an economy that works for them. They want to belong to a country they can be proud of. Can we, the political class, rise to the challenge? 

Jon Cruddas is the co-author of “One Nation: Labour’s Political Renewal” and a Labour MP

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris