For years, Westminster politicians justified their neglect of constitutional issues by saying there are no votes in the constitution. In other words, voters are not really that interested in knowing how they are governed. But David Cameron’s statement in the wake of Scotland’s No vote suggests that this rather condescending view is about to change.
The prime minister has promised a “balanced settlement” for the UK, in which the rights of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be “respected and enhanced”. This is a more measured and ambitious response than the panicky promises about Scottish “devo max” made just ahead of the referendum vote by the three Westminster parties as a last bid to save the union. But it still leaves many unanswered questions, the most immediate being whether Conservative MPs will back their leader. Nonetheless, Cameron’s proposal tries to respond to popular concerns and expectations.
Democracy on the March
The Scottish referendum campaign has shown what a powerful force democracy can be. At heart, the campaign for Scottish independence was about democratic representation. A staggering one million people who had never participated in politics before registered to vote and the eventual turnout on polling day hit an historic high of nearly 85%.
More importantly, the dynamism of the campaign (and in particular of the Yes campaign), promoted mostly by grass-roots organisations such as Women for Scotland, the Radical Independence Campaign, Common Weal, Yestival, and many others showed that there is a real hunger for democratic engagement and participation.
All Eyes South
And reactions in Wales and England to the Scottish referendum campaign (and to the promises of devo max) suggest that dissatisfaction with the UK’s centralised system of government and the desire for a deeper form of democracy are not exclusive to Scotland.
But the referendum adventure has also shown that the country’s current constitutional settlement is in urgent need of repair. Beyond the problem of centralisation, the mechanics and principles of democratic representation will have to be revisited. The problem is that the panicky and still vague promises of devo max to Scotland (which were made without a process of democratic consultation) will render those problems even more acute. The transfer of new powers to Holyrood will create an even more lopsided House of Commons, where Scottish MPs are over-powered and under-worked compared with their English colleagues. The West Lothian question has to be answered once and for all.
The three main unionist parties are only too aware of this problem and agree that far-reaching constitutional reforms are needed. But that’s where consensus ends. There are profound disagreements between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats about the shape of constitutional reform that cannot be ironed out, as has been proposed, in just a few months.
On the Table
A number of options will be put on the table. One option may involve devolution for England via the creation of regional assemblies with a decent set of powers. This solution, by far the most radical and fair, would pave the way for the transformation of Westminster into a federal parliament. But as the idea of British federalism is not for the faint-hearted, another possibility could be the devolution of fiscal and financial powers to English local councils and cities.
Another option could be preventing Scottish MPs from voting on English issues in the House of Commons. This solution is popular with Conservative MPs and Nick Clegg, but has so far been rejected by Labour. But more importantly, this option does not address the problem of an over-centralised system of government.
A fourth possibility is to make the House of Lords the mirror of British regionalism, whereby the seats in the upper chamber (elected by proportional representation) would represent the different regions of the United Kingdom. This solution is not problem-free, though. As Meg Russell argued, the asymmetrical nature of British devolution would make designing a truly representational upper chamber a very difficult job.
Because none of these options offers a perfect solution to the West Lothian question, there is always the possibility of combining different ideas. There is room for some constitutional creativity when we design a post-referendum UK.
The referendum has shown us that civic engagement increases when people can see that their vote counts. And since the current first-past-the-post-system fails to truly represent how people vote, what better time to revisit electoral reform? And why not codify the constitution while we’re at it?
But if Britain embarks on a process of far-reaching constitutional reforms it should not rush into it. The different issues at stake need to be carefully weighed and each proposal needs to be considered in terms of its impact over the political system.
In order to have legitimacy, the process also needs to go beyond the Westminster parties and must include civil society organisations, grass-root movements and ordinary citizens. After all, the British constitution is not the exclusive preserve of the Westminster elite. The constitution belongs to the British people and it’s about time that they began to own it.