A federal UK ticks all the boxes
This is an open letter to my MP, Sadiq Khan (Labour, Tooting).
You may have seen my letter in the Guardian of yesterday, 1 November 2007, about the Tories' flawed proposals for a Grand Committee of English MPs to deal with matters affecting only England — ie to stop Scottish MPs, such as the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer, speaking or voting on purely English matters in Parliament. This is the Tory answer to the West Lothian Question ("why can Scottish MPs vote on matters affecting England when English MPs can't vote on Scottish affairs that have been devolved to the Scottish parliament?"). To refresh your memory, here is my Guardian letter:
Better answers to West Lothian
The Guardian, Thursday November 1, 2007
The Tories are about to propose an English grand committee in the House of Commons, a variant on their earlier idea of banning Scottish MPs from voting on English matters (Salmond's solid start, October 29). This is riddled with practical difficulties and fails either to provide England with an executive like that of the other three nations of the UK, or to address the underlying problem, just as the old Scottish grand committee failed. The Westminster parliament currently has two mutually incompatible roles, as a federal parliament for the whole of the UK on non-devolved subjects such as foreign affairs, and simultaneously as a parliament for England on everything. The UK government has the same contradictory double role. There is only one solution: a parliament and government for England, the only one of the UK's four nations still without either, and (eventually) full devolution of all domestic affairs to the four parliaments and governments, making Westminster a fully fledged federal parliament and government dealing with all non-devolved and shared subjects.
Here is Gordon Brown's golden opportunity to outflank the Tories, resolve the West Lothian question, make sense of the second chamber (a federal senate), satisfy Scottish aspirations for more devolution, rescue the union of the four nations by putting them in a durable democratic relationship, and push power further down to local people, as well as build a national consensus on a new long-term constitutional settlement for Britain.
Many congratulations on your appointment as a government Whip with special responsibility for Jack Straw's Ministry of Justice. As that department has responsibility for 'constitutional renewal', I earnestly hope that you will try to make sure that my Guardian letter is brought to the attention not only of Mr Straw but also of Gordon Brown, who I believe is seriously committed to constitutional reform and wants to leave his mark on a new constitutional dispensation for Scotland and England (and Wales and Northern Ireland).
The suggestion of a fully fledged federation of the four UK nations may strike ministers as too radical for a naturally conservative British electorate to swallow. Please emphasise to them that it should be regarded as very much a long-term project, requiring perhaps 20 years or more to complete. It would entail in due course at least one Royal Commission, a national Constitutional Convention for the whole UK and another for England, and at least two referendums. It would fall at the first fence unless a cross-party national consensus had been developed in favour of the eventual federal outcome, and it would probably take years of strong leadership and persuasion to develop that consensus — but I believe Gordon Brown, if himself convinced, has the qualities to provide that leadership and to undertake that persuasion. It would be essential not to let the project become a party political football. In fact it offers real benefits to all political parties, something that would need to be demonstrated.
The strange truth is that we have already stumbled three-quarters of the way into a federal system, now that three of the four nations have their own legislatures and executives (i.e. governments): only England is now without either. So we have a largely federal system without any truly federal organs, and the biggest unit of the federation has none at all. Hence the serious anomalies that have arisen from devolution, prompting not just the West Lothian Question but also, even more seriously, the mounting threat of Scottish secession from the United Kingdom, which would be a disaster for all of us, whatever our national identities within our Britishness. The problem is not that devolution has gone too far, but that it has not yet gone far enough: Gordon Brown's slogan should be taken from Mastermind — "We've started, so we'll finish".
Tinkering with the present inchoate arrangements, for example with the English Grand Committee that Sir Malcolm Rifkind has persuaded the Conservative Party to propose, will solve nothing, as long as the fundamental anomaly remains unresolved: it's simply not sustainable to continue much longer trying to reconcile the dual role of the Westminster parliament as both a federal legislature for the whole UK on non-devolved subjects, and a legislature for England on everything. Membership of the House of Commons is suitable for the first but completely inappropriate for the second: hence West Lothian. Growing demands in England for our own parliament and executive like those of the other three nations, and growing demands in Scotland for far more power to manage Scotland's own domestic affairs (with the growing conviction that the only way to achieve this may be by Scotland becoming fully independent) increasingly threaten to tear the United Kingdom apart. That would be a sad legacy for the Gordon Brown administration of which you, Sadiq, are now a member.
So the first, cautious, step should be to announce that the government wishes to initiate a great national consultation on the possibility of completing the project, already in practice begun, of uniting the four UK nations in a full democratic federal system over a period of several decades, with the full devolution of all domestic affairs to each of the four nations. There would need to be early consultations with the opposition parties and the elected leaders in the three devolved legislatures about the form and timing of this national consultation, with recognition that it would need to proceed by stages over a period of many years, but that the ultimate objective should be a full federation of the four nations, drawing on (for example) the models of other federal systems in the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany and elsewhere.
Once the eventual objective is proclaimed, so many other things will fall into place: not only the West Lothian Question, but also the role of the second chamber at Westminster, the need for and content of a written constitution and a Bill of Rights, the offer of complete devolution to Scotland which should undermine the case for Scottish independence, the creation of a parliament and government for England (not in response to any right-wing nationalistic flag-of-St.-George-waving clamour but as part of a great British constitutional reform), the chance for so-called electoral reform in England, if the English electorate so wishes, as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which have already adopted it, and above all the real decentralisation of power away from Westminster and Whitehall which the prime minister has eloquently advocated. It also offers a golden opportunity to move away from petty party squabbling of the kind so many of us regard as puerile and unworthy, with all the major parties collaborating critically but constructively in promoting a common national purpose.
It will take real political courage even to take that first essential step of announcing the objective and launching the great consultation. But what a magnificent mark on British history Gordon Brown and all the members of his government, including yourself, would be making!
I am sending a copy of this to your colleague Derek Wyatt MP, whose letter in the same issue of the Guardian yesterday put forward a proposal remarkably similar to the one in mine; to Kenneth Clarke MP, as Chair of the Conservative Party "democracy task force"; and to David Heath MP as Lib Dem shadow Justice Minister. I am also copying it to Sir Simon Jenkins, eloquent exponent of the principle of subsidiarity for Britain, with reference to his recent Guardian column "While Labour howls, the union is busy disintegrating", in the hope that he might unsheathe his sword in future columns in the Guardian, the Sunday Times and elsewhere in the cause of federalism for the UK.
PS: I am putting a copy of this open letter on my blog, at http://www.barder.com/ephems/723. I expect that there will be many comments on it there, some for and no doubt many against. I believe there are good answers to all the objections that will predictably be made. So please keep an eye on this blog and on any comments that may be appended to it: watch this space!