People, not politicians, must shape our new constitutional settlement

Without the consent of the public, decisions taken to devolve powers will be seen as a political fix.

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Perhaps the most exhilarating conclusion of the Scottish referendum is the level of participation at 85 per cent. This was not the disengaged scepticism of politics but vibrant, raucous, passionate, participative democracy. It is a big moment for change towards a different and more trusting relationship between politicians, political institutions and the people they serve. We must not lose that.

The focus necessarily turns to the powers which will be further devolved to Scotland, and, in turn, which powers should be given away to the English regions, cities and assemblies. For the UK to remain strong, power must be given away.

But here the process, necessarily an inclusive process, by which the proposals are drawn up is as important as the proposals themselves. People are eager and willing to engage with constitutional issues and indeed deserve the right to be put at the centre of these decisions.  The deliberations must be broad, inclusive and cross party as well as across civil society. We should look to the early beginnings of the devolution settlement which started with the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989 made up of trade unions, the churches, most political parties and wider civic society.

It is right that all parties should heed the calls already made today for a Constitutional Convention. Without the consent of the people, decisions taken to devolve powers to municipalities, regions or MPs, will be seen as a political fix by the despised Westminster establishment chastened by the message sent by the Scottish people. The case will be made for cities and regions across the UK. 

I have long argued that we need extra powers for our great capital city London to meet the challenges of growth and democracy. However London is not a disconnected city state but also a vital part of the UK.

It is clear that London’s people would be better served if further powers were devolved to the Mayor and London boroughs. Whether that is greater control over stamp duty, council tax, business rates, or the freedom to utilise other forms of investment or borrowing, many of the recommendations by the London Finance Commission would suit London’s status as a global city with all the economic and demographic challenges that brings. However, an unseemly centrally-driven dash to wrest these vital powers for London, and other cities across the country, would miss the golden opportunity which this moment presents – that of putting the public in control of the decision making process.

Let us learn from similar processes in Ireland and Iceland, where politicians agreed the scope of the constitutional convention, but allowed the citizenry to determine the outcome. It is with relief and joy that we start this next chapter together as a united country, but where we go next will be determined by whether politicians can learn to let go.


Tessa Jowell is the MP for Dulwich and West Norwood and former Olympics Minister

Tessa Jowell was MP for Dulwich and West Norwood 1992 to 2015, Secretary of State for Culture from 2001 to 2007, and minister for the Olympics from 2007 to 2010. She is a Labour peer.

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