The UK Constitution under severe pressure: (1) Devolution

Underlying a lot of the difficulties being faced in the upcoming 2015 election are unresolved problems to do with the UK constitution and system of government, the most pressing of which are the issue of devolution of power to the nations of the UK and regions, as set against the potential for the UK to fall apart, and also the UK’s relationship with the EU. However there are other issues too which politicians have postponed addressing and which could contribute to the current public antipathy towards politics and Westminster politicians. Some argue that the time has come for a new start and indeed at least one party is proposing a constitutional convention after the election while another prefers a referendum on membership of the EU.

Recent attempts at reform

UK politicians tend to have an aversion to root-and-branch reform, and have preferred short-term and adhoc adjustments. After the last election, a readjustment to constituency boundaries was kicked into the long grass after Labour opposition, as was reform of the House of Lords. A referendum to switch from the First Past the Post electoral system to a mild quasi-PR system of the Alternative Vote saw the proposal defeated, which has put a dampers on electoral reform. A measure was passed to make the press subject to statutory regulation, but it was not implemented.The single most significant change was the act of 2010 to create fixed term Parliaments of 5 years, thus doing away with the old power of the Prime Minister to alone choose the date of the election, and thus at a time most advantageous to the party in power.

Devolution vs concentration of power

A characteristic of the UK constitution has been the concentration of power on the Prime Minister and his/her majority party in the House of Commons, giving them control over the government, policy making and legislation for the whole UK. This though is changing, most notably since the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (1998)

Just recently a referendum to make Scotland independent was defeated by a 10% margin, and yet as happens with nationalism in a multi-national state the nationalists (Scottish National Party – SNP) have capitalised on the clumsy handling of victory to gain a much enhanced following and look likely to control the balance of power in Parliament in the 2015 election. Thus they would be well-placed to bargain as a price of support for massively increased devolution beyond what is currently proposed.

At present the UK government has proposed giving Scotland increased powers in relation to such areas as taxation and social security, but also stated that a parallel measure is needed to give English MPs more independent control over measures concerning only England, so-called EVEL (English Votes for English Laws). This has opened a can of worms, since it also creates questions for the other nations, Wales and Northern Ireland, all of whom could have a bargaining power in 2015. It has been argued that this is not being approached systematically, but more instead as ad hoc measures that leave too many areas of potential continued disagreement and conflic(for example see here). Thus, with a victim culture inherent in unsatisfied nationalism, there is always room to find fault and blame the traditional government in some way.

Thus the ghosts of the unsuccessful attempts to gain Home Rule for Ireland in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Gladstone have come back to haunt the UK. Traditionally politicians have been against the notion of federalism, with high levels of autonomy for the various nationalities, and yet this could prove the most statesmanlike solution.

Devolution to the English regions

Parallel to this too is the question of devolution to the English regions. This question keeps coming up, most recently in the failed attempt of 2004 to give devolution to North East England. However, the Chancellor George Osborne has recently championed the idea of a North West powerhouse centred on the successful metropolitan area of Manchester, including devolved health, transport, housing, planning and policing powers. However, people ask, how much real teeth will this body have, as opposed to an enlarged local authority? Unlike Scotland, there’s been no mention of tax-raising powers. The problem for England for a very long time has been over-centralisation in Westminster, with local authorities having limited independent decision-making capabilities. It’s worth bearing in mind that we’re talking about 85% of the UK population. So real devolution parallel to that given to the other nations would have a much more significant impact on UK government and politics. It is the financial area in particular that is the most complex to address and the most controversial. Yet if they don’t get it right, it will cause more complexity, and more conflict.

Next: Britain and the EU: to stay or to go?

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