Monday, February 20, 2012

Speaking for a Federal Britain

The past two years have been brutal for the Liberal Democrat brand. 

It is understandable. 

Liberalism is rooted in a clear set of principles, and yet as the coalition has become established we have discovered that we have either been forced to abandon key elements of our agenda- such as the tuition fees fiasco- or have discovered that we have not sold our ideas well enough to the electorate- the fiasco of the AV referendum. The result is that we have lost about half of the voters who supported the party in 2010.

The party has assumed a grimly determined approach to repeated setbacks. It has been the only realistic response to the battering that we have taken. Yet we have also lost many fellow travellers and and long term supporters. The party is clearly weaker than we were. 

Only the creation of a proportionally elected House of Lords may keep the Liberal Democrats in a position to retain influence at the national level. That is clearly why the party leadership is investing so much into the process of House of Lords reform- it may prove to be a lifeboat for the Liberal Democrats at the national level- ans as a result it will come under renewed challenge from our political opponents, who would dearly like to return to the old two-party system.

Yet while much or our agenda- Europe, Human Rights- remains scornfully rejected by the mainstream of both left and right, there is an area where the party should now be speaking up, since our ideas seem set to become the basis for a major reform. That area is the solution to the crisis of Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats has always supported Home Rule for Scotland- it still does so today. Yet that support was also bound up in a vision of  wider reform of the whole of the British State. We argued that all of the people of Britain should be able to get control of their own affairs. Increasingly as the implications of the Scottish referendum sink in across the rest of the United Kingdom,  it is becoming clear that a Federal reform of Britain is now a critical part of a solution that will keep the four nations of the common state together.

We have argued for a flexible system- similar to that of Spain- where different areas take on the decisions that are right for them. This goes well beyond the simple creation of a unified English Parliament, which Conservatives now advocate, and to be honest the creation of such a Parliament renders the British State simply Greater England rather than Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The time has come to inject the decades of Liberal discussion on the subject into the national debate.

Constitutional reform, for the Liberal Democrats, is not just about electoral reform, it is about addressing the increasingly real concerns of the different nations and regions of the UK- and the Liberal Democrats have a well-thought out agenda for change. The legislation that Tony Blair enacted for devolution for Wales and Scotland (and later, Northern Ireland) was always going to be destabilising if the issue of English government was not address as part of a wider British settlement too- and we said so at the time.

If Nick Clegg and the Ministerial team want to recover distinctive Liberal Democrat ground- then they would be best putting forward the Lords reforms as part of a wider settlement of the British constitution. 

Not only is Right, Not only is it Liberal, it may even be popular.

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