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?