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...

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