Alan Dean

CTO, Developer, Agile Practitioner

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

What would a rational constitutional settlement look like?

A diagram of a rational constitutional settlemtWith the General Election campaign in full flood, I’ve been thinking about what a rational constitutional settlement for the UK might look like. The current settlement, whereby Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved government but England does not is causing a certain amount of constitutional stress and this is likely to increase in the coming years. English voters are becoming alienated by MPs who represent areas with devolved powers still being able to vote for policies that do not affect their own constituents. If we get a hung parliament from this election, but there is a majority party in England then I expect to hear a great deal of commentary about a caretaker government being sustained in power without legitimacy.

Rolling back devolution at this point is not a realistic proposition; that horse has left the stable. Given that political reality, how might we organise our representative democracy? I am deliberately excluding republicanism from this discussion. If you are in favour of keeping a monarch, simply imagine a world where our arrangements for Head of State are unchanged. If you are not, then imagine a world where an elected Head of State exercises broadly the same set of functions as the monarch currently does. Similarly, I am ignoring the question of the voting system(s) to be employed. Clearly, the voting system and seat distribution would have a profound political impact but my proposition stands as a constitutional model regardless of voting system, be it proportional or not.

The primary consideration I have employed to build this model is fairness as accountability is a much more difficult metric to measure. I simply ask would voters consider this model to be fair to all the other voters in the UK?. The secondary consideration is simplicity. I have tried to come up with a model that a voter can comprehend easily and that they know who to blame or acclaim when deciding how to vote.

Local Councils

My proposal does not change the constitutional role of local government, nor does it alter the current organisation of local government. However, my model devolves such decisions and local government funding entirely to the Regional Assemblies (see below).

Regional Assemblies

In this constitutional model, each constituent country in the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) would have an assembly (I use the term generically, it does not imply that the Scottish Parliament needs to be renamed).  The current model applied to Scotland would be applied equally to all of the other assemblies; that is to say that certain powers would be reserved to the UK Parliament (see below) and all powers not explicitly reserved become the responsibility of the regional assemblies within their geographic limits. At this point I am not going to enumerate the reserved powers: it is sufficient to say that there will be some and I envisage that they will likely be broadly in line with current Scottish arrangements. As is the case at present, each region would have an executive which is comprised of assembly members. Regional assemblies would be unicameral (i.e. they would have only one chamber). As to the question of where a new English Parliament might be based: I leave that up to you to discuss in the comments! I envisage that an English Parliament might comprise as many as 300 members, with a similar or greater reduction in the number of UK Parliamentarians (see below).

UK Parliament

The most significant changes in my model arise at the national level. With a devolved English Parliament, the structure of national government would need to change dramatically. I propose to keep the current bicameral model at Westminster, with an elected lower house and a revising upper house.

Federal Chamber (Upper House)

I propose that the current membership of the House of Lords should be replaced with a federal membership. The new Federal Chamber would have 100 seats, like the US Senate, with seats apportioned to each region by population recorded at the dicennial census. The seat proportions would approximately be: England 81, Scotland 10, Wales 6, Northern Ireland 3. The primary role of the Federal Chamber would be to revise legislation as the current House of Lords does. The restrictions that currently apply to the House of Lords would be maintained to ensure that the elected chamber would retains primacy (the Parliament Acts and the Salisbury Convention). Members from each region would be selected from the elected Regional Assembly members. Members of the Federal Chamber would not be permitted to take a position in the UK Government, unlike the current House of Lords.

Elected Chamber (Lower House)

The elected chamber would be the primary legislature of the UK, just as the current House of Commons is. Given the introduction of an English Parliament, the elected chamber would not need to be anything like as large as the current House of Commons due to the devolution of powers. I suspect that perhaps as few as 200 members would be sufficient. The arrangement of constituencies would depend upon the voting system employed. All Ministers of the UK Government would be required to have seats in the elected chamber.

European Union

I have long thought that one of the weaknesses in our current constitutional settlement is the poor integration of our institutions with those of the EU. Here is my perspective on how that might be improved.

European Commission, Consilium and Council

These bodies are defined by the Lisbon Treaty and are somewhat integrated with the UK Government already (although the actual interplay between them is rather murky) but I don’t propose significant changes as Ministers would remain accountable to Parliament.

European Parliament

I would make a very real change regarding the European Parliament. Currently, despite the Parliament gaining rather more power from the Lisbon Treaty, voting for it tends to be regarded as a protest opportunity (both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe). I would change this by having all British MEPs be elected via the UK Parliament. The exact mechanics of this election process would be subject to the electoral system decided up for the UK Parliament but the key point is that our MEPs would sit in our national Parliament and be accountable through it, rather than being divorced from normal national politics as they mostly are right now.

Fiscal Policy

These changes to our constitutional settlement would necessitate a clearer separation of responsibilities between the layers of government than currently exists (a good thing, in my opinion). One area in particular, fiscal policy, deserves special consideration as it is the lifeblood of all government. I propose that UK taxation would be explicitly split between the UK Parliament and the Regional Assemblies. The UK Parliament would set a base level of taxation (income, VAT, Duties and Excise) to pay for the reserved powers such as defence. On top of that, each Regional Assembly would levy regional taxation. This would mean that on your pay slip you would see two sets of income tax amounts. The base level of VAT would continue to include the proportion that flows to the EU. This way, voters in each region can elect representatives with high or low tax and spend manifestos without the effects being hidden as is currently the case. However, the Barnett Formula exists for a reason. Although there are many arguments about what the correct amount of fiscal transfer should be, these are properly a matter for budgetary votes in the UK Parliament. Any amounts of fiscal transfer voted for would form part of the base taxation level at a national level as it would be iniquitous, for example, to force an English Parliament to levy a direct transfer. Borrowing and the National Debt would remain a sovereign, reserved, power of the UK Parliament as it is now with interest and capital repayments forming part of the base national taxation level. Update: I envisage local and corporate taxation being devolved to the regions.


I appreciate that much of what I have set out above will be considered radical, possibly even unworkable, but I ask that you consider if we are at a point where we ought to embrace radicalism in order to lay down strong democratic foundations for a form of politics that is fit for our future and I accordingly commend this proposal to you.

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