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Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Is there a need for a UK Constitutional Convention?



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 UKis 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 Guardianconstitutional 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. 

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Such a convention would suffer from the same fundamental problem as with the current constitutional settlement - namely that England can railroad through anything it likes against the wishes of anyone else. "Federalism"
in the form proposed by Willie Rennie also suffers from this problem. The other solution is the one used in the US senate but England is never going to concede equal representation for all states of the union.

Full independence for Scotland within a federal europe is a simple and elegant and indeed, the only truly liberal solution to the "English Question". Only a yes vote in next year's referendum can solve the problem.

Fulub Hosking said...

Trying to codify feudal remnants such as the Duchy of Cornwall (what exactly is its relationship with the UK) would be great fun to watch: The Duchy of Cornwall - A Very Peculiar Private Estate: http://www.scribd.com/doc/44178693/The-Duchy-of-Cornwall-A-Very-Peculiar-Private-Estate

Seeing as we've already collected a petition of 50,000 signatures calling for a Cornish assembly, and in light of our unusual constitutional position and non-english Celtic identity, I hope Cornwall would get offered greater self-determination.

Fred Best said...

It is essential for a Full devolved English parliament, it would rebalanced the UK and give back democracy, something lacking in England. those opposed to it have a racist agenda.

Fulub Hosking said...

If the people of England want greater self-determination then they should have it but this must mean a choice. 1) An English Parliament 2) Various forms of regional devolution or 3) No change an all UK parliament – dominated by English MP’s as it is – being the price to pay for the Union England forced on the rest of the Isles.

As a Cornishman seeing another parliament in London for the population of England sitting next to the parliament for the UK doesn’t seem fair, very cost effective or democratic. Give me devolution to a Cornish assembly any day: Cornish Constitutional Convention: http://www.cornishassembly.org/

Richard Thomas said...

But just and exactly what is the English Question? In some respects it is very close to the joke in 1066 and All That where, whenever anyone came close to solving the Irish Question, they changed it. By that I mean the question will vary, depending both on who is asking it and who is answering it. As Anonymous above says, if in Scotland, we vote yes then we will have solved one facet of the English Question for ourselves, by opting out of it. Arguably the same approach might apply to Wales and Northern Ireland but the consequences for the latter are not lightly dismissed and then both the question and its answer rest squarely with England. But if you are a unionist in any degree this is not an outcome that you wish to see and you come back full circle by trying to frame the question which might more accurately be phrased as 'What is the UK question?'.

Andrew said...

Fulub - I am interested in your championing of Cornish self-determination, something that seems an exciting possibility - although I must confess to having limited knowledge of Cornish politics generally, let alone the prospects for a Cornish Assembly.

As for offering a choice - that clearly isn't what Prof Bogdanor is doing. Indeed, he is suggesting the constitutional convention as a means of avoiding some of those choices.

Richard - "what is the English Question?" It's Prof Bogdanor's terminology, not mine. I do agree that any new federalist or even devolutionist settlement that does not consider arrangements for England is not in the interests of the UK as a whole. For Bogdanor, the "English question" seems to be something that can only be answered in the context of a strengthened UK, but he offers no further specifics other than general references to identity. Of course, it will naturally mean different things to different people and this is one reason why the notion of a convention, while positive, is also risky (and why it should steer away from attempting to define or explore identity): what the "English question" is and means to a Liberal Democrat is quite different to what it means to a Conservative or a UKIPer. And what the SNP and Plaid (who will necessarily be part of any UK-wide convention) will make of it is anyone's guess.

"But if you are a unionist in any degree this is not an outcome that you wish to see and you come back full circle by trying to frame the question which might more accurately be phrased as 'What is the UK question?'" Indeed, and that is perhaps a far more serious and worthy starting point that Prof Bogdanor's focus on English identity.

Fulub Hosking said...

Andrew the wikipedia (I know, I'm sorry) article isn't half bad as a start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornish_nationalism

Anonymous said...

I think Cornish independence would be great. But the other supporter's use of the word" Celtic" worries me as the Cornish were not and are not Celts. Findings based on the historical DNA of Britain's peoples indicate that the Celts were not actually here in any great numbers - even in the so-called "Celtic" areas, and as they were ancient white tribes anyway, the "Celtic" assertion seems faintly racist in the current day. Independence for Cornwall, yes, but the Celts? Hmmm... I also hope that the rest of England will not be expected to finance another government within the UK, this time for Cornwall.