Saturday, 20 September 2014

Finding a constitutional settlement

It’s barely twenty-four hours since the final result of the Scottish referendum and surprise, surprise, the three political parties are already daggers drawn over the future constitutional settlement.  Therein lies the problem—much as turkeys don’t vote for an early Christmas, politicians are not going to vote for any constitutional settlement that is dreamed up unless it protects their interests…what’s in the interest of the people or the country as a whole doesn’t appear to come into it.  Whether there’s a Constitutional Convention or a Grand Committee of the House or Royal Commission matters little because what will emerge will be politically neutral—a reflection of an evolutionary view of constitutional development—because that’s the only way Parliament will accept it. The result will not be the transformation of our increasingly out-dated constitution but tinkering around the edges while giving further powers to Scotland to dampen any further demands for independence.

I have heard the phrases ‘the genie's out of the bottle’ and ‘this is a transformative moment’ so many times in the last thirty years and yet our constitutional structures have—with the exception of devolution—remained largely unchanged.  We still have a House of Lords; there has been no change in the electoral system despite attempts to do so and the failed referendum; political power remains largely centralised in Westminster; the scandal of MPs’ expenses has not made MPs necessarily more accountable or less arrogant.  There also seems to be some confusion about constitutional matters.  Take for instance, the seemingly interchangeable nature of devolution and decentralisation in much discourse and yet they are very different beast.  The devolution of power means that Parliament gives up its sovereignty over say education to one of the current national parliaments that is then accountable to its electorate for education policy; the Westminster Parliament no longer has any responsibility for education at all.  Decentralisation does not involve the permanent transfer of powers merely the loaning of those powers to local authorities to carry out tasks previously done by central government; those powers are supervised by central government and can be taken back. 

There may be appetite for further constitutional change in Scotland but I’m not sure that the same can be said of England.  If the government resolves the West Lothian question by excluding Scottish MPs from voting on English issues, I would expect that calls for an English Parliament will rapidly fade.  It would also head off any residual threat from UKIP—one of the very effective results of David Cameron’s statement yesterday.  Whatever those in the ‘Westminster village’ think about the need for an English demos—and I agree with them--there is little evidence of a grassroots movement for constitutional change in England. 

1 comment:

CharmedLassie said...

I'm not sure whether the English have been spurred into action or not. The focus on Scotland has certainly irritated a lot of people. And since Labour are (understandably from a selfish point of view) unwilling to support English votes for English laws this might turn into something a little more serious.