Saturday, 20 September 2014

An English Parliament could be Salmond's legacy

Finally, the referendum has been held and the result was clear.  It pauses Scottish nationalism in the context of progress towards independence but opens a much wider debate on what a modern constitutional settlement might look like.  Sadly it has already been overtaken by the visceral authoritarianism of the Tories and the opportunism of Labour, rather than allowing the space for an appraisal of what government, democracy and engagement could look like.

Cameron spent two years ignoring the possibility that the Scottish vote might go against him.  The complacent London elites considered that the margin of "no" would be huge, and that the matter was the scale of Salmond's defeat rather than any possibility that the electorate might be sufficiently hacked off to take a risk.  In the last month, he has resembled first a rabbit startled in the headlights, and then a bungler promising gifts that neither he nor his party can bestow.  The desperation of the compact between Miliband and the Coalition leaders to promise the previously-unmentionable "deco max" may have staved off the orderly break-up of the UK, but it does not make for good policy.

Leaving aside Northern Ireland, devolution in the UK has been, principally, a response to the perceived democratic deficit, the dominance of English politics and an assertion of cultural and political identity.  The distance from London, and the Westminster machine, increases both the drive to independent identity and the confidence to pursue it.  Where the model breaks down is assuming that this is solely a manifestation of physical distance, rather than the economic, social and political isolation that the Bullingdon clique, the City and the assorted parasites promote.    Over the last thirty years unequal growth, deindustrialisation, unfair taxation and the democratic deficit has exacerbated the breakdown of cohesion.

For once, Cameron asked the right question - what to do about England.  The problem is that it does not translate into a glib, one-size-fits-all approach, given the scale and diversity of the country.  A top-down solution, as evidenced by Prescott's hapless promotion of regional assemblies, does not work, and will be resisted at all costs.  However, a federal British state is not such a mad proposition, but does require something more than a calculation of how the Commons might be constituted in twelve month's time.

Scottish democracy was a success before the referendum.  The Welsh Government is also moving towards further devolution.  Even the GLA has tended to work quite well.  What they have in common is a more democratic basis than the Commons.  When devolution was implemented in 1999, a modern electoral system and a modern parliamentary format were required for Scotland and Wales (ironically to keep the Scottish Nationalists out of power) - and this has worked without the sky falling in.  The lessons to be learned here are simple.

Getting the right form of devolution in England will take time.  Solving the West Lothian question does not align with the need to get things right.  A modest proposal would be to establish an English Parliament on the basis of the Scottish system.  Using the German electoral system, with constituency MPs and regional lists, would provide a legitimate basis for Labour to remove its objection to the advantages its Scottish redoubts have given it in the past being traded in.  Even if the Tories were to secure pluralities in English constituencies, a top-up list would ensure that the opposition forces would provide representation, and promote a parliamentary basis for more mature politics.

Given that the "devo max" will devolve more power to Scotland and (presumably) Wales, the rump role of the House of Commons will be primarily defence, foreign policy and the maintenance of the royal charade.  It will not need to meet (at least physically) very often.  So, the next stage of the modest proposal is that the Commons be composed of the constituency MPs from national parliaments.  The Lords then becomes a Senate, reflecting national election results and acting as an upper chamber across the national parliaments.  If the English Parliament is outside London, then it also sends a clear message of national integrity.

What happens in England below its Parliament is more complex, and can be given space to evolve.  The principle of subsidiarity is important, but it should be designed to protect citizens and promote communities.  Based on a written constitution, incorporating a strong human rights protection, this could be a model for reform going forward.

Despite Cameron's foolishness and blinkered outlook, he was right in that unlike an election, the referendum was a fundamental choice.  For nine out of twenty voters to want to take an irrevocable step is a warning and a challenge - this is no shifting party allegiance.  Whereas the inchoate rage in England has benefited the canting twattery of Farage, the Scottish rage and anti-Westminster backlash has benefited the SNP.  Ironically, the loss of the nationalist cause could be the principal piece in a jigsaw that brings down over a century of centralising power.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.