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Time for an English constitutional convention?

Scotland is having a humdinger of a debate about its future. From the 16-year-old in Lerwick to the octogenerian in Stranraer, come September 18th a huge decision is going to be made. Let’s be not be under any illusions, come what may – yes or no – the result will have significant consequences for England and the future of Westminster.

Imagine a yes vote. If so, late this year, negotiations on how UK assets and liabilities are to be apportioned out between Holyrood and the Westminster will begin. This will be protracted and fraught. We should expect daily headlines, with opinions on what England is winning and what it might be losing. As an emerging settlement takes shape, many in the rest of the UK are likely to start questioning what this will mean in the future for Westminster and England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Imagine if yes narrowly fails or there is a resounding no vote. if so, there will be no going back to where we now are. It is highly probable that the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats will deliver on their promise of more fiscal autonomy for Scotland.  Even with a resounding no vote (say up to 60%, and unlikely given recent polls), any further devolution is also possible. Will England just passively watch this unfold? Maybe the clamour for more autonomy for Wales and Northern Ireland or for England’s cities and regions will increase too.

Whatever the Scots decide, Westminster, the UK and its institutions cannot just plough on unchanged. Trust, respect and belief in Westminster and its processes are already on the slide and its problems won’t simply go away on September 19th.

Expenses and other scandals have eaten away at the stock of respect. Voter apathy has always been there, but there is a growing irritation and Westminster’s failings have eroded respect for what it does and what it stands for. Treasury backed banker bailouts and a failure to geographically or socially rebalance the economy infuriates many. There is disgruntlement –  from politicians in England’s regional cities to businesses and to citizens in suburbs, inner cities, rural town and villages.

This has prompted some movement and a Westminster response: Osborne’s talk of a northern powerhouse, local growth deals, the People Powered Public Services report and the Adonis growth review. Furthermore the excellent Communities and Local Government Committee report on Devolution in England: the case for local government, explores fiscal devolution.

It is clear that the independence referendum has enlivened debate in Scotland. Fundamental questions with regard to how the country is governed and what Scots want from their parliament and legislators have touched many, including those disengaged from politics.

So maybe England needs a much broader and deeper conversation too – freed from the often stale and arcane Westminster bubble. How do we make politics relevant to real people again? How do we break with the concentration of power and resources? Do we need a federal England?  Should there be a new constitutional settlement between central and local government?

Should England start to address these questions, by setting up a constitutional convention like the one Scotland set up in 1989?  If Westminster is reluctant, perhaps northern England should set its own one up, involving northern political leaders, MPs and representatives from trade unions, businesses, faith groups and the community and voluntary sector.

Westminster is not serving all of its people very well. No matter what the referendum result, Westminster politics and the relationship it has with the rest of the country must change. Scotland is having a vibrant national conversation about its future. England needs the same.

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G Simpson
G Simpson
9 years ago

It won’t happen. The three (or two and a half main parties) all have a vested interest maintaining the current settlement. I would favour ideas like: There has to be a legislative aspect to England, so probably an English Parliament is needed, say 300 members elected via PR & sited somewhere outside the SE (e.g. York, Birmingham or Manchester). The UK Parliament should be substantially reduced in size (may be 200 MPs) as it would only be dealing with foreign affairs, defence & macro-economic issues. Local government should be empowered by freeing-up its financial autonomy and there is no reason with the Greater London Authority model should not be extended to other English city-regions (although these need to also encompass rural hinterlands). Cornwall perhaps needs its own separate arrangements. This is basically a federal model, so perhaps the Lords would need to become a representative chamber for regional and local interests.

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