Trusting our politicians to trust us with more powers

Having banged my English drum for Scottish independence on this blog for the last few months, I am sad and disappointed at the majority “No” result which I watched come through earlier this morning.  I can’t compare my feelings to those in Scotland who have worked so hard for independence and yet are probably facing the day with deep hurt and sadness.

However, we can all be united in praise of the amazing turnout, which reflects an incredible revival of interest in politics in Scotland which none of us have ever seen anywhere in the UK.  I think we must give much of the credit for this to Alex Salmond and the SNP who secured the mandate for the referendum in the first place.  It would be nice to hear the “No” parties also give credit to the SNP for this.

Over 1.5 million votes to leave the UK, including “Yes” majorities in Glasgow and Dundee are a mandate for changing the status quo.  Given the promises made by Gordon Brown and his “Better Together” colleagues in the last few days of the campaign, every “No” vote is also a mandate for change. As to what those changes might be, I await the detail with bated breath.

Watching the BBC coverage in England, politicians from the “No” parties as well as pundits were almost unanimous in predicting major constitutional change across the UK on the back of the “No” vote.  This seems to involve the possibilities of :

  1. a UK-wide constitutional convention
  2. English MPs having the exclusive right to vote on English issues in Westminster;
  3. an English parliament (perhaps preferred by English Conservatives);
  4. regional assemblies in England, with or without an English parliament (the latter perhaps being a Labour preference);
  5. a devolution of powers to English city / regions;
  6. more powers for devolved assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland;
  7. a federal UK incorporating one or more of the above options.

When I say that the commentators were “almost unanimous”, a note of strong scepticism was sounded by Simon Jenkins of the Times who predicted that Westminster leaders will revert to type within 6 months or so and come out with a reform package which, in practice, makes little dent in their own huge array of powers.  Milder scepticism was also expressed by most pundits on the tight timetable laid down by Gordon Brown for new powers for Scotland, especially as detailed proposals may not get the backing of all English Tory MPs.

I agree with Mr Jenkins.  Like him, I would like to see huge constitutional reform which ensures that local people are much more involved in the decisions that affect their daily lives.  This was the kind of reform that the “Yes” campaign were credibly promising.  But at the same time, I do not see Westminster politicians changing their spots any time soon, or in fact at all.  Westminster is a sovereign parliament.  Its politicians are used to exercising centralised power over the nation with little accountability between elections.  It has devolved powers only when necessary and to the extent which was necessary.  There is no natural appetite for constitutional reform in Westminster. Far-reaching constitutional reform requires a deep commitment to interactional, grass-roots politics which no longer exists within the ranks of most Conservative and Labour Party MPs.  Neither David Cameron, Ed Miliband nor Nick Clegg talk like politicians who have emerged from the grass-roots.  Their approach is to sell their party-produced policies to the passive public.

The failure of the Westminster politicians to engage with constitutional issues with the Scottish people (never mind with the rest of us) in an interactive way during the 2 years of the referendum campaign gives the lie to their sudden interest in constitutional reform.  Westminster is likely to go about the issue of constitutional reform across the UK in the same top-down, transactional manner as it does with every other issue. I predict that the main proposals will be drawn up by senior party leaders. They will be dressed up to look like major power-shifting proposals but in fact will not be.  There will then be an official consultation process which will result in some minor tweaks.  Parliamentary sovereignty is not likely to be seriously challenged by the end-product.

Why is there such little appetite for challenging Westminster dominance and implementing constitutional reform among the English?  The concentration of power in Westminster is one reason.  The weakness of solidarity and identity among the English is another.  The banality and mediocrity of local democracy is another.  Here in Birmingham, our council’s entire children’s services department has been officially condemned.  What else is wrong with the city council, I ask myself?  Are they fit to ask for, never mind take on further powers that Westminster suddenly feels they need to bestow on them for wider political reasons?   If our city’s best politicians want to go to Westminster where the real power lies, then will we ever have a professional cadre of local politicians?

I recently stumbled across proposals for a new “Magna Carta” from the House of Commons Select Committee on Politics and Constitutional Affairs.  They are currently running a consultation on the need for and the nature of a written constitution for the UK.  This includes a public competition to write a preamble.  Curiously, they have made no reference to the Scottish referendum and wider publicity for their consultation is lacking.  I have not heard it mentioned by any party leader and it seems to be an initiative of that committee. This again tells me that the desire for constitutional reform among our leaders is minimal and their Damascene conversion to it is purely reactionary.  The driving force behind their commitment to “devolve” more power is their desire to hold on to as much as possible.  It is a PR-response to the huge “Yes” vote in Scotland.

Two years ago, David Cameron refused a third option on the ballot paper which could have prompted widespread discussion on and moves towards widespread constitutional reform.   He is not likely to apologise for this mistake.  He is not really interested in constitutional reform, does not have much experience in it and does not have good judgment on constitutional issues.  He is likely to give it the minimum attention possible and continue to react to discontent in Scotland, Wales and his own backbenches on an ad hoc basis.  He is not likely to take sound advice from people who really know about grass-roots political involvement and constitutional reform.  He is totally the wrong person to be in charge of our country during this process.

So now we are waiting for fractious and confrontational Westminster leaders, who feel obliged to devolve some of their powers, to open a consensus-building dialogue with local politicians most of whom have not recently requested any new powers. This process will take place in the name of the de-politicised ordinary English people who don’t know much about why this is all happening, except that it must have something to do with Scotland.  I don’t know where this process is going.

Last nights’ pundits were right to point out that effective constitutional reform takes a long time and should not be rushed.  Looking only at the English situation, we need to start with a discussion among ordinary English people as to how they feel about democracy in general and why they care so little about it.  A constitutional convention, along the lines of the Scottish one in the 1990s, is the right way to go.  Again, this should not be rushed.  We need sensitive politicians to facilitate this process so that we are really listening to ordinary people, and not just going through the motions, or getting a quick snapshot.  The process must take its own time.  We could do with some advice from Scottish activists however they will have different priorities at the moment.

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