Peter Jones: Constitutional crisis is deepening

IT’S time to talk, although the vested interests are unlikely to agree to a convention, writes Peter Jones
Jeremy Purvis idea of a British constitutional convention would try to find a more settled constitution. Picture: TSPLJeremy Purvis idea of a British constitutional convention would try to find a more settled constitution. Picture: TSPL
Jeremy Purvis idea of a British constitutional convention would try to find a more settled constitution. Picture: TSPL

Nobody does constitutions – the institutions, laws, and practices by which a nation governs itself – quite like the British. And that in itself tells you something about our current state: that our national practice of adding substantial bits and pieces of constitutional architecture here and there in response to political circumstances in different parts of the country is probably not a good idea.

More usual practice is for the great and the good to gather together, to debate and ponder the evidence, and then to propose a structure. Mostly it works – the United States of America is probably the outstanding example – but sometimes it doesn’t – the failed effort to write a constitution for the EU, rejected by the French and Dutch in referendums ten years ago, is the most recent example.

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Despite the potential for failure, Jeremy Purvis’ idea of a British constitutional convention to try and arrive at an arrangement which will result in a more settled constitution, which he has launched via a bill in the House of Lords, is a good idea. It looks unlikely to happen, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth discussing.

The first point to bear in mind is that although people like to think of Britain being a centuries-old country, its present geography doesn’t even date back to the 1707 Act of Union, but only to 1922 when the Republic of Ireland, or west Britain as diehard unionists of the time liked to call it, departed.

The Britain we now inhabit is less than a century old. And the fact that it is now close to a disruption – Scottish secession – which would be seen by the world as a much bigger upheaval than Irish independence – suggests that it has not been a terribly successful construct.

The impression of permanence and durability, I would argue, stems from two main things – the creation and then largely peaceful dismantling of a global empire, and the fact that Britain did not just survive the 20th century cataclysms of two world wars but was also instrumental in defeating their causes – German imperialism and fascism.

These were immense achievements but they should not obscure the fact that British management of its domestic state has been a lot less successful. And now it is not hyperbole to contend that Britain’s domestic foundations are so shaky as to be in danger of crumbling completely.

To borrow Lord Purvis’ phrase, carrying on with make do and mend – the way the brickwork has been patched up over the past two decades – won’t do and won’t mend.

There are two main reasons for this. Three sets of political circumstances have driven the changes that have been made in the last two decades – the need to find a political settlement in Northern Ireland to end civil war, to respond to Nationalism in Scotland, and to fill a democratic vacuum in Wales.

Each circumstance has been different, most obviously so in Ulster, and therefore the solution which has emerged has been different in each case. The differences are not necessarily the problem. What has been missing in each case is consideration of how the constitutional changes to the various parts of Britain would affect the whole of the United Kingdom.

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The essential question which has needed answering is not whether, say, the creation of the Scottish parliament has strengthened or weakened the UK, but whether it has made it work better. And by better, I mean to the greater satisfaction of its people.

Evidently, in the case of the Scottish people, the answer is no, it hasn’t. But that is also how the people of England seem to look on it as well. The reduction in Scottish MP numbers from 72 pre-devolution to 59 has not dealt with English dissatisfaction that the Scots are interfering in English domestic affairs without the English having the same rights over Scottish business. The SNP landslide also says quite clearly that at least half of Scots voters think there is too much English meddling with, or control over, Scotland.

Thus we now have an additional area of constitutional discontent which, in reality, has always been there but is no longer quiescent – how to give the English control over their domestic affairs or, perhaps more accurately, how to take Scottish fingers out of their pie.a

David Cameron’s proposal to alter the standing orders of the Commons so that English MPs alone can have the last say over English matters doesn’t really fit the bill. That might work for, say, legislation over fox-hunting, but it doesn’t deal with major changes to the health service or education south of the Border which affect the funding of these public services because that will affect the funding for Scottish public services.

Then there is a fifth area of constitutional change – the devolution of power over health, transport and regional planning to the “northern powerhouse” of the Manchester city region with possible replication of that in other parts of England. And of course the whole lot is over-shadowed by a sixth question – whether Britain is going to stay in or leave the EU.

None of these elements can be remotely imagined to be part of a bigger logical or rational plan to make Britain as a whole a more successful country and its people more contented. Implementation of the Smith Commission proposals, while they might partially satisfy Scottish demands, seem to me to be destined to make the UK as a whole even more fragmented than it is already.

A constitutional convention to look at how changes to the parts can be part of a bigger and a more stable whole is, I think, part of the answer, but only a part. The bigger question which is not being answered, glaringly so in the indyref, is: what is the point of the UK?

I mean this not in the static sense of sharing resources and risks for the benefit of all citizens, but in a forward-looking sense. What can we better achieve, for the benefit of ourselves and other countries, by being part of a better-constructed Britain than by being a separate country? Once we know that, constitutional change to fit national purposes and make them more attainable can start to make sense and to bring some stability to presently shaky foundations.