Constitutional Reform Is The Elephant In The Room This Election Season

Constitutional Reform British General Election 2015


Conservative Home is currently running an important series on the three urgent political issues which are being pointedly and shamefully ignored by the main political parties in the run-up to the 2015 general election. These are identified as the constitution, national defence and the truth about spending reductions.

On constitutional reform in particular, ConHome is quite right to call attention to the lurking threat:

Yes, there’s plenty of speculation about what might happen in a hung Parliament, and who might form coalitions or pacts with whom.  But there has been no big debate to date about how we should be governed – what an English-votes-for-English-laws Commons would look like; what the knock-on effects on Scotland might be; what would happen to the Lords in consequence; how much devolution there should be in England (and elsewhere); what would replace the ECHR (if anything) were Britain to leave it; where an EU referendum fits into this picture; whether the UK will survive at all.

Will the UK survive at all? A sobering question to ponder, and yet when faced with these unresolved questions of national character, purpose and even survival, too often our politicians focus on the minutiae of daily life as they seek to either prey on our fears or appeal to our wallets.

This blog makes no apology for having singled out the Labour Party and Ed Miliband as the worst culprits as they seek to reduce the 2015 general election to a petty contest about public services, when Britain’s greatness is so much more than the sum of local government services and “our NHS”, here on the occasion of the Labour Party leader’s most recent relaunch:

But what Miliband’s latest speech really reveals is the extent to which the Labour Party has absolutely nothing to say about the portion of the economy not given over to government spending and service provision. Having droned on and on for nearly five years about the impact of coalition spending plans on our precious public services, Labour has completely forgotten how to talk about the private sector (other than to criticise and threaten it), or how to address the fears and aspirations of those people for whom government services and benefits are not the be-all and end-all of life.

And again, at the risk of droning on, here:

Ed Miliband has made it quite clear, for anyone who hadn’t yet got the message, that he dares to think only small things. He believes that the greatness of Britain is encapsulated and expressed by NHS waiting times, bus service reliability and foreign aid donations as a percentage of GDP. And of course these things are important in their own ways. But Miliband also sees his job as a potential future Prime Minister to ensure that we set our own personal hopes and expectations similarly low, that we base our deepest happiness and contentment on how well local public services meet their targets, and on the day-to-day benevolence of government bureaucracy.

The danger is that while this “save my local hospital” navelgazing goes on within both main political parties, festering problems concerning the unequal balance and devolution of power to the United Kingdom’s home nations go unaddressed, a powder-keg of resentment ready to explode at a moment’s notice as soon as any coalition talks get underway in the likely event of another hung parliament on 8th May.

Janan Ganesh crystallises this threat in an excellent piece in the Financial Times, in which he argues that the normal British approach of muddling along without properly addressing these serious issues simply will not work this time:

The union is not ready for the molten asteroid scheduled to crash on May 7. The likeliest election result is the least survivable for the UK. If neither Labour nor the Conservatives can govern alone, and the SNP is the third party, whoever is prime minister might have to secure Nationalist assent for every law he proposes. To repeat, UK legislation would hinge on a party opposed to the UK, probably commanded in parliament by Alex Salmond, whose wiles and ruthlessness marked his tenure as SNP leader. He will use every chance to steer policies to the left and drive English voters to exasperation with the union — which, given England’s relative Conservatism, amounts to the same thing.

If the government is Tory, it will be paralysed by SNP obstruction. Scots will seethe at ministers with no mandate in their country. If the government is Labour, a prime minister that England did not want, Ed Miliband, will be propped up by a party nudging him ever farther from the English centre.

And Mr Salmond’s price for support — whether in the form of a coalition or “supply and confidence” for a minority government — would be tantamount to home rule, which the unionist parties promised (albeit fuzzily) in September. At that point Scotland will govern itself in all matters bar foreign policy, defence and some yet-to-be-established budgetary matters, while England’s laws will be skewed by a decisive caucus of MPs from another jurisdiction. Anyone who thinks the English would wear this constitutional inequity for very long has read too many books about the nation’s self-effacing stoicism.

This is why the non-existent British constitution, and the importance of a new, formalised constitutional settlement for the whole United Kingdom, is the elephant in the room when it comes to the 2015 general election. None of the political parties may be talking about it, but we can be certain that the issues and resentments that come from having left these questions unresolved after the Scottish independence referendum will come roaring back to the fore if the election result is anything less than decisive.

Janan Ganesh goes on to make a brief case for a federal United Kingdom, prefaced with the important reminder that “an idea [for constitutional reform] does not have to be good, it just has to be less bad than the competing idea”. This is very true – and in the anticlimactic history of UK constitutional reform, we can hardly afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

So whatever eventual form it takes, a new constitutional settlement restoring some degree of parity and equal devolution of powers throughout the United Kingdom is essential, as this blog has long argued:

I cannot repeat often enough my firm belief that this piecemeal devolving of powers on an on-demand basis whenever one of the home nations becomes a bit restless or we have a referendum to win is damaging to the integrity of the UK, and ensures that as a country we limp on, united still (just about) but burdened ever more heavily by arcane and inexplicable rules determining which decisions get made at what level in each constituent part of the country.

I call once again for a proper constitutional convention in the UK, to decide once and for all the powers and functions that we the people should rightly and properly give to Westminster, and those which should be devolved to the four individual home nations to be exercised equally by each.

Such a convention would also allow us to determine what should be the “shared purpose of our union”, which apparently if left unaddressed, will be defined by Gordon Brown along the specious and redistributionist lines of “social justice”.

The real danger today is that these weighty decisions may ultimately be made behind the closed doors of coalition negotiations between the political parties on the morning of 8 May, away from the revealing light of public and media scrutiny.

And all because we are so distracted arguing about the bedroom tax, high speed rail or fox hunting that we fail to notice the elephant lurking in the room.

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