Loving our constitutional hotchpotch

It seems there is no greater political crime at the moment than pledging one’s support for Europe. But alas, I’ve always been a Europhile so I see little point in hiding it now. I have always believed it is in Britain’s best interests not only to remain in the European Union but to embrace it and play a more active and powerful role. We do that by exercising leadership, not vetoes. As Peter Mandelson once said, ‘I do not share the half-in, half-out attitude to the EU of some in Britain. Britain’s place is in Europe.’

At the same time, however, I am relaxed about the never-ending debate on the relationship between Britain and rest of the EU. If more pro-Europeans engaged in that debate rather than shying away it would help our cause. At the moment it seems that only those who shout the loudest are heard, and the pro-European camp is yet to muster a whimper.

I am not convinced now is time for an in-out referendum but I do not fear one. The outcome would be uncertain but I hope and believe pro-Europeans can win the day. If that happens, should we expect Nigel Farage and the Tory right to give up and start embracing Brussels? Of course not. Regardless of the result of a referendum, there will always be an anti-European movement in Britain, just as there will always be a pro-European one. Which is why those calling for a referendum to ‘settle the question once and for all’ are wrong. It won’t, and nor should it.

One of the great things about an unwritten constitution is that we always get to question and challenge where power lies, whether that be in Europe, at Westminster, the devolved institutions or at local government level. Politicians should stop fearing these debates and start embracing them. We should accept Britain for the asymmetrical and inconsistent constitutional mess that it is, and learn to love it.

That’s why Ed Miliband’s speech on ‘Englishness’ earlier this month was important. Not so much for what he said, but merely for his willingness to talk about these issues, something political leaders have too often avoided in the past because they fear they’re expected to provide a neat and tidy answer when the truth is that politicians need to learn to be less prescriptive when it come constitutional affairs. The make-up of the United Kingdom and the role it plays within Europe is not a debate to be afraid of for fear of not finding a neat and tidy solution.

Partly in response to the threat of Scottish independence, Carwyn Jones, the Welsh first minister, has proposed a constitutional convention in the UK. I think this is a good idea and I hope the Labour party consider it as part of the policymaking process for the 2015 general election manifesto. I would go further and suggest that such a convention be permanent in form, constantly examining where power lies across the UK and in Europe, engaging with the public and proposing changes as necessary, rather than yet another committee of the great and the good tasked with the impossible job of coming up with yet another full and final lasting settlement.

Whatever the outcome of an EU referendum, the debate about Britain’s relationship with Europe will outlast us all. To ‘settle the question once and for all’ would require consensus, and so long as closet Europhiles find their voice and challenge the bellowing Eurosceptic minority, there’s no sign of that. Thank goodness.

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David Taylor was special adviser to former secretary of state for Wales Peter Hain

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Photo: Dave Kellam

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Comments: 6...

  1. On June 19, 2012 at 10:07 am Guest1 responded with... #

    What is it with Welsh Labour and conventions / talking shops – they’re obsessed with them!.
    – Recession = let’s call an economic summit around Wales.
    – Cardiff Airport problems = let’s have a working group to discuss it.
    – Devolution issues = let’s have not 1, not 2 but three Commissions looking into it (Richards, All Wales, Holtham).
    – And now with the constitution = let’s have a Convention.

    Loads of talking shops but never any action. So no, I don’t think we need to listen to Welsh Labour on these issues.

    • On June 19, 2012 at 12:25 pm David Taylor responded with... #

      I agree with you we have had too many conventions and commissions – and we seem to create a new one every year or so. Which is precisely why I am arguing for a standing body. Devolution is a process, not an event, someone once said. I think we need to acknowledge that by having a permanent commission/convention/committee to always be examine where power lies.

  2. On June 19, 2012 at 11:41 am wg responded with... #

    Meanwhile the working people of Europe see their working lives extend and their pensions go up in smoke.

    We see pampered parasites such as David Taylor play the “European game” – flitting to and fro to Brussels, playing the EU colonial imperialist – ever intent on more glass palaces and chauffeur-driven cars for his precious political elite.

    Life is great for such as David Taylor – but the ordinary working person has to pay for his privilege.

    How I’ve grown to hate the arrogant lot of them.

    • On June 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm David Taylor responded with... #

      I’ve only been to Brussels once, I hardly flit to and fro. I agree with you that the European elite can be to inward looking at times. Which is why we need to do more to talk positively about Europe at home.

      • On June 19, 2012 at 7:02 pm wg responded with... #

        It was gracious of you to answer my ill-tempered rant – I thank you for that.

        My sentiments still stand though.

  3. On July 2, 2012 at 10:32 am maen_tramgwydd responded with... #

    “One of the great things about an unwritten constitution is that we always get to question and challenge where power lies…”

    That’s just it. You’re wrong, we don’t. The sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament has never been challenged since the concept crystallised in the nineteenth century.

    The corrupt undemocratic political system carries on regardless of what people think or want. It’s taken a century and an unelected privileged second chamber still exists! Sovereignty isn’t vested in the People, but in a political elite far removed from ordinary people. General elections give us a choice between one incompetent, self-serving, rotten, bunch of politicians or another, who want to maintain the status quo.

    The amazing thing is that the system hasn’t been reformed, but perpetuated, by a party, Labour, which long ago claimed to represent working people, but has become almost impossible to distinguish from its political rivals.

    The bad news in, in England at least, that reform, is impossible, short of a revolution, as the power lies in the hands of the very people who have most to lose if its changed.

    You are correct in saying that the UK is asymmetric and a constitutional mess. How and why you think we should love it I can’t imagine.

    The obvious solution for the Scots is to take sovereignty into their own hands, and out of the Westminster cesspit – all they have to do is say ‘Yes’ in 2014, to be rid of it.

    We in Wales have that potential, and hopefully enough of us will wake up to the fact that we have to take responsibility for our own country if we are ever to have any chance of prosperity.

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