Following the Scottish Referendum result, the maelstrom of voices and views reflects the huge opportunity that it presents the UK. And going straight from the Scottish referendum into the conference season should enable the main political parties to at least be clear where they stand. Despite an already crowded stage, I would like to add my views because I think there are some options and implications that have not been aired yet.
One of the big problems with the referendum was always that it offered the ‘Yes’ vote as the only positive change, as Neil Ascherson observed in Prospect in July. At least up until a few weeks ago, ‘No’ was status quo. And now we have promises not just of Scottish devolution, but of a solution to the West Lothian question by January. Clearly there is a real need to honour the promises that have been made to Scotland, however there is a real risk that the solutions for England could be a sticking plaster which fails to address the fundamentals. So this post focuses on the ‘English question’ and why there should be fundamental but not rushed change.
I agree with Vernon Bogdanor’s Evening Standard article of 19th September. He says that there are significant problems and dangers in the proposed ‘English votes for English Laws’ in the current framework because this will in effect introduce two administrations, depending on the kind of vote. However, the introduction of an English Parliament beneath the UK Government would risk simply replicating a centralised and siloed government, probably with an even more byzantine arrangement for the civil service. No one yet has started to discuss how the government departments would be arranged in such a settlement, for example. So whatever happens, devolution should not seek to develop some form of fudge or reflect the states as each being mini-versions of the Westminster model.
I believe we can do better than the proposals made in the run-up to the referendum vote and the immediate aftermath. Any immediate solution on parliamentary voting should be temporary and secondary to the task of facing up to the fundamental change that is needed.
We are a collection of islands who are bound together by geography and history, with a lot to be proud of and some lessons to be learnt from the less admirable aspects. How do we ensure that we assign sovereignty appropriately so that all our countries are able to act as modern states in the 21st century? How do we do so in a way which engages people in our common future? What is valuable that we need to keep? As a key example, what exactly will the ‘N’ in NHS mean?
The option of devolution to a system based around London and the core cities would also carry considerable risks if it becomes an exercise which bolts-on powers without thinking through the systemic change that is needed. I love London and have lived here almost all my adult life. It is vibrant and diverse in every possible way and much of its strength comes from the fact that its foundations are built on a network of smaller settlements, as with many of England’s cities. I admire the Greater Manchester initiative, which has managed to draw together key players into a strong strategic whole and now looks to English devolution for its next steps. And like Sir Bob Kerslake, I wonder if Birmingham, a really interesting city, is too monolithic and needs to be reframed in some way. So whilst I am a huge fan of devolution, all three examples leave me certain that we need to resolve the question of responsibilities, of citizens, communities, cities and regions, before the reallocation of powers.
The UK greatest potential is contained in its networked nature, and the same can be said of the best cities and counties. What is needed is therefore a structure which does not just chunk up centralised power and devolve it. New arrangements for England, a mayoral model for Manchester or extensions of the role of the Mayor of London are potentially very good options, provided the underlying framework for the whole UK is a federal one that develops networked strengths without losing drive and accountability.
My second concern relates to the assumptions being made about who will do what to ‘fix’ the current constitutional questions. I am certain that any proposals should be a core part of the 2015 election campaign, but the idea that the government will rush through solutions by January is worrying. Much has been made over recent years of the declining role of MPs, here is an opportunity to really engage them in setting out a meaningful role for parliament. At present it seems that the Cabinet and Whitehall will propose any legislative change and Parliament will decide on it. I think this is one for Parliament to work through after the 2015 general election. That election should be focused on what sort of country/countries we want to be and what that means in constitutional terms, based on constituency discussions with the public by the prospective candidates.
Obviously the mechanism to assess such proposals would take a long time to set up and put in motion. Or it would do if there was not already one in place that has been working on this issue. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, chaired by Graham Allen MP, has been working on this very issue for years and is currently out to consultation on the codification of the UK constitution, with a deadline of 1st January 2015. The day after the referendum result, the committee announced an inquiry into devolution after the referendum, which should be actively supported by all those bodies with an interest creating a workable 21st century settlement for the UK. The Committee rightly points to next year’s 800th Anniversary of King John’s acceptance of Magna Carta in 1215. This was not proposed by him, it was drawn up by the Barons. In this tradition, the future of the UK should not be proposed by Westminster, but be a debate that is carried round the country and proposed by Parliament.
I am struck by the confident nature of government at all levels in other countries, and the way in which they have accommodated change. Denmark, for example, went through a whole national reorganisation as late as 2007. Others have much more long-established constitutional settlements, many put in place after the Second World War. Our system assumes devolution of power, in some form from the Crown downwards. Their constitutions mainly set out responsibilities in the different levels or spheres of government. These distinctions determine the culture of politics and the attitudes of officials and determine public engagement. We therefore need to think carefully what will help us all meet the challenges of the future, not what will be expedient for the present.
Hitherto, or at least in the last few centuries, the UK has escaped many of the forces that would have precipitated fundamental constitutional change. Power has moved to the centre nationally in Scotland and Wales as much as in the UK as a whole. And the tendency at the local level has been towards larger bodies, often failing adequately to devolve power at the community level. So I would be very wary of agglomeration for example of ‘super boroughs’ or the creation of more unitary counties, without careful consideration of the strengths of local community identity.
Outside London, up until the creation of the combined local authorities England has missed out on the opportunity to determine strategic infrastructure at the right level. We see ourselves as a major democracy, but are complacent about the lack of public engagement and then are surprised at the fantastic turnout in Scotland over something that really matters. The 2015 election should become the fulcrum of national debate. The 2015-2020 government should mobilise the UK Parliament and work with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, councils and all forms of government at the local level. The result should be a discussion and agreement with the public to ensure that decision making occurs appropriately at the right level and to frame the UK as a networked federation of proud modern countries.