Written submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
20 November 2014
The UK, and its member countries, are facing a number of constitutional and identity crises. These are as serious as those which faced Germany during the nineteenth century and probably as serious as anything affecting England since 1922, 1688 or perhaps 1649. A new written constitution is essential, and it is my clear preference of the three options, but only after some fairly seismic changes have been allowed to take place. The options of a constitutional code and constitutional consolidation act are interesting but of minor benefit.
45% of the Scottish voters chose independence from the UK. Our politicians are now tacking backwards and forwards, desperately trying to find party advantage from the aftermath of the referendum whilst still appearing to be doing something to keep the union together.
There is no rallying point for a British state which could lead all parts of the nation to come together to create a new, all-UK settlement. There is such distrust and even resentment in all parts of the UK that the prospects of cooperative, deliberative design-and-build of a new constitution seem remote. Given this dismal background, it is time, I believe, for the nations to part company by mutual agreement for the sole reason that they will never be able to agree a mutually satisfactory settlement. England would always resent the smaller nations for getting what would be seen as too much influence and too much money; the smaller nations would always resent England for dominating all the apparatus of the UK and for allowing them too little say over their own affairs.
In submitting my thoughts to the committee, I wish to structure them as follows:
1. Arrangements for the very short term
2. Transitional process towards independence
3. Constitution for England post-independence.
1. Arrangements for the very short term
(a) Parliament must pass a law codifying the "promises" made to Scotland at the time of the referendum and establishing firm dates by which these are to be put in place. Given the likelihood that much of the implementation will be after the next general election, the political parties must state in their manifestos whether they support the promises being implemented.
(b) England must be given a transitional parliament (a cut-down House of Commons hosting only the 533 English MPs). To give representation to the other countries pending their independence, the First Minister and a deputy of each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be given cabinet seats (the deputies being chosen to be the leaders of the second-largest party in the relevant national assembly / parliament). The Prime Minister would be the English First Minister.
(c) A constitutional convention should be set up to spearhead the planning for the transition to independence. It should publish a recommended timescale as soon as possible and should then seek support in a UK-wide referendum for all registered voters of 16 years or more.
(d) A law must be passed before the May general election stating that, in the event of there being no party with an overall majority, the parties must be ranked by the number of people who voted, nationally, for all of their candidates (ie by "popular vote") and the government must be formed by the two or if necessary three biggest parties. If the three biggest parties (by popular vote) still do not reach a majority of the popular vote, there must be a second election.
2. Transitional process towards independence
Over an agreed period of time, all the functions of state must be dispersed to the point that each country is able to administer itself without recourse to central civil service, government, or quasi-governmental organisations. This should be overseen by a royal commission to ensure fair play. When independence is mutually declared, all four countries will have the British monarch as head of state and therefore the arbiter and guarantor of fair play would be the monarchy. The European Union must be persuaded to grant replacement membership to the new countries, and to add its supervision to the process of separation.
3. Constitution for England post-independence
(My comments apply to the UK as a whole if independence is not forthcoming!)
I see the priorities as:
· a written constitution replacing all precedents and individual laws of bearing on the relationship between citizens and the UK or English state, and between different organs and bodies of the UK / English state
· an elected Head of State to replace the monarchy
· an elected Upper House
· a referendum on a range of choices of funding allocation systems to parts of the UK (or, if independent, to England). This is one of the biggest causes of grievance and disharmony in the UK at present. Part of the problem is the opaque nature of the allocation, which gives rise to misunderstandings and exaggerations, fuelled by party propaganda. This must be replaced by a system chosen in a referendum and made very clear in its function, logic and calculations.
· English local government - along with its funding, its powers, its role and position in the constitution - must be rationalised as part of a new written constitution. Ideally, once independent (but not before), England should administer itself through a small number of large regions - probably along the lines of North, Midlands, South-East (including London) and South-West. This is mainly for reasons of transport and infrastructure planning. Only by having large regions is it possible on such a small territory with so many concentrations of population to mark boundaries which avoid splitting densely populated areas. The current core level of local government is the districts, boroughs, and unitary authorities. These should be retained. Two-tier counties, however, should be removed from the scene as they are neither big enough to be useful nor small enough to be local. However, to keep people happy, brown road signs must be put up on all borders of the 1898 counties (ie before the creation of London County Council) saying "Welcome to the Historic County of ....". The historic counties, however, should have no adminstrative or legal identity. Elections to the regions, and to the districts, boroughs and unitaries within each region, must be by a fair voting system such as FPTPA or STV.
· There must be a steady alignment of all sub-national bodies (eg NHS, Police forces, Schools Commissioners, local government) so that ultimately each body's sub-divisions map onto the new regions. Part of the distrust of all organisations felt by more and more of the people is a result of not knowing who adminsters what in their locality / county / borough etc. This is hardly surprising, given how different the zoning is between different bodies.
· Combined authorities and LEPs must be disbanded as they have been set up largly by themselves and without democratic will. Once the new regions are in place, rational arrangements for such functions as transport planning, regeneration, housing etc will be decided by the regions by democratically elected regional elections.
· The central parliament should be much reduced in size. Representatives from the regional governments would be chosen to join the central government / cabinet. General elections would be for the sole purpose of directly choosing the head of state, prime minister, and cabinet. The government could be brought down if there were a sufficient majority of regional parliament members prepared to vote against it in a vote of confidence which would be called by the elected president. Cabinet ministers would be voted for, nationally, and the voting would therefore be proportional. Candidates would have to have served as regional ministers for a minimum period of time before being eligible for central office. Political parties must be barred from blocking any of their regional politicians from standing for election to central office.
· The upper house should be even more drastically cut in numbers. Candidates for the upper house would only be allowed to stand for election if they could demonstrate that they had spent at least ten years (since turning 21) entirely outside the political process and institutions.
· The judiciary would be appointed by the president subject to approval by both houses of parliament.
· The church of England should be disestablished and should have no seats in any part of parliament or government.