Sunday, March 29, 2015

Clock changing

Yes it's the twice annual debate about clocks changing. These days more and more equipment does it automatically and it may not be that long before the primary mechanics of the changeover are completely hassle free. The secondary ones, such as how to cut an hour out of long train journeys, may not be so easy to solve.

But am I the only one for whom it rather crept up this year and was expecting it to be next weekend? If there weren't already so many bank holidays at this time of year then "Clock Changing Day" might be an idea for adjustment. Of course it wouldn't actually be on the days clocks change.

And yes there's the debate about whether we should have GMT+1 in winter or switch to Central European Time all year round. But I wish people would remember the effect varies as one goes further west and/or north. It's very easy for someone who lives just and the south and just east of the Greenwich Meridian to overlook just when dawn will come in the rest of these islands. And much of the debate in the UK overlooks that we have shared time with Ireland since the late 1940s, changing at the same time and both taking part in the all year GMT+1 experiment in 1968-1971.

All points to ponder...

Saturday, January 31, 2015

"No junk mail" means "No junk mail" but "junk mail" means "junk mail"

With the general election coming this year there's going to be a lot of leaflets flying about. And they often generate complaints about delivery... in both directions.

Activists in all political parties I've spoken to report the same things - people complaining about receiving political leaflets when they have a sign up saying "No junk mail" but also people complaining about not receiving them when they have such a sign up. This is because of what the term does and doesn't cover.

To cut to the chase the term "junk mail" covers unsolicited commercial material but not non-commercial political communications. As a result many homes that have clear signs up that say "No junk mail" also have signs saying "No leaflets" or "No circulars" or "No unaddressed mail" or "Posted mail only" or "Royal Mail only" or some such. This covers political leaflets in a way that "No junk mail" doesn't.

Consequently most deliverers will post political leaflets through letterboxes that have signs that say "No junk mail" because they're not "junk mail". If a person does not wish to receive them they will need a sign that covers them.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Referendum problems

Okay let's get the easy one out of the way first. The plural is "referendums". Not ~a. I won't take up this post with the rationale (but see the very end for a bit).

The more complicated problems stem from their haphazard use in this country, with the result that we now have a mixture of precedents and popular decisions. Exactly what has been rejected beyond the specific measure on the ballot paper is often disputed and that brings up the question of what would be ignoring the will of the people or subjecting them to a neverendum until they "get it right". And some of these decisions covered only specific nations, regions or cities so are they binding on the rest?

In general a referendum is assumed to settle a political question for some period longer than a single parliament or council term. Of course one can find examples internationally of the same question being brought back almost immediately and rather more cases of losing sides declining to give up the cause. And there are countries where the political culture is such that a second referendum is actually expected if the measure is initially defeated, allowing the first vote to be used as a chance to protest some of the detail rather than an outright rejection. Legislation (and constitutions) only sometimes addresses this matter. More usually it's left to political will.

(In another post I'll detail what we have and haven't voted for on constitutional matters over the years and ask just how far that stretches.)

And if a referendum is going to formally settle a matter for a long time then there's the question of just what should be an acceptable threshold for enacting a change. It's fashionable to decry super majorities. turnout thresholds, total electorate requirements and multiple sectional consents as undemocratic, but is democracy really served well by measures passing on tiny turnouts? With some referendums and elections attracting turnouts in the teens or below, the prospect of just 5% of an electorate deciding a matter is not unrealistic. Is that really "democratic"?

The UK's mixed history of using referendums has thrown up a lot of anomalies. We've had them for a number of differing reasons including:
  • A desire to transfer the decision making to a local level to get out of the issue altogether.
  • A way for a national government to duck a divisive issue that splits the party or parties.
  • A way for a government to lock in constitutional change by getting a direct mandate from the people, making it harder for a different party to undo in government.
  • A way for opponents of a measure to put a populist roadblock in the way of a change.
  • A way to demonstrate to the international community that the constitutional situation has popular support.
  • The broad principle that a change in the distribution of political power should be decided by the people not by the politicians.
The last one is often appealed in calls for referendums but is rarely the reason we actually get them - whether we have a vote or not is decided by politicians in the first place.

Because of these varying reasons the thresholds for referendums to pass have also varied. In general if the prospective "Yes"/"Change" campaign is in control of setting the rules then all that's needed is 50%+1 of any turnout whatsoever. When the rules are controlled by the less enthusiastic or opponents then additional thresholds can come up. The old Scottish local prohibition referendums had complex requirements of super majorities and minimum support amongst the total electorate in order to enact prohibition. More notoriously the 1979 devolution referendums required a minimum of 40% of the total electorate to vote yes for the measure to pass. It's a surprise that council tax increase referendums do not come with any special threshold.

Because most recent referendums have had no additional thresholds it may be hard to consider them now. (That said I note the SNP are now calling for an EU withdrawal referendum to pass in all four parts of the UK to be valid.) But with turnouts in serious decline and ever more calls for public votes that could mean more stuff passing over the heads of the population. Even publicity is not a given. The myth of the obsessed citizen who always knows which noticeboard to consult and who is always aware of every vote and planning measure going is not one that matches the reality.

And in this great wave of calls to think again about how we do things, why should we be bound by past precedents? We should be able to consider this one carefully in a way that can empower the electorate without forcing them to have to turnout all the time to block measures they don't care for.

But there is a major problem that can't easily be overcome and that's different results in different areas. Can individual nations and regions rewrite the make-up of the UK without reference to others? An individual city may not want a Mayor but should it have a say in whether or not its rivals can get an advantage from a champion. Can only some parts of England have devolution or will it be an all or nothing offer?

All questions to ponder...

(So why is it "referendums" not ~a? The only necessary answer is very simple - loan-words absorbed into the English language take English language rules and people do not need to be familiar with the origin of a word and the rules of the original language in order to use it. We do not talk of "apparatchiki" or "octopodes" or "kindergärten". There is no good reason for making an exception for Latin.

And although it's irrelevant to the plural, those who argue for the original Latin usually get it wrong anyway. Latin has lot of "cases" and "declensions" and other terms that hardly anyone can remember and which even my spell check doesn't recognise, meaning the word has different endings depending on the circumstances. But the advocates for "Latin plurals" put forward a single plural in all circumstances. That's bad Latin even before it gets to English.

Turning back to "referendum", this doesn't even have a plural in Latin. The word means "referring". Using ~a would mean a multi-issue referendum, but almost nobody uses the word in such a narrow context.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gough Whitlam 1916-2014

Gough Whitlam is probably the most intensely studied of all Australian Prime Ministers, not just in his home country but around the world. In just three years he brought sweeping changes to Australia, whether in education, health, foreign affairs, relations with indigenous Australians, the government of the Northern Territory and so much more. Even the Queen's title was changed to be more Australian.

It is in constitutional affairs that Whitlam attracts much global attention. Literally from its very first moment to its very last his government saw precedents broken and argument ensued. Rather than wait the customary period to assemble a full ministry and take office, he instead had himself and his deputy sworn into no less than twenty-seven different posts just a few days after winning the 1972 election in order to hit the ground running and immediately start implementing the government's agenda. Over the next few years more precedents would be broken and the two sides of Australian politics would fiercely argue over what practices were fundamental constitutional conventions and which were optional agreements to be set aside as and when.

Throughout its three year life the Whitlam government struggled with a hostile majority in the Senate. More legislation was blocked in three years than in the entire preceding seventy-two years of the Australian federation. Not even a "double dissolution" - a full election of all seats in both houses - resolved the gridlock beyond a few individual bills being passed (though they included the introduction of universal health care). How casual Senate vacancies were filled became another battleground with both sides crying foul about particular vacancies in Queensland. And then the Senate obstructed Supply, leading to Whitlam's dramatic dismissal by the Governor General Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975. (The above picture is of Kerr's Private Secretary, David Smith, reading out the proclamation of the dissolution of Parliament in less than ideal circumstances with Whitlam literally glaring over his shoulder.)

Beyond the personalities and the use of the reserve powers of the Governor General, the Dismissal was a struggle over competing visions of how parliamentary democracy works in an elected bicameral system. It was more than just a dispute over the specific issue of both houses having powers over supply - the Senate was blocking much other legislation as well - and went to the heart of democracy and mandates. Did a government with a solid majority in the House of Representatives have the right to govern or did the Senate have the right to veto bring it down? Which democratically elected body was more democratically elected? Was it right for an upper house to demand an early election just because the political wind was blowing the opposition's way? Those considering elections for the British House of Lords would do well to look at the struggle between the Senate and House of Representatives in the Whitlam era to see how conventions are not enough to prevent check & balance powers being used for naked partisan aims.

The disputes about 1975 will last forever. Whitlam is probably arguing about it with Kerr right now. On this mortal coil we must look to see how these messes can be avoided.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

What is the Westminster Parliament?

I'm sure some of you have rather blunt answers.

But the question of just what Westminster is lies at the heart of much of the debate about devolution and non-devolution. And the answer affects proposals for tackling the problems caused by devolution.

This applies as much to the House of Lords as much as the House of Commons. The Lords rarely gets a look-in when it comes to the West Lothian Question but if anything it presents even more challenges than the Commons. (And simply waiting for Lords reform is an unrealistic solution; besides some of the proposed alternatives present the same problems.)

Fundamentally the question boils down to whether the Westminster Parliament and Government are there to serve:
  • The United Kingdom as a whole albeit with various different packages of law making and services sub-contracted out for certain parts of the country?
Or
  • The United Kingdom as a "federal" entity plus England as a "state" entity all mixed in together with various other bits that are devolved to some but not all nations?
The answer is probably, in that typical British fashion, somewhere between the two without much thought as to precisely which. But we now have a greater focus upon the anomalies. And without consensus on what we have at the moment it's hard to obtain consensus on whether change is needed and if so what to.

At present Westminster largely operates as a UK entity. It is much harder to surgically extract "English-only matters" than many cries suggest. Taxation is a UK-wide matter. Most government departments combine UK and English elements - for instance the Department of Health runs the English NHS but also does UK-wide work such as negotiations on international reciprocal use agreements. And the Barnett Formula that determines the funding for the devolved nations is based on spending in England. It would take a major overhaul of how Westminster is structured before one could start restricting the voting rights of some MPs.

There's also the basis that MPs are supposed to serve the whole country, not just their own constituency. This makes every single one of the 650 MPs "our MP", not just the one elected in the local constituency. This is even starker in the House of Lords where peers do not have constituencies and it's impossible to filter out any except perhaps the Bishops.

(And although you could assign the Bishops as "English" it would get messier to divide them up by regions. Only five sees have permanent places in the Lords and the other twenty-one are the most senior representing the Church of England as a whole rather than their individual dioceses. Plus many dioceses cross regional and local government boundaries.)

I'll just add that this part of the problem doesn't necessarily go away with Lords reform. A number of proposals for both appointed and elected upper houses include UK-wide members, whether appointed by Westminster or elected by some of the PR systems.

Now one could undertake a major restructuring within Westminster. But whilst that would make it easier to determine what is and isn't an "English-only matter" it would not address the basic problem of having different majorities on different matters. Could Westminster actually function if conflicting majorities within a single chamber start voting in direct contradiction? Could a minister with a joint English and UK ministry find themselves appointed by one majority and then immediately no confidenced by the other? If a separate English executive was elected by the English-only MPs (let's just leave for now the question of matters devolved to Scotland but not Wales) then you could get the First Minister of England serving also as the Leader of the Opposition of the United Kingdom. Conflict could reign supreme and non-English MPs could get shut out of contention for leadership roles.

What sounds like a simple elegant solution brings a whole minefield of problems with no easy resolution. A more lasting solution must leave each body with a single function, even if some asymmetrical arrangements have to be put in place.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How to make changes last?

No country benefits from having its constitutional affairs in flux. Uncertainty breeds instability which can lead to economic difficulties and social unrest. The approach must always be "Get it right, not get it first". And the outcome should be something that will last well beyond the next change of power.

But how to get change agreed and enacted can be harder than it seems. It is never possible to get everyone to agree 100%. There will always be cries of "what about...?" There is a risk that parties or groups will boycott the process and then spend years trying to undermine the outcome. Opinions can change. And so forth.

It's also critical to get public support for the process and outcomes - and that's the public at large not just the chattering classes of the left or the right. And this needs to be done in synthesis with the political classes - the system is there to represent and serve the public at large but those who have to operate it have to be comfortable to enable it to work.

Scotland's Constitutional Convention was an example of how things can work well and badly. It brought together parties and civic society to openly discuss the details of outcomes. It operated in public. It sought consensus rather than simple majorities. But it lacked input from outside Scotland and opened up problems in the process, both with the West Lothian Question but also because elements of the proposed Scottish Parliament were then copied wholesale for other parts of the United Kingdom. And two significant parties boycotted the Convention - the Conservatives and the Scottish National Party - so had no buy-in to the outcome.

A constitutional convention for the whole United Kingdom could address the basic questions of how to devolve power, how to grant equity to each part of the country and how to manage relations between areas. That could come up with a broad scheme that could be offered to the country. But it would need buy in by multiple players to be effective.

But then how to make it popular and lasting? Referendums are now an established part of our political system. Whatever their merits as a means to legislate they are the right tool to redistribute political power. If the public are to trust politicians again, the politicians must first demonstrate trust in the public.

Inevitably there will be problems along the way. There will be those complaining that the European Union, the monarchy, the House of Commons voting system, direct democracy or any number of other matters aren't being discussed. But you can't overload a convention to the point where nothing gets decided. Then there are the past referendums. To some voters it may seem as though they're being asked to vote again on something already decided in this generation. There are mixed mandates on devolution in England and a settlement will have to navigate these.

But at a broader level there are some basic questions to be grappled with. Including deciding just what the Westminster Parliament is...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Time for a constitutional convention?

Traditionally we've not bothered with form and consistency in this country. Our governance has been riddled with inconsistencies and anomalies. Sometimes they've even come in a single package - for instance when the Greater London Council was created, rather than take sides on removing education from the control of the outer boroughs or expanding it to the inner ones, the compromise was created whereby it was a borough matter in Outer London but in Inner London it was a GLC matter albeit subcontracted to a committee consisting of only the Inner London members. (When the Mayor of London and Greater London Authority were set up there was the question of how to devolve scrutiny of the Metropolitan Police, as their Area wasn't coterminous with Greater London. Initially the solution was to be a joint committee of London Assembly Members and relevant Home Counties MPs but the MPA boundary was realigned.)

And we do things piecemeal rather than as a whole. Local government in England is a bewildering patchwork, with different configurations of powers and election cycles that confuse even hardcore political anoraks. We bemoan low turnouts but how can voters grasp what the elections mean and when they'll take place when even the political classes are confused?

A similar approach was taken with devolution. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have different arrangements. England has nothing meaningful (to most voters a Mayor is a piece of local government not regional and the London Assembly invisible). Anomalies abound everywhere. And it's no longer possible to close some of Pandora's Boxes.

It's not just devolution. In many areas discussion is not joined up. Look at the House of Lords where debate is all about how members are selected and not about what they will do or how the chamber should interact with the Commons.

It is time for a comprehensive look at the distribution of power in this country and to find a settlement acceptable to the whole United Kingdom. But that may not be as easy as it sounds.

In future posts I'll look at some of the ways to do this and obstacles to navigate.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The United Kingdom goes on

Scotland has voted to stay in the United Kingdom. It was touch and go during the campaign but I'm very pleased at the result.

However this is not the end of the issue. To prevent endless referendums and pain much has to be done to win the hearts and minds of many of those who voted Yes.

The wider United Kingdom needs its arrangements looked at in whole and I'll be posting on that in days to come.

But for now let's be glad the Union is here to stay, reinforced by a popular mandate.

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