Tag Archives: English Assembly

We need a UK Constitutional Convention and a Federal government

What happens when your normal existence comes under threat? We seem to alternate between two extremes. One is paranoia. We see this now with Jihadi extremists, where many Britons see the threat of terrorism everywhere, and are happy to vastly expand the surveillance powers of the state so that any plot can be intercepted before execution. I remember a similar paranoia over Soviet Communism in my youth, in the 1970s. But the more common response is denial. We keep going with our ordinary daily lives without thinking about it, dismissing the threat with half-baked arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny. We see that with the threat posed by rampant global carbon emissions.

Perhaps to the  English the possibility that the United Kingdom breaks up, with Scotland ploughing its own furrow, does not have the sort of existential quality of global meltdown, communist takeover or even terrorist attack. That may be so, but we underestimate its significance at our peril. If nothing else, if the Scots vote Yes in their referendum in September, the negotiations over separation will dominate the political agenda for at least four years. The Union is so deeply embedded into our governance that separating the countries will have a host of unforeseen complications. And the complications that are clearly visible are bad enough: membership of the EU and NATO; Britain’s nuclear weapons; managing the currency; spitting the national debt; splitting oil revenues; and so on. Our governing classes will scarcely have time to do anything else, while the publics on both sides of the border will be inflamed by populists claiming that their country is getting the rough end of the deal. And at the end of it all England will be dominate nonsense of a country that can’t convincingly even lay claim to its traditional names of “United Kingdom” or “Great Britain”. It will be left with a tangle of Imperial era commitments, from membership of the UN Security Council, to responsibility for the Falkland Islands, without the joint enterprise of Scotland and the other British nations that brought these about. The loss of international prestige would be incalculable. It is often said that the loss of Ireland was the first step in the break up of Britain’s empire – the point at which Britain’s sense of confidence and authority fatally started to ebb away. The departure of Scotland would end aspirations to be even a second-rank world power, and no doubt poison the country’s politics for generations to come.

And yet the British establishment is taking this threat very calmly. People talk about the referendum here in England, but with little sense of its implications. And when conversation moves to next year’s General Election, the impact of the referendum on our politics is quickly forgotten. The half-baked argument used to dismiss such thoughts is that a Yes vote looks unlikely. But the Yes campaign has all the momentum. The No campaign depends on narrow, conservative arguments, put forward by second-rank politicians. Even if the Noes win, the threat of breakup remains. Supporters of the Union, on both sides of the border, need to recover the initiative. There is no more important issue in British politics.

Let us try to understand were the threat is coming from. It started in the 1970s as North Sea oil was discovered, and gave the Scots a sense that their country could be economically prosperous, even as industrial decline blighted it, along the rest of the UK outside the southern counties of England. The establishment response was Devolution: the setting up of a separate Scots parliament, to which progressively more power has been given. This may have delayed the crisis, but it has not solved it. In devolved Scottish politics the Nationalists field their best politicians against those of the unionist parties of second and third rank. An ambitious Scots politician who belongs to the Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative parties seeks to get elected to the Westminster parliament to make his or (less commonly) her career there. Here they happily take a hand in running England’s affairs. Gradually the Nationalists have come to dominate local politics in Scotland.  Meanwhile at Westminster one of two situations occurs: a Conservative led government is elected that the Scots did not vote for, or a Labour government which does not have a majority of English MPs. This inflames politics, especially north of the border when there is a Conservative government.

At the heart of the problem is the way in which the ruling Westminster elite sees itself. The British Parliament, with especial reference to the House of Commons, is sovereign. It secures the consent of the people at General Elections, but in between times its authority should be unchallenged. It is an evolution of the medieval and Renaissance idea that kings should be absolute rulers. Our elite becomes troubled when authority seeps away to institutions such as the European Union under treaty obligations. But it would rather not think about the idea that Parliament itself lacks the popular consent that its sovereign status implies. The Scots challenge this legitimacy openly, but increasing other British people feel it too, even if they articulate it less well.

There is an obvious solution: federalism. In a federal structure sovereignty is shared between the different levels of government. The higher levels are not self-evidently more “sovereign” than lower ones. The best known example is, of course, the United States of America. There the states are not the artificial creations of the national government, only allowed to do what the national government says. In theory it is the opposite, though in practice it is a jockeying match, arbitrated by a written constitution and the Supreme Court.

In Britain this means that you would have a federal, UK government, with a number of state governments below it. What would those states be? Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, obviously. But what about England? Many people, when first considering the problem, want to establish a series of new regional states in England, of approximately the same size as Scotland, in population terms. But this really doesn’t fly. That is not how the English view themselves; such localised identities could emerge in time. The great conurbations of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Bristol show some signs of developing such identities. But what of the rest? Cornwall, though rather small in size, has a sharp (and non-English) identity and has a strong claim for statehood. But elsewhere it means drawing arbitrary boundaries which, even if they follow ancient identities like Wessex, Mercia or Northumbria, really won’t work. That is not how modern England is.

The English state would have to be England itself, with maybe only Cornwall separate. That presents some big problems of its own, of course, but I think these are more soluble than muddling on as we currently are. I will only say that the critical thing is for the seats Federal and English parliaments should be located in different cities. Only then will the separation between the two be properly credible.

There are two main ways in which such a system might be implemented. The best is for the current British Parliament to become the new English Parliament, with a new Federal Assembly located outside London, operating within a new, written Federal Constitution. But such a step is too revolutionary for our country, that likes to evolve its constitution in small steps. I suspect the number of minor legal complications that would follow would be almost as bad as those that would flow from a Scottish breakaway. I would still vote for it if offered the chance – but grumpy as the British electorate is, I don’t think they are in such a revolutionary mood.

So the other way forward is for the British Parliament to downsize and become the new Federal legislature. The House of Lords might be replaced by a Senate with members appointed by the state legislatures (which would need to incorporate sub-state governments in the case of England, perhaps). A new English parliament and English First Minister would be established, located outside London. The whole thing would be constitutionally protected by a British Bill of Rights, which might, for good measure, establish the limits of European authority, in the way that Germany’s Basic Law does. That is revolutionary enough. But I can’t see any middle way between this and the current muddle.

And how to implement such a radical proposal? The first step must be to call a Constitutional Convention in the wake of the Scottish referendum result if there is the expected No result. And perhaps even if there is a Yes and a backlash as the difficulties emerge (although if that happens, only the first of my two solutions would be viable). That is what English politicians should be calling for.


Rethinking Liberalism 6: reinventing the state

So far in my series of essays my conclusions have been quite conventional, if a little left of centre. We need to keep capitalism in a mixed economy; the state will need to get bigger to cope with the demographic challenge; we will have to tax the rich more as middle incomes are squeezed. There’s nothing here that would upset the denizens of Whitehall unduly, notwithstanding the economic liberal tendencies of some. But I think we are badly let down by our system of government. It will have to change radically – and yet the complacency of the Westminster elite is overwhelming. Liberals must rally to challenge it.

Unfortunately one of the best examples of this establishment complacency comes from our own Liberal Democrats. Back in the 1990s I was inspired by anti-establishment rhetoric from our then leader, Paddy Ashdown. The whole system was rotten, he said; we were the outsiders and only we could change it. Then, in 1997 the party arrived as a serious force in Westminster politics.  But, somehow, under the leaderships of Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg (or the brief leadership of Ming Campbell, come to that) this radicalism came to be toned down. In spite of some radical language from both of these leaders, policy was more about trimming the Westminster policy agenda here and there without counting too much controversy. Ideas, such as a local income tax, which might have meant a decisive break from the Westminster-centred way of the world, were quietly buried. By the time Lib Dems took up cabinet jobs in the current coalition, they looked very comfortable in their new Westminster ministries, with the possible exception of Vince cable, the industry minister.

And the public could sense this. My heating engineer, classic old-school lower middle-class, told me that the Lib Dems had sacrificed their principles to get their hands on the prestige of power. Mr Clegg looked as if he was enjoying themselves too much. This feels very unfair, of course. There was a national crisis in 2010, and the compromises of coalition were needed for the country’s sake. And the Liberal Democrats have stopped the Conservatives doing a lot of silly things, like cutting Inheritance Tax. But there’s a grain of truth in the accusation; what about the promise to really shake-up British politics? It’s not clear that senior Lib Dems ever wanted to do more than change the standard Westminster priorities a bit, by pushing education and redistribution up the agenda and making the odd stand on behalf of civil liberties, unless real heat got applied. If there has been any reinventing of government, it is mainly Tory ideas that are driving it. And they are about keeping the basic Westminster architecture in place, but diversifying the delivery (more private contractors and Quangos in place of top-down state hierarchies). The attempt to devolve more power to democratically accountable local bodies has been a particular disappointment. Each step forward is accompanied by at least one step back. The malign orthodoxy of the Treasury, with its insistence on a highly centralised model of power, remains unchallenged by key Liberal Democrats – or so it appears.

Why does this matter? Firstly because the pressures caused by the demographic shift have only started. I have already written about pensions. Health costs will rise too as the ratio of older people increases. And then economic growth will continue to stagnate, for a variety of reasons, including the increasing number of people entering retirement, but for other reasons too. Meanwhile the twin (and related) economic deficits of government finances and trade are unsustainable in the long run. The government has to tax more and spend less. It has to become much more efficient and effective.

The country’s direction of travel is not encouraging. Government cuts have been very painful, and the public is tiring of them. Endless privatisations are affecting the quality of service. The fiscal deficit creeps down, but it is still very large, and he trade deficit is getting worse. This shows that the underlying economy remains weak, and that growth is hardly more sustainable than it was under the last Labour government. No sooner does the economy grow, than does Sterling appreciate to undermine all the rebalancing. Meanwhile the country is sleepwalking into the breakup of the United Kingdom (even if Scotland votes No in September) and exit from the European Union, as political dissatisfaction with the status quo grows. Pulling all the usual levers of power in Westminster seems to be doing not much good.

What have liberals to say about this advancing gloom? The first point is that we want people to have as much power as possible over their own lives. That means we dislike people being dependent on the state. It is here that we differ from the socialist left, who don’t mind if the public has a permanent client relationship to state agencies, as this creates a political constituency both amongst the dependents and the employees who serve them. Liberals should recognise that in a modern society the state must play a very big role – but we also need to push back on dependency. The state should fix problems so that demand for state services reduces.

The second point is that we believe that as far as possible state structures should be fully and democratically accountable to the people they serve. The state does not devolve power to citizens, but citizens delegate power to the various levels of government. This too is difficult in the modern world. Many problems are complex and must be solved at a national and international level – and the further up power is delegated, the weaker accountability becomes.

Have we delegated too much power to transnational bodies like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation – with the threat of more as part of a transatlantic trade deal? I don’t think so – these structures merely recognise the transnational nature of problems and the need to agree international standards and laws. Countries that opt out of these structures don’t seem conspicuously better off as a result. Is Australia, for example, really a better and happier place than Britain? Its recent economic success is as much down to the luck of geography and natural resources as anything else. Does having to dig up vast amounts of prime farmland to get at the coal beneath, while poisoning the great natural wonder of the Barrier Reef, really look like freedom?

No. I think the main problem is that we have delegated too much power to Westminster, and that the Westminster elite is protecting itself rather than solving the countries’ problems. It has created a series of administrative silos that perpetuate problems rather than solving them. To tackle this we need to do three things.

  1. Establish a federal system for United Kingdom, by creating a new English parliament and English government, based outside London, and taking to itself the same set of administrative responsibilities as the Scottish government has.
  2. Radically reform the way public services are commissioned to ensure that solving problems for their clients becomes their prime driving force. This will entail a radically increased role for locally accountable agencies.
  3. Reform the country’s tax system to follow this radical redistribution of responsibilities so that every level of government controls more of its own revenues – alongside a system of transfers to ensure a fair distribution of resources.

Each of these three depends on the others. Federalism is required to break up Westminster complacency; public services will only be properly remodelled if it is not controlled from Westminster; power cannot be decentralised unless tax is decentralised too. I will pick up each of these themes in future essays.




Scotland: the problem is English complacency

The temperature is steadily rising in the debate over Scottish independence on 18 September this year. Today the three main Westminster parties will say no to a currency union between an independent Scotland and rump Britain. Last week the UK Prime Minister David Cameron made an emotional appeal for the union. But still not enough searching questions are being asked by the English on what this all means for them.

At least Mr Cameron’s remarks were directed towards the English, though the British media ignored this and only sought reaction from Scottish politicians and voters. He urged the English to support the union and tell their Scottish contacts that they did not want them to go. Unlike Mr Cameron, I have no Scottish family heritage. But I love Scotland and, like him, feel that if it went its own way an important part of my national identity would be diminished. But if such sentiments are to cut any ice north of the border, we English have to ask some searching questions as to how it has come to all this.

The problem is that Mr Cameron’s (and my) feelings don’t seem to be shared by many of our fellow English. Many seem to have a rather sour attitude towards the Scots, who should be less hostile and more grateful. This is all of a piece with hostility towards the European Union. Many English want to blame foreigners for their problems, and to inhabit a world where the English can ignore them except to the extent that they provide beach holidays (not something that Scotland scores on…). This reveals a paradox at the heart of the English identity. We see ourselves as an island nation, who should be control of our own destiny. And yet any greatness that the nation has aspired to has been achieved by the country playing a full part in the wider world.

We might ponder this as we approach the centenary of the 1914-18 war. There was a definite view in 1914 that we should just let the “Continentals” fight it out amongst themselves. And yet most people understood that German domination of Europe would imply German domination of Britain too. And so this country played a full part in a European continental war for the first time since the days of Marlborough 300 years ago (if you discount the largely naval and economic contribution o the Napoleonic wars), with results that can be seen in war memorials in practically every village in the country.

What has this got to do with the Scots? The Scots have always shown a better understanding of their place in the wider world – a sensitivity that comes from being a smaller nation, no doubt. They have contributed to the British nation as a whole, and still do. Can a lesser Britain, without Scotland, aspire to be treated as equals with France and Germany? Or will we take our place with the next tier, Spain and Poland? Or just be lame duck major power like Italy? It would not just be a loss of resources that would diminish the country, but a loss of prestige.

And yet Scotland is a very different place to England, with a separate identity that far outweighs that of any region of England, and which is more coherent than that of other parts of the Union: Wales and Northern Ireland. (Even if some Scots nationalists exaggerate these differences and their own coherence). The English nevertheless have a tendency to treat the place as a simple extension of England. This was at its most egregious under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and 1990s, when she used Scotland to pilot her pet Poll Tax idea. This problem persists, as we see from the imposition of the Coalition government’s benefit reforms (aka benefit cuts), to which Scots feel they have not consented.

Devolution has not a stable answer to this tension, though it has helped. The problem is that it is not symmetrical. There is no equivalent devolution of power to England, which is run directly by the UK government. Scottish (and Welsh) politicians aspire to run parts of the English government, like health and education, and they are thus drawn into English domestic politics rather than their own. This simply feeds English confusion and resentment as well as diminishing Scottish and Welsh domestic politics.

A new constitutional settlement is needed for the United Kingdom. I have already described what I think this should be (Time to Think of England: an English government and parliament meeting somewhere other than London). It is depressing that such ideas are not getting an airing. The biggest threat to our union is English complacency and conservatism.



Time to think of England

This week it was St George’s Day, a time when we in England reflect on what it is to be English – a few of us do anyway, especially when St George himself was so un-English. There was also a small flair in the ongoing campaigning over Scottish independence, when the British government poured cold water on the idea of a currency union between an independent Scotland and the what is left of the UK (which would no longer be a united kingdom…). As I have written before, it is a conceit that there is a Scottish problem for the UK. The issue with Scotland is just an aspect of the English problem. England so dominates the union that governance of England and governance of the UK get confused. We need to look at remaking the constitutional arrangements for the whole UK if Scotland, as expected, decides to stay in the union at their referendum next year. But how?

At this point it is all to easy to craft elegant new constitutional solutions to solve the problem. Alas, that is not how the British constitution works. We are deeply conservative. Any proposed change throws up a series of opponents, who are able to stoke up fear of change. The AV referendum in 2011 was a very painful experience for people who thought that sensible constitutional reform, or even sensible debate about reform, was an easy matter. So where does that get us?

First there must be a crisis. Most people must think that the current situation is intolerable. The crisis is presented by the Scots. Of course, if they vote to stay in the union, most English politicians will want to think that it is an end to matter, and we can go on as before. I don’t think many Scots think this, though. Even holding the referendum is a shocking event, showing that consent for the current British constitution is breaking down. Most think that if they lose the referendum, the Scottish National Party (SNP) will respond by pressing for “Devo-Max”, which will then look like a sensible middle way. Devo-Max implies a much greater level of devolution to the Scottish Parliament, leaving the UK responsible for just defence and foreign affairs in some readings, like Gibraltar, perhaps. Why, then should Scottish MPs have so much say in who governs England? This question is an irritant now, but it would become a much bigger deal. We need to head this problem off with a new constitutional settlement for the whole of the UK.

Second, messing with the sacred sovereignty of the House of Commons is to be avoided. To some people, including me, this is pompous twaddle. A parliament’s fitness for purpose is not derived from history, but from what it actually does. The people should be sovereign. But the sheer weight of traditions and interests that centre on the Commons is not to be trifled with. This body needs to rule all of the UK. Restricting its scope to England, for example, and having a new Federal Assembly is going to get nowhere.  And after the AV fiasco, changing the electoral system is off the agenda too.

And thirdly, there needs to be something for everybody in any new settlement. Each of the three main British political parties, and their backers should see at least some benefits, to weigh against inevitable threats. There will not be a consensus, but any new proposal must have broad support from a cross a wide spectrum.

And so to the English problem. In order to balance out devolution to Scotland (and to Wales and Northern Ireland) there must be an equivalent devolution to England. To many the sensible thing to do would be to establish English regional governments, of the same sort of size as Scotland, to give an overall shape resembling Spain or Germany. Elegant an idea as this may look, though, it has no legs. Local traditions in England have been so hollowed out over the centuries, unlike in Germany or Spain, that there is little in the way of tradition to build on. The English administrative regions, used for things like elections to the European Parliament are mostly named after points of the compass. London and Yorkshire, may be viable, but it ends there. Either identities are too diverse (the Celtic Cornwall compared to the Saxon Devon, for example) or else there is very little identity at all (where does Northampton belong to?). Constitutional change is hard: this is too hard.

Which leaves us with an English Assembly. I used to dismiss this as a nonsense, but it is growing on me. This should have equivalent power to the Scottish Parliament, whatever those are. That means an English First Minister and cabinet, control of education and the NHS, and, surely, over large chunks of tax. The bold, but necessary, step is to say that the capital of England should not be in London. Having it in the same city as the UK capital will make its identity and authority harder to establish, especially since London has its own mayor, making the  layer of government very crowded. Moving the UK Parliament and the paraphernalia of government out of London is too much as well. Besides there is a real grievance in much of England that too much of the establishment is based in London. Where? Geography points to Birmingham or Coventry; others may have better ideas. An old and grand but under-utilised Victorian classical building would be good to use as a base. Building a brand new building is asking for trouble. Like the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, it should be elected under proportional representation (PR).

So what would be left in London? The House of Commons would stay, but needs to be shrunk. It probably doesn’t need more than a couple of hundred MPs, but no doubt a compromise of 400 or so would have to be settled on. It is difficult to get turkeys to vote for Christmas. The House of Lords should be reformed too, though it is tempting to let it collapse under its own absurdity after last year’s reform fiasco. The UK cabinet would be shrunk. The Treasury, Foreign Office and Defence would stay much as is, as would much of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. But others would need to be shrunk down.

So how to sell it? To those in the north of England or Midlands, breaking the Whitehall stranglehold would be an advantage. Frankly this is a big attraction to me, even in London. Even under PR, the Conservatives would have a good stab at dominating the English government. Both they and Labour would benefit from PR giving them a political base in large swathes of the country where they are in danger of extinction – as PR has saved the Tories in Scotland and Wales. The Lib Dems would benefit from PR too, though they might lose out badly in the bigger and redrawn constituencies for the House of Commons. This losing out of the Lib Dems might be an attraction to both Labour and Conservatives, though – they might feel that they have a better shot at an overall majority for the UK if minor parties would struggle in the larger constituencies. Such are the sorts of calculations upon which British politics turn.

Food for thought, anyway. The next step, though, is to start talking up the idea of a UK Constitutional Convention if the Scots vote to stay in the union. The idea of an English assembly does have opinion poll support, though no doubt iti s very soft. But in small steps the idea can grow momentum.