The tantalising prospect of a new UK-wide constitutional convention has been advocated in recent weeks by the esteemed constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor. Professor Bogdanor, recognising the lack of consideration given to the largest UK nation under the current devolution settlement and responding to the findings of the McKayCommission, argues that a “one-state solution toEngland’s role in a devolved UK” is required: “the need, therefore, is for a UK-wide constitutional convention, with popular participation, to consider both how devolution can evolve in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, but also how the English can be better governed even in the absence of an ‘answer’ to the English question.” In truth, it is an answer disappointing in its non-specifics from someone who appears to have no adequate solution to the so-called “English question” – but that is not to dismiss the potential of such a convention. In some respects it is overdue, being considered now largely in response to the Scottish independence referendum and the significant questions it raises. However, so far there has been a lack of detail as to what the convention can be expected to achieve, other than what Bogdanor considers “strengthen[ing] the unity of the UK”, the creation of “a genuine home for all” and “re-affirm[ing] a sense of Britishness”. While such hopes may be laudable, there is no certainty that a UK-wide constitutional convention would be able to bring it about.
Various politicians have also been keen to support this possibility, and understandably so. Labour’s Douglas Alexander seems to share Bogdanor’s view that a convention is necessary to consider how “our identity is expressed”. Liberal Democrats are also keen to support the proposal: former Scottish leader Malcolm Bruce told The Herald that "we have got to a point, assuming after the referendum Scotland stays in the UK, where we have different sets of powers in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England; in many cases, UK ministers are English ministers. We need a constitutional convention to work out how those powers are best distributed." Meanwhile Alistair Carmichael, his thinking dominated by the SNP’s historic antipathy towards pluralistic conventions, observes that “one of the advantages of this approach is that the SNP – which has always refused to work with other parties, whether it was in the previous constitutional convention, on the campaign for a Scottish Assembly or on the Calman Commission – won't have an excuse for sitting it out.” That wouldn’t be a reason I would choose to support anything, but the point being made is that Liberal Democrats see possibilities in a potential UK constitutional convention.
Not least is that the Labour and Conservative parties – suspicious as they are of the federalism championed by the Liberal Democrats – appear able and willing to lend support to a constitutional convention. For the Lib Dems, it may well represent a key opportunity to have some of their long-held ambitions implemented, although the desired outcome of a full federalist settlement still seems somewhat remote. Furthermore, having denied the Scottish electorate a second vote on the matter of additional devolution, furthering a UK constitutional convention gives the Better Together parties the chance to commit themselves to a guaranteed vehicle for constitutional change ahead of the 2014 vote. Here lies an opportunity for those campaigning for a “no” vote to show they are dedicated to more than the constitutional status quo – and to promote something definite in order to gain the trust of many cynical voters.
The idea itself has significant merit. A UK-wide constitutional convention would have logically followed on from the 1997 devolution settlement but has never been seriously considered; the nearest thing to an attempt to extend devolution to England was a half-hearted and ill-considered attempt to introduce regional assemblies. Liberal Democrats, while ostensibly supportive of UK federalism, have never got to grips with what Bogdanor considers “the English question” and none of our proposals for increased devolution to date effectively deals with England. In the absence of a coherent devolutionist arrangement for England being advocated by either of the major parties, it should come as no surprise that UKIP, the English Democrats and the United People’s Party are stepping up their demands for an English parliament. A new constitutional convention has the potential for the British people to take ownership of the many issues, to facilitate a truly national conversation and to consider soberly the various options, reclaiming such vital discussion from the domain of political anoraks, constitutional experts and political parties that are frankly not to be taken too seriously.
But there is a danger. Firstly, this is not 1989. For all the successes of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, it was a product of a unique time and place. It was created to tackle the “democratic deficit” of the time, in that Scotland had no democratic voice, rather than – as Alistair Carmichael, and no doubt others, hope this time around – to clip the wings of the SNP. The SCC was not established to consider alternatives to independence but to speak up for Scotland’s needs at a time when there were few other democratic channels available.
And of course, this UK-wide convention will not only (hopefully) include SNP and Plaid Cymru but also other parties such as UKIP, the BNP, the Greens and the sectarian parties of Northern Ireland. Some of these will be more amenable to pluralistic approaches – and easier to work with – than others. But it presents a challenge that may not have as yet been forseen: how can a genuine UK-wide convention incorporate all of the many parties whose elected representatives speak for large sections of the country? There will be inevitable difficulties in regards the interrelationship between the key personnel and party politics will take front stage. Nigel Farage has been looking forward to this opportunity every inch as much as has Willie Rennie, and no doubt already has ideas about he can best use it to advance the appeal of his party.
“Popular participation” is of course far different a concept to “popular leadership”. This is not a conversation that either Professor Bogdanor or any of the politicians advocating the convention wants to be led by the public. Instead, a convention would be led – and dominated - by politicians and, potentially, the political establishment. This is something that, as much as possible, should be recognised in advance and combated. A few leading figures playing a similar role to that of Canyon Kenyon Wright in the SCC would be welcome, but party-independent figureheads should not be used to obscure – or excuse – a lack of real public involvement. There is a very real risk that a UK constitutional convention could prove unpopular with an apathetic public, attracting merely the politically and constitutionally interested rather than wider society.
That is not, however, a sufficiently valid reason for dismissing what is probably the most sensible and workable proposition put forward by any constitutional expert or politician in regards a post-referendum settlement. Furthermore, finally – unlike much of what has passed for talk of federalism in recent years – here is an attempt to grapple with the complex matter of English devolution, so often unhelpfully sidelined and left to the “patriotic” parties of the populist right.
There are inherent problems in what Bogdanor is proposing. Firstly, for him the convention represents a fifth option. He dismisses an English parliament, devolved regional assemblies, “English votes for English laws” and the proposal from the McKay Commission “to adapt Commons procedure to make the English voice more effectively heard”. His proposal of a convention is, in some respects, a means of avoiding the question he claims to be answering and doesn’t explain what should happen in the event that a UK constitutional convention would decide on an option Bogdanor has already dismissed.
A further problem is Bogdanor’s reasoning for promoting a convention in the first instance. He appears to have bought into the McKay Commission’s “identity” rhetoric – i.e. a constitution is necessary to consider how “English identity is to be expressed” and to “reaffirm the unity [of the UK]”. I disagree that identity issues should be the predominant driver behind our thinking; as Dr Elliot Bulmer explains in The Guardian, constitutional discussion should focus on democracy rather than notions of national and cultural identity:
If a democratic constitution embracing popular sovereignty were realistically on offer in the UK, Bogdanor's call for the left to "take the lead" in calling for it would be welcome. Such a constitution would not only repudiate the unprincipled "muddling through" that has traditionally characterised the British government, but also overturn the two pillars on which its opaque and oligarchical powers rest: the crown prerogatives and the sovereignty of parliament.
However, no such constitution is on offer, nor is it likely to emerge from a UK constitutional convention. Westminster and Whitehall won't suddenly embrace a constitution on democratic grounds. Rather, they are motivated by a desperate desire to hold the UK together.
It is difficult to argue with this assertion. I cautiously welcome the idea of a UK constitutional convention, but questions must first be asked about its purpose and its nature. If it focuses on the narrow concerns and technicalities of extending devolution rather than explore the opportunities to further democracy and empower the electorate then it will represent a missed opportunity.
A convention is not needed to undermine the SNP’s case for independence, or to explore the meaning of national or regional identity. Any convention that sets out to do such things will inevitably fail in its aims; any cynical political motivations will be obvious and quasi-intellectual navel-gazing is rarely something that inspires mass participation. A UK constitutional convention that is determined to again address “democratic deficits” and create both understanding between the UK’s component parts while seeking a new way forward on constitutional issues – supported by the public – would be a very fine thing indeed.
I’m not actually sure that this is what Bogdanor is proposing: with his emphasis on English identity and “strengthening” what is effectively a dysfunctional union I am unconvinced that he actually fully appreciates either what the stakes are or the powerful potential of a constitutional convention to forge a more effective democracy. He seems more concerned with preserving the essential features of the status quo while introducing the prospect of some moderate improvement. Certainly Bogdanor's sated reasons for proposing it - "consideration of how devolution can evolve in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom and [better government for England]" is at best only a starting point.
I for one feel that a UK constitutional convention, if properly considered and appropriately focused, would be a significant and useful way forward. Certainly, for the Liberal Democrats, it provides considerable opportunities to champion a workable UK federalist arrangement. Furthermore, if forthcoming, it would provide a guarantee that a “No” vote in the referendum can be guaranteed not to mean an end to the conversation and would represent a promise of something more...even if that "something" is uncertain and undefined.
There are, however real dangers that the initiative will be dominated by the political class and become yet another Establishment project. This needs to be avoided. A UK constitutional convention cannot afford to be a branch of the UK Preservation Society. Furthermore, while any convention must seek to be genuinely pluralist in nature, consideration must be given to the effect some of the UK’s smaller parties may have on discussions, most notably UKIP.
As in any political conversation, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. It must be focused on need rather than political considerations and priorities. There is most definitely a need for a UK constitutional convention, but it is not the convention of Bogdanor's thinking. Dr Bulmer’s prescription is correct – what is needed is an extension of democracy, not technical chit-chat and political machinations. It needs to be people-centred and must begin its life with an open mind, rather than start out with the kind of thinking that seeks only to strengthen and reinforce the union. It must be designed to listen - responding to needs, concerns and criticisms - as much as it thinks and talks.
I am pleased that Liberal Democrats have so far welcomed this potential development and I hope that, in our calls for a UK constitutional convention we go further than Professor Bogdanor and seek ways to reach out, engage with society and inspire both conversation and active involvement in determining the UK’s constitutional, political and democratic future.