“Nor do the English seem to want any kind of devolution for themselves”. Thus does this week’s Economist dismiss any chance of far-reaching constitutional reform for England and the UK as a whole. It offers a couple of tepid ideas as “promising” ways forward to relieve the tension. A committee of English MPs to vet legislation in parliament; devolving more powers to city regions in England. An English parliament or giving English regions equivalent powers to those mooted for Scotland, if it votes No, are dismissed as too difficult, in the absence of a serious clamour from the voters. I have every reason to believe that the thinking expressed in this article is typical of Westminster politicians in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. If something doesn’t feature amongst the top issues that voters highlight as concerns to pollsters, it’s not worth worrying about.
This, of course, is exactly the type of short-term thinking that got them into a mess with Scotland – which may very well vote to separate from the UK this week. The politicians checked the opinion polls, and there didn’t seem to be too much to worry about. They did not have the imagination to see that the separatists would cash in on the national disillusionment with politics. They cannot understand that the current national mood gives politics an inherent instability that the normal polling will not help them with. As the public yearns for leadership, all they get is followership.
It reminds me of those doomed companies, who once ruled their world, and who thought that product development was a matter of following market research. Nokia, Blackberry or Kodak, for example (there are plenty of non high tech examples – but it is difficult even to recall their names now). Like these doomed businesses Westminster politicians (and their many hangers on) do not want to do anything that might upset their existing ecosystem too much. Or to put the business parallel in better perspective, if Apple had followed market research, it would never have invented the iPod or the iPhone. Or IBM had to pull its existing business apart in order to survive and prosper as the world changed. Unfortunately the professionalization of politics does not make politicians immune from the same sort of progressive entombment that overcomes big businesses from time to time. There are times when it pays to be visionary and move ahead of public opinion.
Britain is lurching from one constitutional crisis to another. If it isn’t Scotland leaving the Union, it will be the UK leaving the EU. Quite possibly it will be both. The Westminster machine is quite likely to get bogged down in years of negotiation to unpick highly complex constitutional, financial and trading arrangements, which will advance solutions to the substantive problems of the economy, public services and national security not at all. By avoiding proper constitutional reform because voters don’t mention it to pollsters, they may in fact find their lives dominated by constitutional problems as a result of referendums conceded too easily.
Britain needs a new constitutional settlement to distribute political power to its most appropriate level. This means more than devolution. The word conjures the picture of a superior power throwing scraps to the lower orders. We should think of power residing with the people, and delegated upwards to the most appropriate level – and not devolved downwards. When a US city wants to build a metro system, it just goes ahead and does it, subject only to its power to raise taxes, fees and loans. If a British city tries, it has to grovel to several central government departments for permission, with the all-powerful Treasury liable to squash the whole thing with a shrug. Westminster is prepared to tweak this system a bit, but not to change the balance of power fundamentally. When they do offer concessions for devolution, these are so feeble that they fail to command popular support.
It is time to stop the sleepwalking, and for our leaders to wake up and see what is happening to our beloved country. The English may not be agitating for constitutional reform, but if they don’t get it the country will progressively come apart.