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Glyndwr Cennydd Jones

August 2nd, 2023

The unfinished business of UK constitutional reform

0 comments | 23 shares

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Glyndwr Cennydd Jones

August 2nd, 2023

The unfinished business of UK constitutional reform

0 comments | 23 shares

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Far-reaching changes are needed to tackle regional inequality across the UK and to ensure democratic accountability in a political system where Westminster currently holds a dual role, setting laws both for England and the UK as a whole. Glyndwr Cennydd Jones sets out how a new constitutional design might look that would reinvigorate the process of devolution.

In terms of economic activity, the UK with its stark contrast between the prosperous south east and other, much poorer, areas is one of the most unequal of the world’s developed states. These regional and national inequities are partially alleviated by routine fiscal transfers from the UK government that support universal levels of benefits, pensions and public services across the isles.

The devolved nations have their own legislatures and governments running the majority of public services, whilst the governing of England is heavily concentrated in a UK-focused cabinet located at London with a few directly elected mayors exercising restricted powers across the nation’s territory. Considering the population sizes of England (56 million), Scotland (5.5 million), Wales (3.2 million), and Northern Ireland (1.9 million), this configuration is somewhat surprising.

Failing centralisation

Comprehensive decentralisation from Westminster and Whitehall is now essential. Firstly, to enable communities in various parts of these isles to enact policies and programmes which better satisfy their needs and priorities, and secondly, to identify and administer the local and regional initiatives required to tackle the economic disparities apparent.

In so doing, the different “territorial personalities” of the arrangements for national devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and that of decentralisation within England should influence how constitutional reform is approached on an isles-wide basis.

National devolution recognises that the UK unitary state is a construct of formerly discrete national entities whose diverse histories and identities are enduringly acknowledged at an institutional level. Decentralisation within England involves the reorganisation of power inside a time-honoured nation of considerable population size to better align decisions to local democratic concerns and demands.

Change must therefore take account of these different characteristics of governance, distinguishing between reinforced arrangements for national self-government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (particularly as related to their interactions with Westminster), and increased devolution, or even federalisation, within England. Through both, the deeply asymmetric nature of the UK can be addressed.

Today, the devolution settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are gradually converging, though Wales is yet to take control over the police and judicial system. Most public services, including education and health, are devolved, with other responsibilities such as foreign affairs, defence, macroeconomics (incorporating currency), and the core of social security resting in London.

Reinvigorating intergovernmental relations

Inevitably, an energised programme of devolution throughout England would initially involve, locally or regionally, a fuller roll-out of directly elected mayors across its territory and, at a national level, updated parliamentary arrangements in Westminster. This initiative could eventually develop into the “federalisation” of the English regions with, if so desired, their own devolved assemblies.

The democratic legitimacy held by the mayors should be accompanied by significantly enhanced executive powers to direct locally appropriate services and strategies, covering economic advancement, education, and, in time, health. To promote fiscal adaptability and democratic accountability these functions could be supported by a measure of tax decentralisation.

The above might be defined along the lines of those held by today’s devolved nations who must now, in turn, be placed on a stronger constitutional footing, as befits their national parliamentary status.

Intergovernmental relations across the UK have become marginal to the affairs of Westminster.

The fundamental “architectural” issue of our time is that the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cover merely 15 per cent of these isles’ inhabitants. Consequently, intergovernmental relations across the UK have become marginal to the affairs of Westminster.

An all-encompassing package of devolution for England would beneficially ensure that decentralised bodies become focal to isles-wide affairs, and not incidental as presently. To this end, a new constitutional design must place weight on the structural relationship between the devolved governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and the government in London – in its dual capacity as that for the whole UK and for making English laws.

Once far-reaching executive devolution is introduced across England, however, much of the work of the English government would be taken away from London and sit under local or regional direction, leaving Westminster to focus on its strategic isles-wide functions.

A blueprint for a new model

Looking to the longer term, greater separation of the UK Parliament’s dual role – a model for which is explored in my booklet A League-Union of the Isles and summarised in the article A Design for Modern Britain – would seem desirable.

The proposal describes a confederal-federal social, economic and security union of nations directed by a limited, but mature, political legislature which usefully deals with the sovereignty aspirations of the home nations and the need to share some key functions centrally. It also presents the opportunity for federalising the English regions in tandem with new parliamentary arrangements for England.

Professor Jim Gallagher in his paper Could there be a Confederal UK? (University of St. Andrews, 2020) highlights:

“From the perspective of nations like Wales and Scotland, with divided views on the question of separation or union, the idea of federalism… might be described as a strategic compromise between independence and incorporation: it is a mixture of self-rule and shared rule. Rather than one section of the population securing everything they want, each compromises to some degree.”

With this in mind, new structures could be progressed in an evolutionary way through:

  • Constructing an achievable programme of English devolution which utilises directly elected mayors initially and, if desired, the introduction of regional assemblies.
  • Renewing parliamentary provisions for England with clearer designations and safeguards addressing Westminster’s dual role, as presently understood, leading in time to an English administration.
  • Ensuring that the composition of the House of Lords purposely represents the various regions within all nations of these isles.

Importantly, the joint ministerial committee for intergovernmental relations should continue as a forum of nations, so as not to confuse the concerns of regional devolution within England and its relationship with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This committee could even be raised to a status similar to that of a member nations’ chamber within an embryonic confederal-federal arrangement, which would place our national intergovernmental relations in their rightful setting for the future.

Constitutional reform is unfinished business in the UK and should now be advanced with purpose and vigour. The work of Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future and the Welsh Government’s Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales is important in this context.

A convention, which examines approaches to codifying new provisions, learning lessons and making good long-term commitments, could work in parallel with change. This while always ensuring that institutional forms of decentralisation should undermine neither the social solidarity which, to some extent at least, mitigates economic inequality across these isles, nor our common defence.

As we head into the third decade of the 21st century, it is high time that we enacted devolution comprehensively within England, and in so doing create the conditions in which a new, stable isles-wide partnership of modern nation states could become a reality, and indeed flourish domestically and globally, to address the challenges and opportunities of our time.

Glyndwr’s booklet A League-Union of the Isles is available here as an e-book and here as a printable pdf version.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Vectors icon via Pexels.

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About the author

Glyndwr Cennydd Jones

Glyndwr Cennydd Jones is a Fellow of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, Honorary Member of Trinity College London, a writer on constitutional matters and an advocate for a UK-wide constitutional convention. He released joint publications with Lord David Owen and Lord Elystan Morgan in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and a booklet of constitutional reflections in March 2022, which includes a preface by Carwyn Jones, the former First Minister of Wales for almost 10 years. He works as a chief executive officer of a UK-wide industry body in the arts.

Posted In: British and Irish Politics and Policy | Fairness and Equality | Public Services and the Welfare State
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This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.