» Britain ¦ What You Can Get Away With

I’ve said before that the political system in this country is broken, and at the risk of sounding like a hipster of reform, it’s good to see that issues of how the British constitution works (or more accurately, doesn’t work) have gone mainstream after the Scottish referendum.

I’ve long thought that there are huge problems with the way this country is run, regardless of who’s actually in power. I was involved in Charter 88 over two decades ago, and while there have been some tentative steps towards reform since then, we’ve never had a truly fundamental examination of the way this country is run. Instead, we’ve had piecemeal reform on top of piecemeal reform, leading to the mess we’ve got now, and all constrained by the central problem of British politics: that power is held to emanate from the centre and is only reluctantly given away to others.

That’s the problem with the discussion on constitutional reform we’re having now: decisions are being made at the centre, ready to be imposed on the rest of us, and after years of inaction we’re being rushed towards half-baked solutions. Yet again, it’s a piecemeal solution to try and solve the problem in the short-term, with no consideration about long-term consequences. The last thing we need is yet another piecemeal solution. Yes, there are promises for further devolution to Scotland that have to be kept and made concrete quickly, but that doesn’t mean everything else has to be yoked to that same timetable.

What we’ve also seen happen when any reform comes up is that it becomes a party-political football, as we’re already seeing with the current debate. Various competing visions of reform get proposed, none can get enough support to get passed through Parliament, and the status quo prevails. Or, as we saw with the AV referendum, one weak proposal does get through, then gets shot down and it’s then proclaimed that no change is necessary.

Any process of constitutional change is inherently political, but that does not mean it has to be run through the current political system. The reason we’ve got to this position is because we’ve got a dysfunctional political system, and expecting that political system to come up with a rational and workable system that fixes itself is perhaps the definition of foolhardy optimism. People are running out of trust in the current system and aren’t expecting it to be able to come up with solutions. That existing bias is going to colour public perception against any new system, even if a miracle occurs and a good reforming idea comes out from the system for once.

That’s why I think we need a constitutional convention to do this process in an entirely different way. We’e had decade after decade of changes being handed down from the top, sure in the knowledge that Westminster can decree the solution to everyone’s problems, and instead we need to let the people solve their own problems this time. A convention – drawing in people from all over the country and all walks of life – gives the chance to do that process differently, and finally to break the tradition that it’s all right for Parliament to set its own (and everyone else’s) rules.

While I think it’s good that political leaders have been calling for a constitutional convention, the process can’t be run by or be part of the current political system. My fear would be that any convention that’s too closely run by the current system won’t be a genuine convention but not much more than a glorified consultation exercise, its entire remit set down by Parliament, and it wouldn’t be free to break out of it. What we need isn’t just tweaking the existing system, but starting anew to build a system from below that keeps power closer to the people, not just deciding that Westminster knows best for everyone. What we especially need is for any new system to have its own force behind it, in the same way as the Scottish Parliament rests on Scotland’s constitutional convention. Any Westminster-created system could face the same fate as other of the changes we’ve seen over the years – capable of being wiped out and rolled back by Parliament at a centralising whim.

The other important lesson of the Scottish Constitutional Convention is that it was created outside of the system, not by it. It wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Government, but drew in support from across society in Scotland. That’s the model we should be adopting for a UK-wide constitutional convention, and instead of waiting for Parliament to give us one, we ned to be getting out there and making one happen.

The question, then, is how do we do that? Do a few of us just get a room, a website, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and whatever else and commence arguing, hoping others will join in and make the whole thing snowball? Or do we need to build widespread support first, then kick it all off with a storm of involvement and publicity? I don’t know, and I’m not a mood for laying down how everyone else should do something, so what are your thoughts? Which way round does it need to be done, or should we just sit back and trust in Westminster and the system to get it right this time?

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Verso_978_1_84467_324_7_Ruling_the_void_300_Site-6c16fc1a36f99a2f191ca0f19b6cb162I’ve been reading a couple of interesting books this week: Colin Crouch’s Post-democracy and the late Peter Mair’s final book Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy.

Both of them share a common theme: that our understanding of how politics works, including the nature of our democracy, is wrong. For Crouch, post-democracy represents a time when corporate interests now overwhelm those of a citizenry that is incapable (and perhaps unwilling) to rpresent itself as effectively. Mair’s thesis is set out quite succinctly on the first page: “The age of party democracy has passed.”

The political systems of the 20th century developed around mass parties that served as intermediaries between the state and the people. However, across the past few decades and across almost all established democracies, the number of people who are members of or involved directly in political parties has dropped dramatically. In the 50s and 60s, almost 10% of the population of Britain was a member of a political party, but party membership has now dwindled so much that we’re almost at the point where it could round down to 0%.

The problem we have is that because this decline has been gradual, in the short term everything has looked as though it’s perfectly normal and any decline can easily be turned around. For instance, in the first few years of Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour membership started going up significantly, after decades of steady decline. However, after a few years, the downward trend continued again, but even faster this time, soon reaching the point it was already for before Blair. (See the graph on page 4 of this report for lots of peaks in all parties that fail to mask the long term decline)

The problem we have is because the breakdown has occurred so slowly, we’ve failed to notice that anything’s changed. Post-democracy is the end of a long process, not a sudden transformative change – we can’t point at one date or one event and say that all was fine before it and all was broken after it. What we have, though, is a system that has (in Mair’s words) been hollowed out and mass parties representing the whole population have been replaced by cartel parties that compete over a small patch of ground. We assume that people naturally identify with a party, when evidence suggests that is increasingly unlikely, and regarding a party as something that can automatically link the government with the people is becoming a weaker assumption every day.

Neither Mair or Crouch have solutions to offer for this issue, but given that the diagnosis hasn’t been accepted widely, why would the remedy? I think both books are definitely worth reading for anyone involved or interested in British politics, just to get a radically different view of how things are and to ask what we need to do to make things work again in the future. The Scottish referendum has shown us that there’s a huge wave of discontent with the system and how it works, and I don’t think we can close our eyes to it and pretend it’s not happening, or that carrying on with politics as usual is going to fix it.

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A few thoughts:

1) We don’t need a Dangerous Devolution Act

After decades of people talking about Britain needs to change, David Cameron appears to have put the accelerator right down, and in order to balance Scotland’s Devo Max England, Wales and Northern Ireland are going to get new powers at a lightning rate too. It’s the British system at it’s worst, with everyone running round like headless chickens to get something, anything done as quickly as possible in order to be seen to be doing something. As has been seen time and time again and the Dangerous Dogs Act is the exemplar of this speed-driven process – this just creates more trouble further down the line. We’ve taken years to get this far, we don’t need decisions now taken in days.

2) We only need one process

We had three separate petitions for a constitutional convention this morning, we’ve got Ed Miliband calling for one separately to David Cameron’s proposals and I’m sure other people are putting together their proposals and calls for action together right now. What we need is for all these people to come together and agree on one process for dealing with this, not hundreds of different competing ones that will amount to nothing. And it has to be an inclusive process, inviting people from across the political spectrum and outside of it to take part in it. Even if they choose not to, they have to have been given that opportunity to give it credibility.

3) New people need to have control of what happens next

Once the various people calling for change have got the ball rolling, they need to step back. This can’t just be a group of the usual suspects getting together to rubber stamp a few ideas floated down from Whitehall or Labour’s NEC which someone will then ram through Parliament. This has got to be a genuine process of the people, for the people and by the people, and the people not the politicos have to be the ones who run it and control it.

4) We need new language for this process

Yes, it’s a constitutional convention to talk about further devolution, but can’t we find some other words to describe it? If we genuinely want something new, then we have to be prepared to change the way we talk about it to get people involved, not just stick to the same old ways. People want change, and we need to ensure that this process delivers it with the widest involvement possible, and that change may need to involve us changing the language we talk about politics with.

Just a few thoughts at the end of a day without much sleep, so they’re loose, unfocused and subject to change. We need to be moving on this now and making things happen before the opportunity for mass involvement fades and it becomes a conversation of the elites again.

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One reason why getting more democracy and devolution is going to be a tough fight, illustrated in three tweets from the last few hours:


That’s three different petitions for a constitutional convention from three sources you would expect to have had some contact with each other in recent times and so would have been able to co-ordinate their efforts. There’s lots of support out there for the idea of a constitutional convention and lots of people wanting to be involved in the discussion of how we get a better democracy. The problem is that at just the time there needs to be some co-ordination and people speaking with coherence on this, it’s all getting dissipated because those who should be co-ordinating are all off doing their own thing.

We have a fantastic opportunity, possibly the best in my lifetime, for some genuine reform and better democracy across the UK, but we’re going to need to work together to achieve it, and focus it on one thing at a time, not multiple attempts to get the same thing in slightly different ways. Are we going to let it slip and end up with some classic British constitutional fudge dumped on us from Westminster instead?

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While I’ve been talking about the Scottish independence referendum online over the last few weeks, I’ve been careful to try not to talk about how I would have voted, or to tell the people of Scotland how to vote. If you want to understand why there are such resentments at the way the UK is governed, the tendency of many English people to assume that no one can make a decision before they’ve weighed in and given their opinion is a good place to start looking.

So, I’ve scheduled this post for a little after 10pm, when voting should have stopped and the only chance of me lecturing Scottish voters is if someone’s very bored stuck in a long queue to vote as the polls close. If you are that person, I hope you’re wait’s not too long, but be happy at the fact there’s a good chance you’ll appear in background footage on the news.

The main problem for me in thinking about how I would have voted is that a lot of the discussion has centred around two competing nationalisms – Scottish and British – and if there’s anything guaranteed to exclude me from a debate, it’s a question of which imagined community you think you belong to most. Both sides have been equally obnoxious in their proclamations that their nationalism is the best, though the hyperbole prize is surely won by Fraser Nelson’s claim that the UK is “the greatest force for good that the world has ever known.”

That leaves it to a decision based on practicalities, and I’m almost persuaded by the arguments of people like Charles Stross that an independent Scotland could be something new and different, a chance to start again in the early days of a better nation. (Though ‘break up the Westphalian system’ does sound like the slogan of the world’s most obscure Marxist fraction) However, the more I look, the more I see there’s nothing there behind the vision, and it’s far from the only vision of what an independent Scotland could be like. When Alex Salmond spends his time meeting regularly with Rupert Murdoch, admiring Vladimir Putin and getting massive donations from people like Brian Souter, I can’t help but wonder what the people with the power to shape it imagine an independent Scotland being like. For me, it’s not just the questions about the currency, but everything else about the new Scotland that hasn’t been answered that makes a Yes vote a jump into the dark, so my vote would have been a reluctant No.

But, I’m glad I didn’t get a vote, because this is Scotland’s decision not mine. Hearing people who don’t live there demand their right to a say scares me in some way because it makes me wonder about their understanding and regard for consent in other situations. It’s only a massive sense of English privilege that gives people the feeling that someone else shouldn’t be making a decision without their input, and that they should somehow have a veto over someone else’s decision. The idea that people somehow defined as Scottish but not living in Scotland should have a vote seems odd to me as well, for where do you draw the line? Should I have had a say because my grandfather was born in Scotland (it’d be enough for FIFA, I believe)? Should it just be limited to people within the UK or could people like David McAllister have a say too? The governance and government of a country should be a civic matter, not an ethnic one, and once you start complicating things with nationalism, everything gets a lot more complex.

Tonight, I’m going to sit back and watch the results come in and know whatever happens, it’s the people of Scotland who’ve decided. Quite what they’ve decided, we won’t know for a while – I think a Yes vote will lead to lots of negotiations and calls for another vote on the actual deal, while a No will lead to some people suddenly finding things much more important than devo max to talk about. Whatever the result, there’s a window of opportunity to talk about making a different and better government for a different and better UK, and we need to make sure they don’t close it.

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Following up from Monday’s post (a Lord thought it was ‘excellent‘, you know…) and with Nick Clegg launching a new report on devolution today, a few more thoughts that I wanted to set down in advance of writing about this properly.

1) We need a new language of devolution

I’ve had a quick look through the summary of the IPPR report that’s being launched today and it’s generally good. There are some points of implementation where I’d differ from them, but I think the principle is good.

The problem is that if you try explaining it to people, or asking them to read even the summary report, most people’s eyes are going to glaze over very quickly when they hit management-speak phrases like ‘core outcome entitlements’. The reason Yes is doing so well in Scotland is that ‘independence’ is a simple complex, easily understood. ‘Asymmetric devolution to combined authorities’ isn’t, and if we’re going to go out and argue for it, we need to understand how to make that case better. Writing that appeals to fellow policy wonks is not the way to do that.

2) We need to stop the obsession with elected mayors

If there’s anything that shows how much think tanks are generally based within the M25, it’s the idea that everywhere needs an elected Mayor. After all, London has one, so why shouldn’t everywhere else? The problem is, it’s been tried and tried again and people are generally resistant to the idea of having them. That doesn’t stop them sneaking into every report about giving power to the regions or promoting our cities as if they’re the only answer to the question.

There are important questions about how local government (and any future devolved governments) are run, but the options should be more than just status quo or mayors. We also need to break away from the idea that one size fits all, and the same model needs to apply in the same way to every authority.

3) We need simple boundaries and obvious accountability

At the moment, Colchester sits within many different areas for many different things: the East of England, the Haven Gateway, Essex County Council, Essex Police, South East Local Enterprise Partnership and many others. None of those groupings operate on the same boundaries, with lots of them crossing and intersecting with themselves and others. I know we’re not unique in this and the same pattern is repeated across the country. Different regions are set up for different parts of the government, and each one ends up needing a separate bureaucracy and structures for accountability because nothing currently exists in that area that could take it on.

If we’re going to have sensible and popular devolution, then we need to keep things simple. Boundaries need to be set, and then organisations need to be set up to work within those boundaries, allowing them to share the costs of bureaucracy and accountability. Devolved and federal systems work because there’s clearly understood accountability and responsibility, not confusion about which area you might be in for what responsibility at any given time.

Like I said, these are just some general thoughts I wanted to set down before I forget them, but all comments, thoughts and questions are welcome.

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This is more of a placeholder host as what happens next is very much dependent on how Scotland votes in the independence referendum on the 18th. However, I just wanted to set out some of the things I’ve been thinking in an attempt to clarify them and maybe start some discussion.

What’s clear is that whatever the result of the vote next week, there will be a change in the constitutional balance between Westminster and Edinburgh – either Scotland will be independent, or more powers will be transferred there, which all the parties campaigning for a No vote have promised. However, there’s only been a small discussion about how that will affect the rest (or the remainder, depending on the result) of the UK. What discussion there has been has normally taken the form of a few mutterings, then someone saying ‘it’s all about the West Lothian Question, isn’t it?’ and everyone nodding sagely before moving onto other things.

Whatever the status of the UK is after the 18th, England will remain the one part of the country without any significantly devolved powers and with no obvious solution in prospect. Regional assemblies were rejected, and I’m not sure that a English Parliament or any other all-England solution is going to achieve much, as it assumes that everywhere from Carlisle to Dover and Penzance to Berwick needs the same solution.

However, I think there is a demand for more powers from some areas – Cornwall, Yorkshire and the big cities have all called for them recently – and perhaps what England needs isn’t a preoccupation with finding a one-size-fits-all solution but a solution that’s based on a real localism, with areas getting the powers they want, not the powers that Whitehall decrees they should have. It also needs a willingness to look beyond existing boundaries to see where new powers would be effectively applied not where it was thought to be in the 1880s or 1974 when most of the current local government boundaries were set.

In short, what we’re probably going to need is some form of constitutional convention, but one that’s not concerned solely with how the country as a whole is run but how we can keep as much power as possible at the lower levels of the system throughout the country. I have no idea what form that would take – with or without Scotland involved in it, but that’s why I’m sending this half-formed thought out there, in the hope it might get some discussion going. So what do you think?

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