September 22, 2014
Winning the referendum on Scottish independence has thrown the British Establishment into a mighty tither. Only the Queen, whose mother was a Scot, emerges with dignity intact.
Not that things would have been very much calmer if the answer had been Yes rather than No. The fact is that without a written constitution to regulate referenda – their frequency, their threshold, and their mandate – the still United Kingdom (sUK) has no systematic method other than party politics to deal with constitutional change.
Reforms with profound consequences for the vitality of democracy and the efficacy of government to produce public goods are being made on the hoof, in a haphazard and even irresponsible way. There is no precedent for a Convention, at least in England. A simple majority vote in the House of Commons, with no threshold, is deemed sufficient to tamper with the constitution.
So it is to this partisan muddle that the country must now look for constitutional reform. As none of Britain’s seven political parties are in favour of doing nothing with the constitution, we must conclude that the status quo is not an option.
One need not be optimistic. Even Tony Blair’s reformist government with a large Commons’ majority managed few constitutional reforms: the removal of a number of aristocrats from the House of Lords; the creation of parliaments with limited legislative and budgetary powers in Edinburgh and in Cardiff; the election of two fairly eccentric Mayors of London; and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. The coalition government since 2010 has failed on almost all counts: a botched referendum on a non-proportional electoral system for the Commons; a failed reform Bill for the House of Lords; and, worst of all, an EU Act in 2011 whose main effect is to impose a referendum on the hapless public about continued membership of the EU, possibly as soon as 2017.
The flight to referenda is the desperate recourse of political parties having lost the will or capacity to face up to informed and decisive debate at Westminster. Populism, however, is no guarantee of democratic legitimacy, as Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (and many others) could aver. Plebiscites are good at shaking up the established order but seldom of any use whatsoever in settling complex constitutional issues.
There was no more futile claim made by either side in the Scotland campaign than their insistence that the vote last Thursday was the final decision about Scotland’s membership of the UK. As early as Friday, after losing by 45% to 55%, Alex Salmond, the Scottish Nationalist leader, was talking seductively of the prospect of another future referendum. Even David Cameron spoke of having only settled the matter ‘in this generation’. It certainly cannot be ignored that Glasgow, once the second city of the British Empire, has voted to leave the United Kingdom. Twitter had soon converted the Better Together slogan of the ‘No thanks’ campaign to Bitter Together. Salmond and his likely successor Nicola Sturgeon pointedly missed a service of reconciliation in Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral. I guess a generation in politics is about one decade long.
Cameron might have seen off Salmond, who resigned later that same day, but he has not satisfied that (large) part of his own Tory party which now marches to the beat of UKIP’s drum. The Prime Minister’s proposal immediately to exclude Scottish MPs from voting on ‘English’ matters at Westminster hardly smacked of magnanimity in victory. It is a wonderful conceit shared by many in London that a change in the rules of procedure of the Commons amounts to radical and durable constitutional reform.
It is interesting to consider the future of the UK in the light of what has happened in Belgium. Belgium’s national problem is not identical to Britain’s, of course, and is complicated by a sectarian language issue that does not affect Anglo-Scottish relations. But Belgium’s answer has been, over the years, to install and then tweak a federal system of government under a constitutional monarch who is a Saxe-Coburg-Gotha cousin of Queen Elisabeth II. Today, Belgium’s federated kingdom serves to accommodate the jealousies of its component regions and the competing claims of its political parties. What dominates the media day-by-day in Belgium is not so much the confrontation between Flanders and Wallonia but the politics and the politicians of the country’s big cities: Ghent, Antwerp, Liege, Charleroi and Brussels. Decentralisation in Belgium is the mundane political, economic and social reality. It is a bit costly and surely complex, and nobody fools themselves that the national problem is ‘settled’ for good.
There are lessons to be learned here for the UK. When self-government was invented in Flanders under Spanish tutelage, the English and the Scots sat up and took notice. They should do so again. Britain is not Belgium, but it is quite Belgian in needing to become a more sophisticated democracy.
The first lesson is to revive the federal idea in Britain. A system in which each level of government is coordinate with each other but none is hegemonic seems to be a rational starting point. Federal law has primacy, as indeed does EU law, but checks and balances preserve harmony. The dominance of England, being so big, must be catered for by its sensible partition into large regions. London is already a powerful city-state. Four regions in the rest of country would work well as functional polities: the South East and East Anglia, the South West, the Midlands, and the North. Within these regions, once-powerful municipalities, the engines of economic growth, should be restored to their former glory. A decentralised NHS could scarcely do worse than the current behemoth. Whitehall should be stripped of its omnipotence in education. Autonomous local government, with assets at its disposal, would compete healthily for investment.
The federal solution is above all a pragmatic one. The House of Lords would do well adapted as a federal chamber. The rehabilitation of federalist thought might make the Brits understand Europe a little bit more. And a federal United Kingdom, with Home Rule for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland alongside powerful self-confident English city-states, might prove to be a more convincing basis for the future of the European Union than the old, creaking nation state. Worth a try. Suck it and see, in the best British tradition of constitution mongering.
Andrew Duff is a former local government Councillor and Member of the European Parliament. He is a federalist and a Liberal.