Corporeal on constitutional reform

Corporeal on constitutional reform

If there’s a consistent tradition in British constitutional reform, it’s a philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (and usually to make the fix a patch up of the specific problem, or what Toby Fenwick dubbed an ‘inelegant fudge’). If you wanted to squeeze it into a metaphor (always fun) then it is a long-standing mansion. Ancient in parts, with extensions and alterations added through the years.

Bits have been built, rebuilt, done up knocked down, expanded, downsized, redecorated and re-purposed as the needs of the inhabitants have changed. But the traces of history are plain to see, and how some things are only makes sense if you realise where they came from. A group of Americans may have gone from a blank sheet of parchment to blueprint of government within months (which has of course been revised since), but perhaps modern politicians might envy them the clarity of their starting point.

Reform has usually been a response to a crisis rather than the result of a peacetime re-evaluation of theoretical principles. One of the problems of the Yes to AV campaign was that it was a solution that didn’t have a problem that was really resonating on any great level. Elections to the House of Lords show generally positive polling but there isn’t exactly a clamour for it to be on the immediate agenda (it’ll be interesting to see if what might well be an even more disproportionate result in GE2015 will change that at all).

I tentatively subtitled this post the obligatory devolution thread (since everyone else has one, and got quite attached to “Devolution – keeping up with the McJoneses”), we might actually have a constitutional crisis in a deeper sense than dramatic headlines. Calls of English votes for English laws are starting to rumble in the shires (in the interest of full disclosure this is a wild bit of figurative language to refer to England rather than a study of regional sub-samples). This is not primarily driven by a principle of whether MPs should vote on things that don’t directly affect their constituency, which falls apart (or rather spreads to the horizon) as soon as you open it up. It’s an inevitable result of the current electoral system of small FPTP constituencies. Inner-city MPs vote on rural policy, MPs that represent constituencies many miles from the sea have their voice heard on coastal matters. Such is the way of things.

The force behind the West Lothian question is not that political principle, but a sense of injustice and inequality. After being subjected to a loud debate on the need for more powers for Scotland (with a much quieter bit of background music about Wales) there is a feeling of a left behind and overlooked England, similar to the feelings that drove devolution in the first place.

The traditional strategy has been to fix each problem as it comes or, if you feel more charitable, to tailor the solution to those it will affect. What is the point, after all, of looking to empower people through devolution if they oppose the form it takes. So the various parts of the UK have had power devolved in different ways and at different paces. This is true in terms of Wales and Scotland, but also London and the areas that voted yes to directly elected mayors. Cornwall has attempted to tunnel upwards to devolution via a unified Cornwall Council. Northern Ireland operates almost in its own context. But with each tailored solution you increase the uneven and untidy nature of the overall picture.

The planned Labour solution to the growing disparity was regional assemblies across England, resulting in some at least vaguely uniform sized set-ups alongside the Celtic Nations. A heavy defeat in the North East referendum stopped that plan in its tracks, alongside plans for two further referendums. One wonders what would’ve happened if a successful referendum in another region had happened first, would things have turned out the same or like elected mayors would we have had some regions claiming devolutionary power while others rejecting it?

What this would have given us is an extension of what Westminster now is which is a sort of government of the gaps, a polyfilla parliament filling in the unevenly shaped places between the powers that have departed to Brussels, Edinburgh, etc (although that image probably understates Westminster’s level of power somewhat).

For that matter was the North East defeat an opposition to devolution altogether, regional devolution itself, or just the particular form that the assembly was proposed to take. Referendum results always come in such a vaguely specific form that they leave a lot of gaps to interpret them.

Is the rejection of one region sufficient to kill the entire scheme for a generation? Will we hold other schemes to the same standard?

That leaves space for the resurrection of regional assemblies which has been floated in some quarters, a solution that prizes tidiness over tailoring, and political preferences over popular will (well, maybe, depending how you interpret those results).

On a grander scale an English parliament to sit alongside the other national bodies has some apparent symmetry to it. But the sheer size and dominance of England within the UK creates the potential for other conflicts. With significant issues devolved an English parliament would rise to be a competitor to the UK parliament, and have a potentially destabilising dominance over what remains of the Union.

Is more politicians something you can sell to the public, the infographics of “this could pay for…” pretty much write themselves. Abolish the Lords, reduce the number of MPs (that’ll be a fun vote), could we be ready for the Great Constitutional Convention (fulfilling the dreams of wonks) called for by Miliband and Clegg (after the election of course) and once and for all (until something else crops up) line up a clear vision of government in Britain from parish hall to palace of Westminster.

Or we could, you know, work through a few options to restrict voting rights at various stages of a bill in the House of Commons, overlook having various different classes of MPs (and depending on how hard or soft you want to make the restrictions this could lead to a lesser version of the conflicts an English parliament would have, alongside the technical decisions of what each could vote on, and who makes those decisions). Tweak your way around problems as they come.

This is because ultimately the importance to people is not the technicalities of comparative devolution, it is once more a matter of identity politics combined with a feeling of unfairness and a sense that something must be done. The force of there being a problem is there, now politicians will try to ride that into their something being its outlet.

So, anyone for fudge?


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