Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Federalism in the UK?: the Flexible Constitution warped

The referendum in Scotland was a great example of democracy, with high levels of engagement over a fundamental issue dealt with peacefully (though I suspect that if the result had been a Yes for independence, the negotiations for separation would have been less civil). The morning after the result, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that Scotland would get the extra powers the pro-Union parties promised, but that devolutionary measures for England would have to be brought in in tandem. Linking the two means that great constitutional change has to be brought about in the UK before the next election, which is a mind-boggling task.

Given the short time frame, the Conservatives were quick to promote their idea of "English votes for English laws". Since the Scottish Parliament will have wide powers on most domestic matters, such as health and education, the argument is that Scottish MPs in the UK Parliament should not be allowed to vote on draft laws that only affect England. It's a neat idea as, the Tories argue, it can be brought in quickly and without the need for more politicians, as the English members of the current UK Parliament can simply sit as the English Parliament for a day or two each week. However, the Labour Party, traditionally strong in Scotland, is suspicious that this is simply a plan to rob the Labour Party of a workable majority after the next general election if it wins by essentially disqualifying their Scottish MPs (the Conservatives are a very minor party in Scotland).

It's not just the worrying party-political nature of the proposal that's concerning, but there are other problems that carving a part-time English Parliament out of the UK Parliament would have.

First of all, it causes a problem with how the government is to be formed, since ministers are generally drawn from MPs (some ministers are brought into Parliament by being made Life Peers who sit in the unelected House of Lords). If the ministers of Education and Health work on an England-only basis, then there will be pressure for those ministers to only be drawn from English MPs. And these ministers would be accountable to the English Parliament within the UK Parliament, while other ministers would be responsible to the UK Parliament as a whole. There would need to be a "double majority" of English and UK-wide MPs to form a stable government. It seems odd that a Tory party that largely opposed the Alternative Vote on the grounds that First Past the Post produces (generally) stable governments, now want to introduce a divided government with loyalties to a divided Parliament.

It's not just that it would complicate the government, but that no real thought has gone into the powers and policies that need to be looked at from a UK-wide and a national or regional level. The NHS - the National Health Service - is supposed to be a UK-wide institution, and as England makes up the vast majority of the population and spending power within this, English decisions would have a bigger impact on the other parts of the UK without the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish having much of a say. If certain policy decisions on health were located at national and UK level this would be less of a problem, but it's a tougher question for taxation and spending if there isn't a divide between different pots of money (UK and English), which would cause plenty of government divides and tensions in itself. (Just as people have drawn parallels between the unionist case for Scotland staying in the UK and the UK's in-or-out debate on the EU, maybe we'll see some more being drawn if and when it's argued that the Eurzone MEPs should be the only ones permitted to vote on Eurozone matters).

Ironically for a proposal supposedly designed to strengthen the union by giving the English more powers, having a UK Parliament where large parts of the UK government are English-only would be a great symbol of English dominance within the union that won't help its image in the Celtic nations. Surely for devolution - or a federal arrangement - to work and really mean something, there should be a Union Parliament and government at one level, and state governments below it, with a thought-out division of responsibilities and powers?

Sadly in comparison to the Scottish referendum, little debate engaging civil society is taking place as Westminster MPs try to rush this to their Scottish timetable (to get Scottish devolution measures passed before the general election in May). Would the simple division of MPs into English MPs and the rest actually mean much more democracy for England? Hardly. There is no opportunity to explore the idea of English regions as states, empowering, say Yorkshire (which is about the same population size as Scotland), to make its owns decisions and rebalancing England as a whole away from the over-dominant South East and London. Regional parliaments may not be a hot topic in England at the moment, but the fact that there is no debate or discussion over it at all when English devolution is supposedly the topic is damning in itself.

The British constitution's strength is said to be its flexibility. Unfortunately this is a clear example of how such flexibility works in practice: (part of) the Westminster elite spots a potential constitutional issue, tries to quickly turn it to its advantage and shape reform according to its own interests, while closing out proper public debate. It's hard to see how this can result in good decision-making, never mind good constitutional reform, for either England or the whole UK - and harder to imagine that these decisions are really being taken in the best interests of the citizens in whose name they are being made.

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