A constitutional convention for all

For some years now support for a United Kingdom constitutional convention to deal with the English democratic deficit, reform of the House of Lords and to move toward a more federal UK has been gathering momentum.

Jeremy Purvis and I set up an all-party group at Westminster with the support of the English Local Government Association, which has been promoting this and we asked Lord Bob Kerslake to chair an Inquiry to move it forward.

The most powerful and articulate support for such a convention came in the evidence given by Gordon Brown to that inquiry and he has been championing the case in various fora since then.

However his latest contribution at the Fabian Society last week seems to me to confuse and complicate the issue by linking the strong and growing case for the convention with Brexit.

I say this first because many of us believe it is premature to assume Brexit will go ahead, and I will elaborate on this, and second because to link the two implies that the strength of the case for the Ccnvention somehow depends on Brexit, whereas I think the opposite is the case.

David Cameron is the villain in all of this. We should have realised when he allowed Alex Salmond to decide the franchise, date and wording of the question in the independence referendum that he was not too great a negotiator.

His capitulation to Ukip and the Tory right gave us a totally unnecessary European Union referendum, where he refused the vote to 16 and 17 year olds and EU citizens who voted in the Scottish referendum and a threshold because he complacently thought he could win. The result was a win for Brexit with 37 per cent of a flawed franchise.

However there are a number of hurdles still in the way of Brexit. The government fell at the first, namely the High Court ruling on prerogative, and I believe will do so also when the Supreme Court agrees. There is no chance of them appealing to the EU Court of Justice.

But there are many more hurdles. Both Houses of Parliament will need to debate and approve the terms of both triggering Article 50 and any deal that might be agreed. Scotland and Northern Ireland loom large with the prospect even of Sinn Fein taking their seats at Westminster for the first time ever.

Any deal needs to be approved by the parliaments of all 27 member states, and presumably subsidiary parliaments like Wallonia in some countries, as well as the European parliament and the commission.

The belief that we can, in parallel, negotiate trade deals with third countries has already been dismissed by Australia and others, so that will case resentment and we have not heard a fraction yet of the implications of the deal with Nissan.

So to base the case for a constitutional convention, even partially, on powers that will be repatriated as a result of Brexit is, at the least a distraction and, at worst dangerous to an agreement to set up a UK constitutional convention.

Brown made a strong case why it is needed and how it could be achieved on which I hope we can all now concentrate.

Constitutional change in the UK has been ad hoc, haphazard and often raised more questions than it answered. We now have a Scottish parliament that is probably the most powerful devolved parliament in the world, without any transfer from Brussels.

On 5 September it acquired new welfare powers which enables it to create new benefits and uprate existing benefits, like universal credit, for Scots. Rather than criticise the cuts of the Westminster government, the Scottish Government can decide either to help the poor Scots they claim concern for or agree a carbon copy of Tory austerity.

The Welsh assembly are now seeking powers equivalent to Scotland and Stormont has long had such powers. The big and indefensible anomaly now is the English democratic deficit, which is not resolved either by English votes for English laws (EVEL) or the creation of directly elected mayors in certain cities.

What is needed is a coherent and stable solution which deals with both legislation and administrative devolution in a consistent and fair way. Some argue in favour of an English parliament for legislation with administrative devolution to regional authorities, but there are other options.

At the same time the unelected and indefensible second chamber needs reform. In my view, the Lords should be replaced by an indirectly elected senate of the nations and regions – but again there are other options that need to be considered.

The only way that these can be considered in a coherent, democratic and effective way is through a UK people’s constitutional convention. This has the support of many bodies such as the Electoral Reform Society, the Constitution Society and our own all-party group.

As Brown said in his Fabian speech, the government should be asked by Labour to sponsor such a convention and, if they fail to respond positively, then Labour and the other parties should come behind it, as was done in Scotland in 1989.

But my final plea, to Brown and others, is not to tie this to Brexit. The case for a constitutional convention is strong, perhaps stronger, without needing to include any possible transfer of powers from Brussels and it is important to get support from both, or rather all, sides of the Brexit debate.

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George Foulkes is a member of the House of Lords and a former member of the Scottish parliament. He tweets @GeorgeFoulkes

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Comments: 1...

  1. On November 7, 2016 at 12:20 pm Alf responded with... #

    Gordon Brown, eh? It’s been a long time since we last heard from that twitching Tory-lite corpse!

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