Challenging the Power of the State: How the Left Can Create A Progressive Union
There is nothing progressive about wanting to see the break up of the United Kingdom. It is imperfect but, to paraphrase RAB Butler, it is the best country we have. Divorce would be messy and bitter. The logic of Stronger In was true of the UK in Europe, it is true of the United Kingdom.
Yet Brexit has given Scotland a compelling case for independence. Much of the responsibility for this lies with Theresa May whose Brexit policy is a merely case of giving England what it wants.
The left has historically failed in its aim of progressive constitutional reform. It cannot fail again. In fact, there is an urgency as rarely before. A different constitutional model might not necessarily have stopped Brexit but it might have facilitated a compromise.
The Tories remain uninterested in reform except when it is to their advantage - viz English Votes for English Laws. So it falls to Labour, the Liberal Democrats, parties of the various nation states, even moderate Conservatives and civic society to create a new consensus - similar to that which preceded devolution - that will be enacted when the Conservative party is thrown out of office.
Reform has to be bold but realistic. Never again should one nation be able to dominate. It must both accept the current identity of the United Kingdom, but also seek to shape it. Most importantly, it must be a full-frontal attack on the power of the state.
Too often constitutional reform has boiled down to calls for proportional representation. Issues such as abolition of the monarchy would (unfortunately) be a distraction. Nor it cannot be palmed off to constitutional conventions.
There must be a guarantee that the lamentable failure of the past will not continue in the future. There must be clear, detailed proposals for a progressive Act of Union, ready for the first hundred days of a new government.
Constitutional fluidity has to be key to a new model Britain
The central thrust of a new settlement has to be to complete the devolution process New Labour began to create a quasi-federal structure of nations and regions. It would be grotesquely unfair to create an English parliament so smaller regional assemblies could complement the nation parliaments of Scotland and Wales. As far as possible these assembles would have equal authority to parliaments leaving Westminster with powers over defence, foreign affairs and the economy.
These assemblies have to have a basis in existing identity. The creation of regional assemblies, based around the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain, would be a starting point, with Greater London a region in itself. However, smaller regions such as Cornwall - never a true friend to its neighbour Devon - might prefer separate assemblies.
To be truly radical though, reform could allow regions to elect to become nations within the union.
This is not enough. A new settlement must tackle House of Lords reform. The Brexit debate has shown that the second chamber needs to become a democratic body to ensure the individual nations are not overwhelmed. Thus the new Senate would not be elected proportionally but would proportion members so that a number of nations could block certain measures. There would be protest but the US Senate gives each state equal representation, whatever its size.
A federal structure would mean arguments against election dissolved but that does not mean better democratic options, such as selection by lot, should be ruled out. There is a opportunity to democratise the culture of British politics: a chamber of non-politicians could do that. It would signal a genuine intent to change.
Were the second chamber to have a constitutional role it might have powers to block opportunistic uses of plebisites, such as David’s Cameron’s EU referendum.
Constitutional fluidity has to be key to a new model Britain. Much as the weight of states changes in the US electoral college, the balance and power of votes has to regularly change to reflect demographic and new national changes. The huge advantage of this would be that it would see a natural progression towards federalism proper, rather than quasi-federalism.
Finally, the secretive power of the executive in Westminster must be blown away by creating a proper system of checks and balances. The British prime minister holds too much unaccountable power; MPs are too often lobby fodder rather than a proper legislators.
Here the United States could provide an inspiration for change: that Trump’s two executive orders on immigration from majority Muslim countries have both been struck down by independent courts is a sign of the system working.
LABOUR MUST THROW OFF THE CONSERVATISM THEY HAVE SHOWN IN OFFICE AND BECOME INSURGENTS
The undemocratic royal prerogative could go; select committees given further powers to hold government to account; formal structures for how Cabinet decisions are made - as outlined, interestingly, by Jack Straw and Peter Hennessy - finally written into law; backbench members become the primary sponsors of legislation rather than the executive.
The prime minister might remain a member of the House of Commons but his or her Cabinet might not be, instead becoming answerable to its committees.
In the US constitutional change happens when three-quarters of the states agree: the will of nations has to stand alongside the will of the people. The idea of popular sovereignty is too often characterised by calls for direct democracy. Consensus not crude majority has to become the foundation of a new commonwealth.
The political climate post-referendum does not give much cause for optimism but the threat of meltdown ought to provide the impetus for change towards a sophisticated, non-oligrachic system of government befitting a civilised country.
To achieve this Labour must throw off the conservatism they have shown in office and become insurgents.
First, parties must agree that there are legitimate grievances. The first is the grievance towards a political class often interested in preserving power rather than spreading it; the second is the grievance created by the dominance of England within the United Kingdom.
So the question is: is the bond strong enough to allow compromise and change?
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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