Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A British Constitutional Convention

By common consent there is now a great deal of unfinished business in the government arrangements of the United Kingdom. The reform of the House of Lords is but partial, and it remains as undemocratic as ever. The roles of the national parliament and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remain undefined and nebulous; the constitutional position of England unclear. The powers and role of the executive are concentrated and unaccountable under the Royal prerogative. The established churches retain idiosyncratic rights that have more to do with the sixteenth century than the twenty-first, including the right to 26 bishops being members of parliament through the House of Lords.

Those of us who have become students of our arcane and unwritten constitution hold many obscure writers, from Bagehot to Erskine May to be the acme of constitutional interpretation. We have been told that the unwritten nature of of constitution is a strength. However the earthquakes that have struck our Parliament in the past month reveal that the constitution is -in places- totally rotten and badly in need of repair.

One of the core values of Liberalism and of the Liberal Democrats has been to support the long term modernisation of the British constitution. It is not just a question of allowing greater choice to the voters through a reform of the electoral system, it is also a question of significant changes to our system of government.

In our view the cosmetic changes of devolution are second best to the creation of a genuine federal system for the United Kingdom, where money, and therefore power flows from the bottom upwards, and not from the unaccountable Pooh-Bahs amongst the Whitehall civil servants who stand at the centre of an over-centralised and over-mighty executive.

The wreckage of the New Labour project tells us clearly that it is not enough to tinker with the system: a fundamental reappraisal of the way in which Britain is governed is now needed. David Cameron, as the leader of the party with some of the most extraordinary claims by its MPs understands that he must be contrite to the voters, but I do not think that he understands either the overwhelming need for change and also the increasing recognition in the country that change to the system is overdue. His call for a general election, rather than the resignation of the Speaker was a reflection of his view of party political advantage, not of a desire for the national good, and was the first serious mis-step that he has made since the crisis began.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, by contrast- as can be seen by the polls- have come out of the crisis stronger, not least because the large majority of Liberal Democrat MPs have not made any of the claims that seem to be routine amongst Labour and the Conservatives. Even the most expensive Lib Dem claimant, which seems to be Sir Ming Campbell, has not approached anything like the sums involved elsewhere. The public recognise that it was the Lib Dems that wanted these claims to be published from the start and many Lib Dem MPs have indeed published their costs as a matter of routine for some time- whereas the Conservatives have only lately come to the opinion that this is a good idea. The fact that Conservatives were so prominent in the resistance to publication has, I think been duly noted. While there have clearly been heroes amongst both Labour and the Conservative MPs, there has not been anything like the recognition of the seriousness of the issue amongst their front benches until the Daily Telegraph forced the issue.

Nevertheless, we all now agree that "the system" that created these problems is not merely a function of the claims of MPs, but of the general accountability of Parliament, including the Speaker, to the voters who choose them.

It now seems clear that figures from all parties must recognise that there are some critical changes that must be made if the role of Parliament at the centre of national life can be restored. What these changes are can- indeed, should- be a matter of debate. The Liberal Democrats have a large body of ideas, but these, we recognise are not the only ideas. It is important that we build a recognition of the problems and an agreement of the solutions across the party lines.

The traditional way to reform has been through a statutory body, such as an all party Royal Commission, but in my opinion this is too arcane a body for the British voters to engage with. There will be no sense of common ownership of the result of a Royal Commission.

Instead, I believe that the time has come for a Constitutional Convention to be convened, along the lines of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. In a sense the Scottish Convention has become part of a national conversation about the form of government in Scotland. Such a conversation should, I believe, now be expanded to include the whole of the United Kingdom.

After the constitutional weaknesses that this crisis has revealed, it is now clear that new ways should be found to replace the old ways. The strengths of what we have should be identified and preserved, but where it is clear that the constitution is in need of repair, we should now do this.

That this should be in the form of an explicit constitutional contract, written down for the benefit of all, I take for granted. Though there are those who still oppose a written condition, these, I suspect, are now a small minority.

It is time for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to join the ranks of explicitly constitutional states (and possibly find a simpler name).


loadofoldstodge said...

The creation of a written constitution has long been Liberal and Liberal Democrat policy.

That included an updated Bill of Rights. Much of the centralising and authoritarian legislation enacted by successive Labour and Conservative Governments could be reversed.

This would be far more effective than Cameron's half-hearted platitudes about devolution to local bodies (controlled by Tory activists of course).

Blackacre said...

I am interested in your point on a better name at the end of the post. I have recently wondered what the name of the country would be if Scotland were to become independent, which is a possible result of such a Convention. The United Kingdom of England Wales and Northern Ireland is the obvious choice, but is even more unwieldy.

I have always had a hankering for the resurrection of that old English term the Commonwealth which the Australians and a few states in the USA use. How about the Commonwealth of Britain? We would then not even have to change the name should we become a republic.

Anonymous said...

what is to stop the Libdems from setting up a Constitutional Convention, similar to what the US pioneers of liberty did?
Independent minds,all with only democracy as their aim, could set up a constitution and bill of rights for the "British Commonwealth", and evade the pseudo attempts of parliament to redesign itself.
No meddling from civil servants and politicians is a must if our government is to be improved.
Perhaps a direct implanting of the ideas that were instituted in the United States in the 1700s would be the best idea(for the citizen).
For monarchy has had its day. Absolute rule since 1066 is not what we need in the 21st Century, but a system guaranteeing individual rights, removal of royalty and privelige, and equal rights before the law.
For our present set up is merely absolute monarchy with the politicians standing in for the queen!
As for the present suggestions by parliament and lords, for them to propose a new system, if the expenses scandal has proved anything, it is that the citizen cannot trust politicians to be in control of their own terms and conditions.
If the libdems were really serious about reform, they would have set up a constitutional convention themselves long ago, based on republican lines.
After all, if the media once got wind of a move towards proper democracy, who knows, it could catch on big style!

Anonymous said...

MPs? deliver a proper constitution for Britain?
Don`t make me laugh!