Question: What is the most important question, this election? Answer: “Will radical devolution provide an escape?”.
A question posed, post-Brexit, by Professor Roger Scully.¹
Similar constitutional echoes have been heard across the political spectrum.
Lord Salisbury starkly opined ²: “No one seems happy with the status quo, we need to reform the Union – or lose it.”
Gordon Brown came out guns blazing in March, against Sturgeon’s IndyRef2, saying: “You can call it a more federalistic option, you can call it in the more traditional way, Scottish home rule, you can call it federal home rule. I’m calling it the third option, a Scottish patriotic way forward.³”
In the wake of a vote to leave the European Union where different nations in the UK Union voted different ways and there is uncertainty as to how powers from Brussels will be repatriated and to which body, there is great growing consensus for a new ‘more federalistic’ system.
But we mustask ourselves: Is this right and will it last?
We cannot just stick plasters to a sore gash in need of stitches and surgery. Solutions may only be temporary and any major constitutional reform must have a key element of longevity.
The current uncodified constitution of the UK, the work of 700 years of struggle and statute, is summed up succinctly in eight-words: ‘What the Crown in Parliament enacts is law.’ Therefore any “radical devolution” would be repealable at Westminster’s whim.
In a time when a fledgling Parliament was struggling for power against an absolute Monarchy, “the Crown in Parliament” was assuredly a noble doctrine on which to compromise a constitution. 21st century Britain, however, is a modern, vibrant multi-party democracy of nations, each vying for their own identity and rights; but also a state where executive government wields huge power over Parliament. We must rethink this doctrine.
When considering a new relationship between the nations of the Union, we must firstly ask: ‘Who guards the guards?’
If our “new Union” gives more power to the nations, then this power must be genuine; sovereign; amendable only by special procedures of the people united - not merely by governments whipping MPs into submission and shaking the stick of abolition at the Lords.
Our uncodified constitution has served us well, but now she is dying the death of a thousand cuts: Theresa May’s Henry VIII clauses of the Great Repeal Bill; the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 granting ministers swathes of legislative powers with insufficient parliamentary oversight; the Justice and Security Act 2013 allowing one to be tried in a court they are not allowed to enter, on charges they are not allowed to know, with evidence they’re not allowed to see.
Just one more Human Rights Abuses [HRA] Bill or a State Power (Grabbing Of) Bill or a Devolved Powers (Undermining) Order more and the whole thing will fall into a malaise and disintegrate into the abyss - not to mention the threat of forced disintegration from separatist movements and extremist fringes.
Devolution, begun under Tony Blair, worked for its age - and revolutionised Britain, but now is past its best. Only permanent solutions can bridge the gap in our seemingly disUnited Kingdom. ‘Radical devolution’ will simply devolve the problem to tomorrow’s assembly.
As Britain moves into the post-EU era, if we wish to keep the United Kingdom united under a new federalistic system, we must sacrifice the centralisation of sovereignty and give true power to the nations; but laid down in a Constitution of the United Kingdom, embodying our shared values, the powers of the federal branches of state, the powers of the nations to determine their affairs, and the inalienable civil rights and liberties of the people.
Britain faces a general election under a very different constitutional situation from when devolution began. We must build upon Labour’s modernising vision for the nations.
We must not fall into the trap of pursuing greater and greater devolution, leading to a muddled compromise, satisfying nobody. We must seize the initiative during this election, and argue for a truly radical jump: federalisation and codification in one fell swoop.
“There is no greater mistake than to try to leap an abyss in two jumps.” David Lloyd George
Uther Naysmith is a Young Fabians member. Follow him on Twitter at @Uther_Naysmith