Our new deputy PM, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, yesterday announced what he termed the “biggest political reforms since 1832”. There is much to be commended in his proposals, which fall into three categories: 1) reversing New Labour’s erosion of our civil liberties; 2) reform of Parliament and party politics; and 3) further devolution, or what Clegg calls “redistribution of power away from the centre”.
The plans relating to civil liberties are especially welcome. Those relating to parliamentary reform and devolution are less so. I would pick out three main areas for concern:
House of Lords reform: “This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber where members are elected by a proportional voting system. There will be a committee charged specifically with making this happen. But make no mistake: that committee will not be yet another government talking shop. This will be a dedicated group devoted to kick-starting real reform.”
Is that it then? No wide-ranging consultation of the British people about the sort of second chamber they would like to see for their parliament? The government is simply going to decree that we must switch to a fully elected Upper House, sweeping away centuries of tradition and an organic link to the history of England before it was Great Britain, which the government will bring about through a mere Act of Parliament? Don’t we get a referendum to find out if we like the ideas of this ‘dedicated committee’ chaired by Nick Clegg himself? To say nothing about whether this Upper House is going to replicate the West Lothian Question by allowing non-English-elected Lords or Senators to vote on English legislation while preventing English-elected representatives from doing the same for bills emanating from the Scottish Parliament and soon-to-be Welsh Parliament.
By proceeding in haste like this (‘haste’ being Clegg’s own word to describe the pace of reform in the next sentence of his speech), an opportunity is being missed to consider these major constitutional reforms in the round, and particularly to factor in the English Question. Doing so would force Clegg’s committee to consider the possibility that if the England-specific functions of the House of Commons were transferred to an English Parliament, this might require the Upper House to evolve into a federal British Parliament, as well as a revising chamber, to deal with vestigial reserved matters.
This is in fact the kind of measured approach the Liberal Democrats advocated in their election manifesto, where they stated that the English Question would need to be resolved as part of a comprehensive constitutional convention involving ordinary citizens as well as MPs. This idea appears to have been abandoned now and, along with it, any determination to really get to grips with the English Question, as the proposals on devolution make clear.
Devolution: “You will get more control over the hospitals you use; the schools you send your children too; the homes that are built in your community.
“In our legislative programme we will be setting out plans to strip away government’s unelected, inefficient quangos, plans to loosen the centralised grip of the Whitehall bureaucracy, plans to disperse power downwards to you instead. And we are serious about giving councils much more power over the money they use, so they depend less on the whims of Whitehall, and can deliver the services and support their communities need. We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.
“Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain: Working with Holyrood to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Working with the Welsh Assembly on introducing a referendum on the transfer of further powers to Wales. Supporting the continued success of the devolved government in Northern Ireland. And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question.”
The key sentence, for me, here is: “Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain”. In that unthinking phrase, ‘other parts of Britain’, Clegg implicitly admits that the Lib-Cons’ ‘dispersion’ of power to communities (which I discussed yesterday in relation to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ policy presentation) relates to England only, even though he never explicitly says so: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘other parts of Britain’, then the ‘devolution of power’ from the centre he has just discussed can apply only to England. In other words, the Big Society (devolution of power in England) is what England is being offered by way of equivalence to devolution of power to the other parts of Britain. So instead of there being a national-English government to make decisions on the devolved policy areas Clegg refers to (health care, education, planning / housing, communities and local government), those decisions will be devolved to the sub-national, local / community level.
But what’s really striking about the ‘other parts of Britain’ phrase is how it blatantly exposes the way that the political establishment simply takes it for granted that devolved policies discussed as if they were British are in fact English, and that everyone is somehow supposed to be aware of this unacknowledged given: it’s the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one admits it’s there, as they’d then have to do something about it.
And doing something about it – addressing the English Question – is clearly not Clegg’s intention, as the throw-away phrase, “And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question”, makes clear. Put out almost as an embarrassed after-thought following the important and specific proposals mentioning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by name. He can’t even bring himself to refer to England explicitly when he’s alluding to it, almost literally skirting around the issue of English governance seen as a series of ‘difficult issues surrounding the West Lothian Question’. It’s not difficult, you twit, just say it: the English Question. There, that didn’t hurt, did it?
But over and above considerations of political correctness and, in the context of the coalition, expediency that dictate that one must never utter the nasty ‘E’ word in case one conjures the English elephant into existence, there is a practical, political reason and a symbolic reason why Clegg refers to the WLQ rather than the EQ. On the practical level, if you’re dealing with the issue of English governance in the framework of the WLQ, this means that you think or hope there could be some sort of procedural fix allowing English MPs to have the ‘ultimate’ say over English legislation that would be sufficient to keep English governance as the domain of the UK government and parliament. So, don’t mention the ‘E’ word in case the obvious solution of a separate English parliament and government comes into people’s minds.
Second, on the symbolic level, the very assumption that the UK parliament is the natural home for English governance partakes of the same mindset that regards it as a self-evident truth – and, therefore, one that doesn’t need to be spoken of – that devolved issues as ‘properly’ dealt with by the British parliament are ‘really’ English issues; and that Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland are other parts of the UK. It’s that very English, very Westminster, Anglo-Britishness: the doublethink that both manages to really believe that England and Britain are symbiotically fused, but at the same time realistically recognises they are not the same – but let’s not talk about it, dear, in case we lose our privilege to govern.
So much for “hand[ing] power back to people” – notice, it’s ‘people’, not ‘the people’, let alone ‘the English people’!
Electoral reform: “There is, however, no programme to reform our political system [that] is complete without reform of our voting system. This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency.”
As with the absence of a full debate and referendum on the options for the Upper House, and as with the total lack of any suggestion that the English people as a whole should be offered a referendum on an English parliament, we’re also not being offered a full debate about different electoral systems and a proper referendum that includes at least one proportional option. Basically, this referendum is a choice between two first-past-the-post systems, as the Alternative Vote is just a mitigated form of FPTP that doesn’t even do what it says on the tin.
The last sentence in the above quote ambiguously points to the inadequacy of AV: ‘far more MPs’ will be elected by a majority of voters in their constituency. This could imply that all MPs will need to secure a majority, as opposed to just some MPs under FPTP. But AV doesn’t in fact ensure this, as the winner has to gain only a majority of votes that are still in play in the preferential system for reallocating votes to the more successful candidates. So it’s quite possible for the winner to still only obtain a minority of the votes of all those who voted in the first place, if there are many voters who do not indicate any of the last two or three candidates left in the race as a second or subsequent preference.
So Clegg is being dishonest about AV, partly because he doesn’t actually support it – that is, if the policy that was in the Lib Dems’ manifesto (PR) reflects Clegg’s real views. And AV, like all the other proposals for political reform and devolution in Clegg’s statement, basically preserves the privileges and assumptions of parliamentary and party-centric politics intact, as it’s a voting system that’s just as likely (some argue, more likely) to deliver an outright majority in parliament to a single party that can then rule England and Britain with the absolute power of a monarch for the next five years: guaranteed to be a full five years given Clegg’s proposal to introduce five-year fixed-term parliaments.
Five years. I thought we might at least only have to put up with our unaccountable governments for a maximum of four years if fixed terms were introduced. And do we get a choice in a referendum about this, either?
Not on your nelly! What do you think this is? This is Whig Britain, don’t you know, not the people’s republic of England!