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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