The approach to UK constitutional reform, in response to what has in part been a bottom-up, sizeable anti-Westminster outpouring in the Scottish referendum, is one that is wholly top-down, argue Martin Smith, Sandra Léon and David Richards. The two largest Westminster parties are attempting to shape constitutional reform to suit their own interest, they write, and that constitutional reform without engagement will further alienate the electorate and continue constitutional instability.
The constitutional debate unleashed by the Scottish independence referendum has revealed many of the contradictions and problems of the British political system. The result effectively undermines the notion of the Westminster model and the underlying principle of Parliamentary (in realty Executive) Sovereignty. The Westminster model is based on an idea of indivisible sovereignty, accompanied by majoritarian and centralised government. The embedding of a ‘federal’ Scotland undermines the core of the Westminster system and it seems the unfolding events will have a major impact on the system of government in the UK.
The referendum and its consequences have led to a fundamental questioning of the idea of the Union in its existing form. At the same time, it has engaged people in politics in a way that is not mediated by political parties. These events have occurred in the context of a wider institutional crisis within the UK which has resulted in a broader questioning of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Hence, what we may be witnessing in the period after the referendum is the undermining of the British political tradition and the related principle of a hierarchical and centralised executive. In the days prior to the referendum, the three main party leaders in Westminster made significant concessions in order to retain the Union. The irony is that these concessions will see the centralised state unfold as contrasting pressures from both the Conservative Party and regions/localities press for a rebalancing of the powers given to Scotland.
The Westminster politicians as agents of the long-embedded Westminster model have been slow to recognise their role in creating the crisis and more importantly seeking out solutions to it. One of the most unusual aspects of the referendum process was that despite the Prime Minister rejecting the idea of ‘Devo-Max’ on the ballot paper (and so effectively excluding the option in the referendum legislation), he and the other Party leaders offered Devo Max several days before the referendum with a commitment to pass legislation within in a very tight six month framework. Yet what is not clear is on what basis such an offer could be made? A major constitutional change was effectively offered without any due process. The referendum was not conducted on the basis of this offer, it was not subject to the Doctrine of the Mandate, there was no white paper and apparently no formal discussion in Cabinet, let alone Parliament. This has given it the air of a hastily stitched together tacit agreement between a narrow cabal of Westminster elites. In so doing, the same political elite has unleashed a dynamic with potential to undermined the (unwritten) constitution they are seeking to sustain.
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, the approach to UK constitutional reform in response to what has in part been a bottom-up, sizeable anti-Westminster outpouring, is one that is wholly top-down. The road currently being travelled is one that is unlikely to secure either popular consensus, or legitimacy and permanency. It is instructive that the list of people invited to the Prime Minister’s constitutional meeting four days after the referendum was essentially a group of Conservative great and good selected to contain various interests and discontents within that party.
Consequently there is no agreement by political parties on how the process of reform should develop and what role citizens might play. The two largest Westminster parties are attempting to shape constitutional reform to suit their own interest. The Conservatives have focused on ‘English votes for English issues’ as a way of preserving the Westminster model in the context of devolved powers and in that way maintaining their dominance. Yet, such a solution would reproduce exactly the issue that has caused problems in Scotland. An English Parliament (even within the confines of Westminster) would mean that without PR or wider forms of devolution, the cities of Northern England would find themselves governed by rulers they did not elect. Meanwhile, Labour has chosen to concentrate on themes of regional/city devolution and calling for a constitutional convention at its Party conference. But at the same time, it has meant it has so far failed to publicly recognise the illegitimacy of Scottish MPs voting on matters that do not affect their territory.
The perception is that the opening shots of this discussion are being driven by the main parties attempting to control the process of reform to protect sectional party interests. In doing so, they are spectacularly missing the point and the opportunity to rethink the mechanisms of democracy and accountability that exist in the UK. The current timescale is too tight a schedule to come up with a proper, meaningful and consensual institutional design of decentralisation, one that ensures that it benefits from the advantages of devolving powers and avoids its greatest perils.
The impact of decentralisation upon electoral accountability depends on a distribution of competences between levels of government that reinforces clarity of responsibilities. If the distribution of competences is too much intertwined then devolution may end up undermining the way electoral accountability operates (as it crucially depends on voters knowing who is responsible for what or, in other words, which is the level of government they have to hold accountable for in regards different outcomes). In addition, the effect of decentralisation upon economic efficiency is highly dependent on fiscal design (how much revenue powers are decentralised together with expenditure powers to avoid opportunistic, i.e. overspending, behaviour). If the process of reform fails to take account of the accountability and fiscal impact of reform then it may end up reinforcing the anti-establishment sentiments touched on above. For it was these very expressions among the population which became a prominent issue in the Yes campaign in Scotland but also characterise how public opinion towards politicians/traditional political parties has evolved in the aftermath of the economic crisis in other European states.
The parties have failed to take account of two central factors. The first is that if any constitutional reform is to be legitimate and to remain in place for the foreseeable future there has to be agreement not just from the political elite but also from citizens. Thus far h there has been little consideration of public opinion beyond Scotland. The second is that the Conservatives are presuming that they can preserve the current political system by focusing on English votes for English issues. What they ignore is how constitutional change can affect the political dynamic (as we have seen in Scotland with the SNP becoming the party of government) and so it is difficult to be sure that voters and parties will behave the same way in a very different constitutional framework.
The irony of this whole process is that political class have provoked a crisis that exposes the anti-democratic features of the previously dominant British political tradition. Their response is to try to control the process of reform in order to protect their shared vest interest in preserving the Westminster model. Such an approach will fail because constitutional reform without engagement will further alienate the electorate and continue constitutional instability. This is an issue not of too much, but too little democracy. The Scottish referendum nailed the lie that people are ‘anti-politics’. They are anti-traditional, Westminster-style politics, but are interested in taking control over their own lives. A proper, open and publicly informed constitutional conversation can allow consideration of mechanisms that rethink the distribution of functions, the processes of local financing and the relationship between accountability and decision-making. The politicians of Westminster have to give their power away.
Note: This article also appears on the University of Manchester policy blogs and gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Joel Suss CC BY 2.0
Martin Smith is Anniversary Professor of Politics at the Department of Politics at the University of York.
Sandra León is a Lecturer in Politics at York University.
Dave Richards is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester.