I’m treating this as a living document, which will be subject to additions and amendments, but I wanted to make a start at least, following several earlier aborted attempts.
Following the vote on Scottish independence, it seems appropriate to start sketching out my own thoughts on the future of the Union here. The outcome of the Scottish referendum will have repercussions on the UK as a whole.
All three leaders of the main parties currently in parliament at Westminster have conceded that further powers must be devolved to Scotland and have agreed to speed this process through.
But this development won’t only affect Scotland. It’s unimaginable that English voters would accept a further devolution of powers to Scotland without similar powers being devolved to England too. Moreover, the idea of Scottish MPs voting over issues which affect English voters, something which is already the case but would be more pronounced under further devolution, is unacceptable.
It’s clear that there is widespread dissatisfaction over how national politics operates across the UK. The UK has some big problems in terms of general distrust towards politicians on the part of voters on the one hand, and of political and financial centralisation around London on the other. And it’s not just Scottish people who feel angry, upset, and disenfranchised about this, but the other home nations and the regions of England too.
The UK is an unusual country in modern terms due to the centralised nature of how the country is governed. The most successful nations around the world are organised around federal structures, with regional/state parliaments making decisions concerning their constituents. In the 19th century, there were good reasons to centralise administration in the UK in one place, but this is no longer the case.
There is long-standing resentment of London and the South East from the English provinces, with a perception of government decisions often being made in London’s favour and centrally collected taxes spent there. The sheer number of non-Londoners who move to the area for work purposes is a clear demonstration of its economic pull. London of course has its own assembly already and has been able to make decisions over its own future, with the decision maker (currently Boris Johnson) directly accountable to voters.
So, how do we address this imbalance?
Well, the UK should have been set up as a proper confederation many years ago, with all but the most essential powers around defence, environment, and foreign policy devolved to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the regions within England. England already has ready-made regions for this purpose, which are used, amongst other things, as constituencies in elections to the EU parliament.
These are as follows:
1. North East
2. North West
3. Yorkshire and the Humber
4. East Midlands
5. West Midlands
6. East of England
8. South East
9. South West
Together with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, this would give us 12 regions.
I can imagine that each region/state would levy its own taxes for its purposes. This does not mean that the burden of the taxpayer should be increased, but rather that some of the taxes should be moved from central government to regions, each of which would have jurisdiction over certain matters. In this way, taxes levied within a region would be sure to remain within that region and regions could respond to good or bad times far more dynamically than at present by offering businesses incentives and favourable tax breaks to invest in the region.
With this devolution of powers to regions, central government’s remit might, for example, cover defence, trade, environment, foreign policy, and law. Parliament would continue to operate as a bicameral system, but as the upper house, the House of Lords would be replaced by a House of Regions/Senate, with each English region, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland represented by a number of members in proportion to their population. The number of federal, i.e. Westminster, MPs would be cut, as more day-to-day issue were transferred to regional level.
All matters which didn’t sit naturally in a nationwide context could be devolved to regional parliaments. Note that this need not preclude regional parliaments from cooperating over issues, so we might see three, four or all regions agreeing on a common education policy or policing for reasons of finance or practicality.
An accusation often levelled at decentralised nations is that separate structures can lead to additional costs and divergence in practices. Whilst there is some merit in this criticism, the following advantages appear to offset/eliminate any such concerns:
Regions (not necessarily geographically adjacent) could pool resources.
Regions can learn from better, alternate practices in other regions.
It is clear where responsibility lies over matters (local, regional, or national) and when problems are encountered, a dissatified electorate can hold the relevant powers accountable.
Should voters in a region prefer not to have their own regional parliament, provision could be made for an English parliament to legislate for regions who rejected local control. I raise this possibility, as voters in the North East for some reason (I suspect general anti-political sentiment and concerns over creating ‘another political tier’) voted against regional powers a few years ago. However, what I propose would be a case of moving political control from London to regions instead, so wouldn’t in itself increase the number of politicians, but move them out closer to their constituents.
I am no fan of political parties. I have, at various times, voted Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP, and Green, based on the kind of election, contemporary issues, and the manifestos of the parties.
I find the idea of nailing my political colours to a mast a futile exercise and nothing depresses me more than to hear someone proudly proclaim that they’re voting for such-and-such a party, because their father, grandfather, and great grandfather voted for them.
There has never been a party with whom my opinions converge fully, and I expect that this is the case for the vast majority of people.
If we were starting with a blank slate, we would not design our system to work in the way it does. Confrontational politics is all well and good in terms of holding governments to account to an extent, but media and public scrutiny is perfectly capable of fulfilling this role nowadays without the need for an official opposition, and, if semi-direct democracy were the chosen means to operate (more of that later), the ultimate power would be in the hands of the people. Bi-partisan politics merely turns the important task of governing a country into a competition between two teams whose priorities are to gain and consolidate power – and unfortunately, it is clear that sometimes these concerns come above what might be best for the country.
A far better model would be one of perpetual coalition, whereby a government were formed of members proportional to the numbers of MPs elected. This is how Switzerland operates and has the advantage that all voters are permanently represented not just in parliament, but in government too.
The ultimate solution to me would be one where there were no political parties at all, but all constituencies elected independent MPs and the parliament merely selected members of government from within its ranks.
In this semi-direct democracy of independent MPs, the MP would consult with his/her constituents and to vote according to their instructions. An MP which disregarded their contituents’ views would be in great danger of being recalled and losing their seat.
I have set out some rather radical ideas here, but they are by no means my own original ideas and most are already in operation in other nations. In any event, these ideas deserve more or at least as much attention as the rants of anti-political celebrities such as Russell Brand and similar messages of despair.
I’m optimistic about the future governance of our country. Ever more people are coming around to the idea of devolution, not just to Scotland, but to the English regions too.
In putting the Union through all this uncertainty, Scotland may well have done us all a massive favour. It will be down to the parties in Westminster to take the opportunity to collectively reform and devolve power properly and fairly throughout the Union. If it doesn’t do so, we will find ourselves looking at another referendum on independence in another generation.