With just sixteen days to go until we cast our votes in the 2015 general election, politicians and commentators of all stripes are suddenly waking up to the realisation that the party they hate most – be it Labour, the Evil Tories, the nationalist parties or UKIP – may very easily end up in government despite failing to win anything close to a popular mandate, thanks to some unpredictable and largely unstoppable backroom deal following a hung parliament.
In response, every commentator in the land seems to be turning into a bad-weather constitutional reformer, bemoaning the impending political chaos now that it is nearly upon us, despite having taken almost no interest in these dull, un-sexy constitutional issues when there were other, more fun things to write about.
If neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband were able to put together a viable government, a second election would normally follow; but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 complicates matters. It provides for a dissolution of Parliament only when there is a specific vote of no confidence in the government or if two thirds of all MPs vote for an election. This makes the prospect of another early general election less likely. In any case, the parties may have little appetite for one given the expense and the prospect of losing support in a fresh contest.
Without a dissolution we would have a legislature but no government, a bit like Belgium, where the prime minister resigned in April 2010 and no new parliamentary majority could be established for almost two years. The country was run by a former prime minister brought out of retirement and a caretaker administration. It didn’t do them much harm. A report by academics at the University of Leuven noted that the government continued to make “legitimate decisions” on urgent matters of public finance and national security while MPs squabbled. They concluded that “in mature democracies, a power vacuum is taken care of in a constructive, creative, and responsible way”. Do we have such virtues? We might be about to find out very soon.
One thing is clear: a minority Labour government, with fewer seats than the Tories, running the country while in thrall to a nationalist party that has only 2 or 3 per cent of the total UK vote, would test our constitutional structures to breaking point, and maybe beyond. More than that, it could test our creaking, centuries-old Union to destruction.
Isn’t it funny how Britain’s growing ranks of amateur constitutional scholars and reform zealots have only come crawling out of the woodwork now that they are faced with the prospect that the party they dislike might end up calling the shots while not being the largest party in terms of either vote share or seats?
The latest howls of outrage are primarily coming from the right, and involve lots of indignant spluttering that the preposterous figure of Ed Miliband could be propped up as Prime Minister by an alliance of starry-eyed socialist anti-Tories, led by Nicola Sturgeon and the surging SNP.
But a week ago much of the outrage was on the other side, with many on the paranoid political left convinced that the support of Nigel Farage and UKIP, coupled with division in their own ranks, could see David Cameron squeaking across the finish line and back into Number 10 Downing Street. The entire tone and substance of the last televised leaders’ debate was dominated by that very question.
In short, Britain is doing what Britain does best – furiously ignoring the real, pressing problems of structure and governance that threaten and weaken our country, spreading like cracks under thin ice, while obsessing about relatively short-term, one-time trivialities – like HS2 or the “bedroom tax” or free schools. And while we obsess about our public services and who can seem the most compassionate with the same dwindling pot of money, Britain’s constitutional tumour grows and metastasises, unnoticed and unchecked.
The likely uncertainty and bitterness that we will wake up to on May 8 need not happen at all, and likely would not happen had restive and petulant Tory backbench MPs not scuppered the plans of their Liberal Democrat coalition partners to reform Britain’s anachronistic embarrassment of an upper legislative assembly, the House of Lords.
When Nick Clegg pushed the retaliation button and thwarted Conservative hopes of electoral boundary reform – and the chance of correcting the anomaly that gifts the Labour Party more than 20 “bonus” seats in Parliament than the Tories would win with the same share of the vote – conservative columnists were outraged, claiming that Lords reform and boundary reform were totally unconnected. In doing so, they spectacularly missed the point that the very definition of a political coalition is the amalgamating of two (or more) separate manifestos and agendas, with “good behaviour” enforced through the threat of mutual assured destruction of the other parties’ prize policies.
Failing to reform the House of Lords thus came with two costs to the British people – the fact that our laws can still be delayed and meddled with by the incompetent beneficiaries of political patronage and a smattering of Church of England bishops, and the fact that nationally, the threshold for electing a Labour MP is much lower than it is to elect a Conservative MP – our unbalanced constitution in action.
More recently, the worrying closeness of the Scottish independence referendum campaign and its aftermath – and the desperate promises showered on Scotland by UK party leaders in the closing days as an inducement to keep the union – provided another once-in-a-generation opportunity for us all to step back and think seriously about how we want to manage our affairs as a United Kingdom of distinct home nations. But despite some initial talk about English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), nothing happened – the issue was kicked into the long grass and then overrun by the 2015 general election campaign.
Had David Cameron shown real statesmanship and conservative instincts after the Scottish referendum, and had he been blessed with better partners from the other political parties, we could now be starting the only process by which the United Kingdom will ultimately be saved – the move to a more federal UK, preferably accompanied by a full constitutional convention to set out and agree once and for all which powers we want to vest in our government in the first place, and at which level (local, county, home nation or UK-wide) those various powers should rightly rest.
As it stands, none of the political parties are interested in holding these important discussions, either internally or with the British people. This has left a vacuum which at present is only being filled by a few plucky outside endeavours such as the London School of Economics’ ConstitutionUK project, an academic-led effort to “crowdsource” a new constitution for the UK.
These outside efforts are laudable but limited in their scope an ambition, and of course are completely non-binding on the British people. When this blog attended one of the nationwide discussions connected with ConstitutionUK, a workshop organised by Unlock Magna Carta, many of the public voices involved in the initiative seemed most concerned with shoe-horning as many left wing shibboleths and priorities as possible – the “right” to work and welfare, etc. – into a legally binding document, rather than producing a timeless framework setting out the rights of the people and firm limitations on government.
For too long, Britain has muddled along, accepting gradual piecemeal reform by the prevailing powers rather than the wholesale reform facilitated by representative democracy and taking a cold, hard look at who we are and how we want to govern ourselves as a country. And until now, it has largely been possible to go off campaigning about food banks or the bedroom tax, tuition fees or government surveillance – all important issues, but none of them fundamental to the survival and long term prosperity of our country – without giving Britain’s lack of a constitution a second thought.
That time is now coming to an end. It is increasingly likely that the closeness of the 2015 general election – result resulting from the SNP’s surge in Scotland and UKIP/Green defections in England, combined with the party leaders’ pledges not to enter into new coalitions – will result in an unpopular and unstable government, perhaps swiftly followed by another election and another government without a mandate. And another and another.
And in this era of uncertainty, it is no good only paying attention to politics or constitutional issues at election time, and then griping about the unwanted outcomes generated by a fundamentally broken system. The challenges facing Britain this century will require stable and responsive government, which can only come about if we understand and are comfortable with who we are as a country, and how we govern ourselves.
If the United Kingdom is to survive even another decade, politicians need to lead and talk about the big picture – not just scaremonger about deficits and public services, turning the supreme expression of our democracy into the equivalent of leaving a customer comment card at the GP’s reception desk.
How did we do today? 3/5 for service, queues are a bit too long. Thanks! Smiley face.
When we treat our country like a business, only caring whether we get the level of service we want at a price that we like, we lose any notion of what it really means to be a citizen. Or as this blog recently put it:
We are incredibly fortunate to be British, and to belong to a country with such a long and proud history, a nation with an enormous cultural and economic clout that has always belied the size of our small island off the coast of Europe. But if we treat our country like nothing more than a soulless amalgamation of public services to be used, exploited and complained about, we will inevitably end up with politicians who view it the same way.
We should want more from our country than simply to live in a land where the buses run on time and you can see a GP quickly. And we should demand politicians who know that Britain is more than the sum of our public services, that we can achieve great things and change the world when our talents and energies and ambitions are properly harnessed.
And being a good citizen begins with understanding and caring about how our country is structured and governed – not just when a general election throws up a result we don’t like, but every single day.
In short, it’s time to stop asking only what our country (and our politicians) can do for us, and think instead about what we can all do to protect, strengthen and improve our country.