Monday, May 25, 2009

Do We Need a UK-Wide Constitutional Convention?

I've just finished recording a ten minute discussion on devolution for BBC Radio Scotland's Scotland at Ten programme (listen tonight at 10pm) with Sir Alan Beith and academic Alan Trench. Sir Alan is chairman of the Justice Select Committee which has published a report on the issue (HERE). It doesn't come to any particular conclusion on what the solution to the English Question ought to be but at least it has defined the questions which need to be asked.

I have to say I don't think constitutional reform is going to be very high on the agenda of whatever colour the next government is and it will be incumbent on those of us who care deeply about constitutional reform to keep up the pressure, from both within and outside Parliament.

I'd like to see a UK wide constitutional convention, made up of all sorts of people and groups, not just elected politicians. It could run along similar lines to the Scottish one from the late 1990s, but England's constitutional future cannot be decided in isolation. There are pressures for the Welsh Assembly to be upgraded to a full parliament, which is something that would have consequences for the UK too. Should the Scottish Parliament also be given further powers? These are not just questions for Scotland and Wales to determine. Such a convention could also look at the future powers and makeup of both the House of Commons and House of Lords, as well as the increasingly important question of the English democratic deficit.

Actually, thinking about it, this is a very good example of what we were debating below in the REVIVING PARLIAMENT thread. Everyone who reads this blog knows that I am a proponent of an English Parliament. That's not Conservative Party policy but it is something I believe in out of conviction. If, therefore, there was a debate in the Commons, and I was an MP, no one could expect me, as a backbench MP, to do anything but to follow my convictions. And if I didn't, I'd deserve all that was coming to me.


Dick the Prick said...

I got quite involved in the Power Commission. This impetus being expressed at the moment is just a sop for the fact that loads of wasters are gonna lose their gigs.

The ideas and delivery systems have been established years ago - that MPs cared not a jot - or maybe their leaderships does not give rise to any enthusiasm to listen to them drivel knee jerk tosh now. But yes, in answer to the question but too bloody late - tossers.

All of the 3 upper echelons of government have culpable responsibility for this shite.

UKIP Gaze said...

Sorry iain, don't see how such a group wouldn't become heavily politicised and crammed full of ex-politicians who are even more out-of-touch than those in Parliament already.

What we need is the politicians themselves to push through radical change. Having all of the three front benches wanting to take the country in the direction of a social democratic-thereom doesn't help.

James Burdett said...

Yes we do, we should not treat the constitution as the plaything of the party in power. It could also be conducted ex camera in that it would allow Parliament and Govt to carry on undistracted. If it was set up with the proviso that any recommendations would be put before the country.

It should have the broadest possible terms of reference though, and we shouldn't leave things out that we are uncomfortable with including the established status of the CofE and even the situation of the Monarchy.

Witterings from Witney said...


You have been discussing something I have been suggesting for weeks now.

However, I must disagree immediately with you on the Scots and Welsh points - why have separate parliaments, staff etc with the resultant costs? Why not adopt the idea that on certain days Scots, Welsh and English MPs debate and deal with their respective matters? We have the building already in London.

Mind you, first Young Cameron needs to extract himself from the hole he has dug. See:

Anonymous said...

How about something like the British Columbia Citizens Assembly?

Alex said...

No, we just need MPs to fill in their expenses correctly and the ELectoral Commission to do its job.

Robin Hood said...

The future of the UK can't just be decided by British politicians who seem to have a respect for the Scots and the Welsh that they do not have for the English (West Lothian question, Barnett formula).

It is time for an English parliament, and after the expenses debacle I think the English public is going to be less tolerant of the anomalies New Labour has caused through the devolution process.

People will see the next five years as an unprecedented opportunity to change England and the rest of the UK in ways undreamed of less than a year ago.

no longer anonymous said...

The more we talk up constitutional reform, the more we risk allowing the left to get PR into the media narrative.

Anonymous said...

We need an England wide Constitutional convention..

DC said...

If there is to be change then yes I think there should be a convention. The problem is that Brown is just incapable of inclusive politics and he still has long enough to push through 'change' which would be partisan in nature.

Is no one else worried that facing electoral annihilation Brown wouldn't push through a form of PR that would guarantee a LibDem/Labour government?

Unknown said...

"if I was an MP"- You could insert that phrase into most of your Blogs, articles etc. So I think we can take this as an admission that with so many safe Tory seats up for grabs, you're throwing your hat in the ring :)

wolfie said...

We the English people are long overdue a referendum on this issue and until it's held there is no use discussing other assemblies/powers. If the English vote for independence ( I fully expect that they would) then it's a done deal and its for the others to decide to either go it alone or form a "Celtic" alliance.

subrosa said...

Alan Beith? Enough said. He's so much part of the 'establishment' that he could be the wallpaper.

Plato said...

Join the Witanagemot Club if you want to add your voice to bloggers for an English Parliament

Calum Cashley said...

Independence for England - it's the only sensible course of action. You know it is ...

Duncan Cookson said...

I've always wondered whether we could just do away with the Lords and have an English Parliament instead, elected with some form of PR. Wouldn't that keep the advantages of both systems? UK-wide legislation could be passed to the regional parliaments instead of going through the Lords. There'd be a complicated business sorting out all the division of responsibilities but we do need an English solution. I don't like the idea of losing the direct elections with MPs representing constituents and I like PR because it reflects the national vote. It won't happen because the Commons would lose power (and they hate that) and the Lords are all on a promise, but I think it would be quite an elegant way of doing it...And if the church want to tell people how to vote they should disestablish themselves first...

William Blakes Ghost said...

Much as the intention may be good. What's the point of having another talking shop that doesn't address the major roadblock.


By the way, Ian much as I sympathise with the concept of an English Parliament given it represents 85% of the British electorate it makes no logistical sense and undermines the authority of an already weakened UK Parliament.

If ever an English Parliament defied the UK Parliament what is the UK Parliament going to do about it? Nothing that's what.

The logical approach is to go for the regional solution but to do so and maintain public confidence of any sort would require effective withdrawal from the EU (won't happen for a decade or more) and somehow to get over the collective desire of the English for unity (likely not going to happen).

There is only one scenario where an English Parliament works and that is with the dissolution of the Union, which for geographical, security, logistical and financial reasons I'm not in favour of.

Returning to the idea of a convention the fact that the majority of the country likely do not trust anything done by the political classes right now suggest such a move would only be dismissed by the public.

There is only one action that in my mind can restore a modicum of respect in the political class.

Give the people the referendum promised on the Lisbon Treaty. Until that promise is fulfilled the political classes will be viewed as no better than sewer rats and any actions taken on our constitution will be viewed as self serving diversions from the gross abuses that have and are still occurring (and it's not just expenses)!

neil craig said...

It is often said that the FPTP electoral system may not be very democratic but what it does do is give us strong government.

The corolary of that is that a proportionally elected Parliament in which government did not have an automatic majority would give us a strong Parliament able to prevent over mighty government.

It is clear that papering over the cracks is not going to work. Personally I think this scandal has been the effect not the cause of widespread contempt for Parliament, nor do i think it is the worst possible scandal as anybody who has read what i have said about complicity in the genocide & dissections of living Serbs in Kosovo will know.

We do need reform & I suggest something which would both have public respect & work would be to have citizens juries judge on the options. Such juries have made sensibly supportive decisions over nuclear power or at least much more sensible ones than most politicians.

cynicalHighlander said...

"In truth, the freeborn Briton is a myth. British freedoms have always rested on custom and convention, not on any fundamental law: on the transient goodwill of a mostly generous political elite, not on the sovereignty of the people."

Guthrum said...

Yes to an English Parliament and yes to a Constitutional Convention and keep this current crop of MP's away from it

No more 'top down' solutions

Glynne said...

Despite much propoganda and hot air the Welsh people do not want a Parliment nor do they want independace from the UK.

Devolution is not working nor is the Welsh Assembly.

Anonymous said...

The present system is broken, because parliament has lost the trust of the people. A constitutional convention would be a way to redress that.

Unfortunately much of the reform necessary involves taking away power from the political parties and giving it back to the people, and it's unlikely the political elite will accept that without a fight.

VotR said...

I don't know about the Constitution just yet.

How about a referendum on EU membership. I know how I'd vote.

Once out of the EU - which would only be a trade partner - we should think about the constitution. Because we will actually have the power to do so.

Vijay said...

Yes, and here is my proposition, it deals with the west lothian question, reform of the house of Lords and reform of the voting system in a sipmle elegant solution: The We make the Lords the elected Parliament of the United Kingdom, using Cerimonial county based constituencies so it would be as small as possible[1]. Remove Scottish, Welsh and NI MPs from the Commons and make it the parliament of England. Introduce the Single Transferable vote for all General elections (at least in the reformed Lords). This would effectively create a federal kingdom keeping us united whilst skewering the nationalist parties and granting power back to the people with a more accountable system

[1]This becomes complicated, we may wish to keep a ceremonial seat for the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury to maintain the establishment of the church. I also think that we should find a way to keep cross-bench peers but can't think of a democratic way of doing it.

Chris said...

Why on earth do we have a UK Parliament? Either cut it down drastically so that it simply deals with British-wide isues and instate an English Parliament - or abolish the Union. When the devolution process was begun, the Scots and Welsh were given referendums. Well, the English need exactly the same treatment. And if damages the so-called Union, tough! LET THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND SPEAK!

Maria said...

William Blakes Ghost: You are basically saying deny the people of England a say! Dictator!

Old Codger said...

The biggest problem with an English parliament is that it involves yet another lot of politicians with the associated bureaucracy and sleaze. There must be a better and cheaper way.

Iain Dale said...

Old Codger. Lazy thinking. There does not have to be another batch of politicians. Or indeed a new building. Parliament could sit three weeks in four for the whole UK, then English MPs could sit for the fourth weeks consdiering English only matters.

no longer anonymous said...

orget an English Parliament, go one better - decentralise power down to a county level and allow money to be spent where it is raised.

That will put an end to subsidies from Tory areas to Labour areas.

Man in a Shed said...

Iain- I'm with you on the idea of an English parliament.

The problem with any further changes just now is that they will be made in the light of tactical considerations from the left as they consider losing power for a decade. They will be devoted to sabotaging a Conservative Govt and hence the whole country.

Postman Pat's stuff is self interested trying to find a hiding place for Labour MPs who will shortly be able to discover first hand how much fun "Job Centre Plus" and all the apprenticeships and "real help now" actually is.

The Conservatives should promise:

1) Reform by agreement between the main parties of the house of Lords, with confirmation of the agreement by referendum, or even a minority proposal to sit on that referendum ( that would encourage a real negotiation for the first proposal).

2) Checks on the powers of the Executive, the Judiciary to create law and UK supremacy over EU law.

3) An English Parliament ( but maybe one that uses current MPs etc to save costs. Indeed why not do the same for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish ).

4) A level of constitutional law that cannot just be changed by a government who has a majority in Parliament alone.

Nigel said...

>>"Do We Need a UK-Wide Constitutional Convention?"<<

Ahead of the next election ?
Do we bollocks.

As Alan Johnson has rather neatly demonstrated, right now constitutional reform is going to be used for political manoeuvring, or as a distraction.

I am not against constitutional change, but would rather not see it engineered by the present lot of incumbents.

One last point: the key test of any electoral system is not the exactitude with which it reflects popular opinion. That is a chimera.
It is the extent to which it is possible for the electorate to vote out incumbents whom they despise.

Anonymous said...

Why do we need more politicians? Are you all simply mad or am I missing something?

I already have an MP who 'represents' me at the top table - at Westminster.

Simply disallow Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MP's voting on solely English matters.

kininvie said...


As SNP supporter, I'd like to make a couple of comments on the Constitutional convention (CC) you are thinking about.

The CC that resulted in the Scottish Parliament took a great deal of time to thrash out. Most of that time was during the Thatcher years, when devolution looked as if it were a dead duck. My point is simply that you can't do this kind of thing in a hurry, and furthermore you have to have people well outside the political system to give their input.

The Scottish Parliament is surprisingly successful in terms of its transparency, the degree of scrutiny given to proposed legislation, and the opportunity for interested parties outside the Parliament to have an impact on what is proposed. It fails, of course, because it has no fiscal responsibility, but that is hardly its fault. As a model for a modern Parliament, however, it does have something to offer.

A purely English parliament of course leads directly to a federal UK. I don't have a particular problem with that, if someone can think of a way of splitting up England into roughly equally weighted portions - but I have yet to see any proposals that don't fall foul of some cultural or historical objection.

Jimmy said...

The idea that England should have a discrete legislature but the same executive has always struck me as constitutionally illiterate

permanentexpat said...

Why the discussion?
Anyone with a modicum of nous knows that we can do nothing about 'our' parliament & 'our' independence until we get out of the EU...which OWNS our Parliament & gives it 75% 0f the laws it MUST approve.
It would do the Chatterati some good to check 'Indedpedence' in their bloody does NOT mention subservience to Brussels.
Constitutional Concention...Huh!

Bardirect said...

We do not need a constitutional convention, NuLab never thought so they simply railroaded through policies that the majority of those paying had no option to vote on.

An incoming Tory Government can folow suit, halve the number of Welsh and Scots constituencies, and require a re-election in all those seats within one year.

WV: pride!

Old Codger said...

"Lazy thinking. There does not have to be another batch of politicians. Or indeed a new building."

Indeed, but I bet there is another batch of politicians, or the same politicians collecting two salaries and expenses, and a new building and another load of bureaucrats.

Unsworth said...

I'm not convinced.

What is needed however is a return to decent standards of behavour and sound ethical principles. The failings of the existing arrangements arise solely and entirely from the unprincipled desire of our elected representatives to look after their own interests - rather than those of the electorate. I do not believe that any reforms or new legislation will make the slightest difference. Those who are of evil intent will always find a way to exploit the situation to their own benefit. The cure - if there is one - is to carefully choose who one may vote for. By their actions you will know them.

The folly of the electorate has been to repeatedly ignore the warning signs and to re-elect the miscreants. Maybe the voting public will be a little more savvy this time round. We can but live in hope.

Dave Arbuthnot said...

The Labour Party clearly believe they are going to lose the next election and will be out of office for some time. That, and as a deliberate diversion from the expenses scandal, are the only reasons why PR is now being mentioned. Only the BBC seem to be taking it seriously. And the same people who are bleating about the possibility of the BNP taking European seats seem to have forgotten about the system used for those elections. As a classic illustration of PR in action, we've just seen how it has taken the Israelis months to form a government, which will be beholden to minority parties for support.

Anonymous said...

Assuming the Welsh and Scottish parliaments continue then the only reform ought to be for an English parliament. I would settle for English votes for English MPs.

The other point to bear in mind is that taking advantage of a few thousands in expenses or 'allowances' does not mean an MP cannot do a useful job and whilst all this is going on Billions continue to be wasted by this govt.

And BTW thousands of jobs are currently threatened at Vauxhall - GM Europe is about to go bust or be taken over by somebody. What is Parliament - what is the media - doing about it? Should we not be getting headlines about this. Whither Jag/LR ?

Expenses are serious but Christ Almighty - there are some really serious things going on right now.

Salmondnet said...

No. We need an English constitutional convention first. Scotland has had its convention without UK wide involvement and Wales is following in its wake. Post-Calman, the Scottish Parliament will get more powers, giving greater urgency to the West Lothian Question. Time for the English to be asked what they want. If the Scots and Welsh don't like what the English decide they are be free to leave.

Simon Gardner said...


VotR said...

This is not the most appropriate time.

It is time for:

* Exposure of MPs abusing the expenses system and milking it to the extreme. And what the people are going to do about it to punish the guilty troughers.

* EU Referendum.

* General Election.

We can think about the reforms to split us all up into our own little worlds later on, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

The next government will try and kick it into the long grass, but this issue will NOT go away. We expect Cameron to parachute Scots into safe English seats. We're watching and waiting.

Even with a supposedly English PM, there are ways of stirring the pot. And stir it we will, until it bubbles over and starts to burn those who tried to ignore England.

Anonymous said...

The only thing England gets out of the British 'Union' is the BILL!.

English Parliament NOW!

DougtheDug said...

Iain, I'm not sure that a "UK Constitutional Convention" would deliver anything worthwhile.

If Scotland leaves the UK the whole excercise becomes academic but even if it doesn't, no "UK Constitutional Convention" will ever deliver an English Parliament.

Devolution is based on the philosophy of granting powers to remote provinces while leaving the centre unchanged. What Scotland, Wales and NI got was effectively a new layer of local government which left Westminster and the constitution intact. Scotland's separate law system, education system and other differences were not created by devolution they already existed when the Scottish parliament was created in Edinburgh. All that was done was to give the running of these separate systems to the Scottish Parliament rather than leave them in the Scottish Office in Whitehall. Devolution did not call into question the existence and function of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords or the idea of Britain as a unitary state.

If England gets a Parliament it will mean the reworking of the UK system of government from the ground up to create a federal UK with four parliaments and a small supreme federal parliament. This is simply not going to happen. A parliament for England is not devolution in action or the unfinished business of devolution and it goes against the very philosophy of devolution which is a strong central state with subsidiary provinces. A Parliament for England is the creation of a federal system of government in the UK which destroys the illusion of a unitary British State with a "Celtic Fringe" of provinces, an illusion that Brown, Cameron and Clegg et al are all desperate to continue.

The best way to get an English Parliament is to send money to the SNP.

Anonymous said...

In short - yes, we need a UK-Wide Constitution convention.

We do not want Jack Straw writing a constitution all on his own.

We also need to deal with the West Lothian question, and not by getting English regional assemblies - too costly, too local and too separatist, there's already enough north/south trouble/jealousy as it is.

Perhaps it could be based away from London. With manufacturing falling so dramatically there could well be space to build something suitable on the outskirts of Birmingham. It would be easily reached too, and be central to most constituencies

Stephen Gash said...

No we don't need a UK wide constitutional convention. The last thing we need is the rabble infesting parliament deciding how things should be reformed. They have lost the right.

After an immediate general election an English Parliament should be estbalished and the two devolved assemblies upgraded to full parliaments.

A true federal system with a vastly reduced UK Parliament funded by the devolved houses.

Nothing should proceed without first establishing an English Parliament.

Many English people have already reached the conclusion the Union isn't worth saving.

John said...

We need a Royal Commission to discuss parliamentary reform. At all costs, the word 'constitution' should be avoided: it's a dog whistle to those in favour of a 'written constitution'. What they want is not a written constitution (we have one already albeit not in one document), but they want constitution with codified delineations of power and competance.
As with all such systems, it's an open invitation to parliament becoming a house of lawyers bickering about who is allowed to do what.

Scilla said...

We might need a UK wide Constitutional Convention and indeed that should have been set up before devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. An English Constitutional Convention already exists in waiting having been set up jointly by The Campaign for an English Parliament and the English Democrats in the House of Commons in 2006.
The Campaign for an English Parliament, established in 1998, sees that reform of the Constitution to establish an English Parliament would ensure that the current British Parliament no longer had responsibility for internal English matters in the same way that it no longer has responsibility for internal Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish matters. Thus it would only be responsible for those matters currently reserved to it with respect to the devolved administrations and would therefore not need to contain such a large number of members. Incidentally the UK taxpayer, 85% of whom live in England, now pay not only for the 646 Westminster MPs but also for the 297 extra politicians sitting in the devolved administrations.
The Campaign for an English Parliament requires separate elections to an English Parliament and not dual mandated Westminster MPs and also a separate Executive.
Scilla Cullen, Chairman, Campaign for an English Parliament,

Gareth said...

I agree with William Rees-Mogg:

Britain is looking increasingly like a federal state; it would be possible to have a senate as a federal house for the United Kingdom.

The Commons would become the English Parliament.

Such a senate would need to have different, and in some respects greater, powers than the present House of Lords, reflecting the separate powers given to the national parliaments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Such a senate might consist of 100 members.

The House of Commons could elect the Prime Minister, in conjunction with the other parliaments. Perhaps senators and MPs could serve for fixed terms.
Such a scheme has always been blocked by the suspicion of the Commons that the Lords would become too powerful. Given the present crisis of public confidence in Parliament, the Commons may well now feel in need of a consort battleship.

neil craig said...

I suspect that if offered the choice of an English parliament elected on PR (like the Scottish & Welsh ones) of FPTP popular opinion would be overwhelmingly for the former. On the other hand this wouldn't give the Tories an automatic majority. I think this is an issue that would separate those who really think England needs it from those supporting it for party advantage.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't trust the existing pile of crap that makes up the establishment/Institutions to write thankyou notes for Christmas presents let alone a "UK wide constitution".
Bollux to the UK lets all sign the English Claim of Right, just like Gordon and the rest of the Scotish Raj signed on the dotted line for the Scots.
One thing that must be written down is a recall system whereby shite MPs get to be sacked by the electorate. nothing else needs to be said because minds will be concentrated.

peter_dtm said...

first of all the WHOLE devolution question needs to be placed in front of the WHOLE of the UK.

The devolution already in place ignored the majority in the UK and further - in both countries that were asked had LESS than 50% support - in Wales it was some 10% of the population in favour - A WHOLE MINORITY - not anything like a majority.

ANY further devolution of Wales or Scotland should require an ABSOLUTE majority of Welsh or Scottish voters - to be then put before the ENTIRE UK (it affects all of us after all).

Stop the rot; you can not devolve Wales & Scotland without devolving England