Labour could come second to the Conservatives at the elections in May in another hung parliament and still be able to form the government. That sounds impossible: but it could happen.
People, especially LibDems, assume that whichever party wins the most seats, even if short of an overall majority, automatically has the right to form a government. But the key test is not having the most seats (still less having won the most votes): it’s who is likeliest to be able to form a government that has the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons.
So here’s a possible and not improbable scenario. The election produces a hung parliament: i.e. no single party has an overall majority.. The Tories win a few more seats than Labour and claim that this entitles David Cameron to remain in No. 10 Downing Street and the Conservatives to form a new government, alone or in another coalition. However even with the support of UKIP, some LibDems, and some Northern Ireland MPs, the Tories might still be unsure of a majority. Labour, by contrast, could probably claim a clear majority in parliament if it has even qualified, conditional support from all the left-of-centre parties: the SNP, most LibDems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and some from Northern Ireland. If he can demonstrate this, Ed Miliband is entitled to be invited to form a government and submit it to the House of Commons for approval in a vote of confidence.
The key issue therefore may be whether immediately after the votes have been counted Miliband can demonstrate, citing evidence, that he can form a government that will command the confidence of the House. But this will be almost impossible if Labour has done nothing to establish the intentions of the progressive parties before the election. If the positions of the progressives are still unclear after polling day, it will surely be too late for Labour to demonstrate its ability to muster majority support for a minority Labour government — especially if it has won fewer seats than the Conservatives. The consequence will then be five more harsh years of Tory misrule, with continuing LibDem and now UKIP support.
The alternative, however unpalatable to many good Labour people, is for Labour now to talk informally to the other progressive parties (including especially the SNP and the left-leaning LibDems) with a view to agreeing a list of specific measures that a Labour government (whether a majority or a minority government) would introduce and that the other progressive parties would support. The objective would be a loose understanding (well short of a coalition) that if a Labour government presented, both before and after the election, a broadly and partially agreed programme for government, the other progressives would agree to support it in votes of confidence and in budget votes (“confidence and supply”) to enable Labour to govern, even though some of them would be unable to promise support for other measures in Labour’s manifesto.
The usual objections to this scenario are (1) that it would seem defeatist for Labour to assume that it will fail to win an overall majority, (2) that it would encourage floating voters to vote for the SNP and other smaller progressive parties rather than for Labour, and (3) that the price for such support which the SNP would demand — scrapping Trident, exorbitant further devolution of powers to Scotland, etc. — would be too extreme for Labour to pay it. None of these objections holds water. Even if Labour does win an overall majority, it’s likely to be a dangerously slim one, and the conditional support of the other progressive parties will still be almost essential: certainly valuable. As Andrew Rawnsley convincingly demonstrates in today’s Observer, every vote for the SNP at Labour’s expense risks depriving Labour of enough seats to be able to claim the right to form a government in a hung parliament: every SNP seat won from Labour makes continued Tory or Tory-led government more likely, and a minority Labour government with SNP support more unattainable, something to be rammed home on every opportunity. As for the SNP’s likely price for its support, Labour can safely reject unreasonable or politically unacceptable demands, since the SNP will have nowhere else to go. If it withholds support from a minority Labour government and thereby brings it down, the likeliest consequence will be a further term of Tory-led government — for which the SNP will be held responsible. (Even if, as Rawnsley implausibly suggests, this is what the SNP leadership secretly wants, because it would bring Scottish independence nearer, it’s hardly what the SNP rank and file want or would tolerate.)
So Labour should talk now to the other progressives with the aim of identifying enough common ground for them to promise qualified support to a Labour government after 7 May — whether Labour has an outright majority in the House of Commons, or whether Labour has the most seats but not a majority, or even if the Tories have won marginally more seats than Labour. It’s a no brainer.
My letter summarising the case for a federation of the four nations of the United Kingdom is published in today’s Guardian (10 February 2015):
Politicians must be bold on UK federalism
In your editorial of 4 February you once again edge gingerly towards advocacy of a federal UK. Next day David Davis (Letters, 5 February) equally cautiously tiptoes towards the same solution. The Liberal Democrats favour federation but seem too timid to spell out its advantages or to answer misguided objections to it.
England’s preponderant size is a reason for the safeguards for the smaller nations provided by a federal system, not an objection to federalism; and federalism would reduce the number of professional politicians around the UK, not increase it, even with the new English parliament and government which would eventually be an indispensable feature. It offers the only satisfactory answer to Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian question; ends the gross over-centralism that still disfigures our present constitutional arrangements; permits and encourages further devolution within each of the four nations; brings government decisions closer to the people they affect; and works fine in many comparable western democracies from whom we can and should learn.
It would sharply reduce the scope and powers of the Westminster (federal) parliament and government, which may be why it’s so fiercely resisted by machine politicians. Everyone else would benefit. Labour, the party that started the still unfinished devolution process, should adopt it as a very long-term aim and promise to start the long process of consultation and research required to precede it.
In the online version, my letter is illustrated by a photograph of the Westminster Parliament building (the Palace of Westminster) with the caption: “Anachronistic? The Houses of Parliament, London”. But nothing in my letter suggests that the Westminster parliament, or the government that it generates, is anachronistic. On the contrary: that parliament is already in effect a federal parliament elected from the whole of the UK with responsibility for all matters, throughout the UK, that have not been devolved to the parliaments and governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The anomalies and contradictions that bedevil the present constitution stem from the Westminster parliament’s second and incompatible role, as a parliament for England, responsible for all subjects, since there is still no separate parliament for England to which any subjects at all can be devolved. The cure for this is obvious: sooner or later (probably later) we shall inevitably establish a parliament and government for England, probably based in the midlands or north of England, to which all domestic subjects applying only to England will be devolved. This will complete the devolution process by establishing a federal relationship between the UK’s four nations.
Another letter in today’s Guardian also persuasively argues the federal case but then concludes with the suggestion that the house of commons might become the parliament for England while the Upper House, now the house of lords, would be converted into an all-UK parliament. But this would needlessly complicate the completion of the federal project, as well as perpetuating the current confusion between the Westminster parliament as an all-UK federal legislature and the same parliament as a parliament for England. The basic federal principle will never be understood and accepted in this country as long as people, especially English people, continue to regard the Westminster parliament, and especially the house of commons, as somehow belonging to England — a misconception apparently vindicated by the current fatuous proposal by the Conservative party to create a kind of fake English parliament comprising all the English MPs at Westminster, with MPs elected from the other three nations excluded. How such a pale shadow of a parliament could possibly function without a corresponding English government drawn from its members, and completely separate from the existing federal UK government, is a question that seems not to have occurred to the advocates of this hopeless scheme.
Federation will come, because it’s the logical culmination of the unfinished business of devolution and because it’s the only way to protect the three smaller nations from the domination of their Big Brother, England — a domination which still threatens to cause the disintegration of our increasingly Disunited Kingdom, unless we set a clear course to eventual federation in the nick of time.
The political and economic scenes in Britain are warming up nicely as the general election, due on 6 May, approaches. The leaders of both the main parties are working hard to establish the issue which they hope will determine how the electorate will vote. Labour focuses on the National Health Service, on which it is more generally trusted than the Conservatives. The Tories are busy fostering the false smear that Labour government spending caused the 2008 global financial crash and that if returned to office in May, Labour would wreck the economy again. In fact much the biggest issue at stake in the election is Britain’s future in the European Union, on which David Cameron is increasingly non-committal, having recklessly capitulated to the demands of his own back-bench Neanderthals and UKIP for an ‘in/out’ referendum, i.e. on whether Britain should remain in the EU or withdraw from it — ‘Brexit’, in the jargon, short for British exit. Almost all the literate political and economic pundits and most of the British financial and business communities acknowledge that Brexit would be a catastrophe for the UK in just about every sphere. Yet it looks increasingly as if in a Brexit referendum, promised by Cameron for 2017 if the Tories have an absolute majority in the house of commons after the May election, there might well be a majority for leaving the EU. Labour is unambiguously against a referendum and in favour of staying in the EU and working for its reform, with the UK’s European allies, from within. On any measurement the huge importance for Britain’s future of its relationship with the rest of Europe makes this issue eclipse all the other election issues put together. There are plenty of other reasons for wanting to replace Mr Cameron with Mr Miliband in No. 10 Downing Street, but the EU issue on its own should be enough to convince all thinking people, whatever their normal party allegiances, that a vote for the Conservatives (or UKIP), and thus for a serious risk of Brexit, would be deeply irresponsible.
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When the London Jubilee Line tube train pulls in to Green Park station on Piccadilly, next to the Ritz hotel, the electronic notice boards in each carriage flash up the announcement that “this is Green Park: alight here for Buckingham Palace,” advice that is then repeated over the train’s loudspeaker system. Apart from making one wonder how many foreign visitors to London know what the obsolete word ‘alight’ means, this splendid rubric conjures up an image of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, slumbering peacefully side by side on the tube, suddenly being woken up by the announcement about Green Park and Buckingham Palace. “Come on, dear,” says the Duke, nudging the Queen: “this is our stop.” And they gather up their Sainsbury’s shopping bags and umbrellas and woolly hats, hastily hopping down onto the platform just before the doors close and the train rattles off towards Bond Street.
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Why has Britain’s recovery from the recession been so slow and uncertain? Why are the limited fruits of the recovery, such as it is, so unfairly distributed between the richest and the poorest? Why have the Chancellor’s sadistic cuts in government spending so signally failed to bring down the budget deficit to the level that he had promised? Why is government borrowing so stubbornly resistant to the reductions promised by Osborne and Cameron? The answer to all these questions is available almost daily in the columns of the Financial Times, hardly a hotbed of socialist dogma, and in countless articles by the financial commentators elsewhere in the serious media. Capitalism is like riding a bicycle: it has to keep moving ahead and growing if it is not to collapse in a heap. Constant growth depends on constant consumer demand, reflected in economic activity by households, firms and government — especially by ordinary individual consumers. But for years the richest few in society — the bankers and financiers, the oligarchs, the shareholders, the company senior executives with their astronomical salaries and bonuses — have been seizing an ever increasing share of the national income, including an increasing share of its annual growth (if any), leaving a shrinking share for everyone else. A shrinking share for ordinary consumers means a steady reduction in their ability to consume: ever lower wages mean reduced spending, even when bolstered by increasingly expensive debts, themselves eventually a source of instability. As the prospects for a steady growth in spending fade, firms are increasingly reluctant to invest in new or up-dated plant or to recruit more labour, lacking confidence that ordinary consumers will be able to afford to buy their products. Lack of aggregate demand in the economy thus lies at the root of our failing economies, especially in the drowning eurozone but in Britain too.
There are various obvious remedies: put more money in the hands of those who can be relied on to spend every additional penny they receive, namely the poorest and weakest in society, e.g. by increasing welfare benefits and reducing taxes such as VAT which are a disproportionate burden on the poor and which reduce their ability to consume; use fiscal policy to reduce inequality in society, increasing taxes on those with the lowest propensity to spend marginal income (namely the already rich); greatly increase government spending on capital infrastructure projects, especially social housing (Roosevelt’s New Deal with its huge infrastructure projects was a vital ingredient in America’s recovery from the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s); encourage immigration by people of working age whose contributions to the economy will help to pay the pensions of Britain’s steadily ageing population and whose taxes will increase government revenue and so reduce the deficit; and pour money into education and training, research and development, vital investments for the future. It defies belief that on every single count the Conservative-led coalition has done the precise opposite of what’s plainly needed since it came into office in 2010, choking off the incipient recovery instigated by Gordon Brown’s Labour government and actually throttling aggregate demand in the economy by cutting public expenditure, increasing taxes on the poorest and cutting, instead of increasing, welfare benefits, thus shifting resources even further from the poorest to the richest. No wonder Mr Osborne has failed so miserably to hit any of his targets. Yet the Tories boast of their superior economic management skills and their success in bringing about Britain’s miracle (but mostly invisible) recovery. How do they get away with it?
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It’s strange that the scribbling classes (to which I suppose I belong, part-time) have such a problem with “whom”. Any parenthetical phrase coming between a “who” and the verb that “who” clearly governs is automatically taken to require “who” to be converted to “whom”: “This is a man whom many believe is the greatest living poet,” where no-one would dream of writing “whom is the greatest living poet”. Examples in almost any posh newspaper or magazine are numerous. Even the aristocratic Debretts is not immune, throwing in an inappropriate semi-colon for bad measure:
“Inclusion is by invitation only; with specialist panels selecting whom they believe is making an impression in Britain today.” – http://www.debretts.com/people/people-today-0#sthash.OKZmz5RC.dpuf
But I have to confess (or as the more self-consciously trendy scribes write these days, “fess up”) to an incurable blind spot when it comes to the difference between “which” and “that” at the beginning of a relative clause. My strict grammarian daughter, founder-owner of the wildly successful linguistic blog ‘Glossophilia“, has frequently explained the difference to me, and flinches every time I get it wrong, but five minutes after receiving her instructions in the matter I have forgotten the rules all over again.
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Two welcome developments over my book, What Diplomats Do, published last July — neither another diplomatic memoir, nor an academic textbook, nor a novel, but with elements of all three. First, the (American) publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, have agreed to extend to the end of July 2015 the deadline for individual, non-institutional UK and other non-American buyers of the book to get it for a discount (it had been due to expire at the end of 2014) if they use the revised order form on this website — simply download http://www.barder.com/wp-content/uploads/Flyer-What-Diplomats-Do-June14.pdf. (They have also increased the discount to 30%, hardback version only.) The 30% discount for American buyers (pdf) is also still available for several more months. Secondly, there have recently been two more especially perceptive and illuminating reviews of What Diplomats Do. The first, by Dr Katharina Höne, of DiploFoundation and University of Aberystwyth, is published on the DiploFoundation website and reproduced in full along with many other reviews at http://www.barder.com/wdd/reviews-of-what-diplomats-do; and the second, by the distinguished former US diplomat Marshall P. Adair, published in the US Foreign Service Journal, can be read here (pdf). Both these reviews, among others, are well worth reading, especially if you haven’t yet decided whether to buy the book!
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One of the film’s “chapters” includes spoken extracts of notes on film by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Another shows a silent dance, conceived by Mr Campbell and performed by Michael Clark Company, inspired by equations in the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. [Financial Times, 2 December 2014]
Inspired by what?
The poll figures currently suggest that the general election in May will produce another hung parliament, with neither major party likely to win an overall majority of the seats. The commentariat continues to write and speak as if this must mean another coalition government, right? No, wrong. Or at any rate that the party with the most seats has the right to have the first shot at forming a government, OK? No, wrong again. Well, it’s bound to mean that if the LibDems hold the balance of power again (i.e. if they win enough seats to put either Labour or the Conservatives over the top), they will try to negotiate the terms on which they would join either in a coalition, starting with whichever of them has won more seats? Not necessarily — not even probably. OK: but it might not matter that much: the Tories are already trying to raise even more money from their hedge fund manager friends to enable them to fight a second election later in 2015, which Cameron would be entitled to call if he emerges as prime minister in May, wouldn’t he? Again, not necessarily.
There was a significant but almost wholly unnoticed constitutional amendment sneaked onto the books shortly before the 2010 election, mainly by the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir (now Lord) Gus O’Donnell. Just one month before that election, I wrote a blog post in which I described, with links to the sources, a constitutional development with major implications in the event of a hung parliament in the following month:
There is a fear that such uncertainty [caused by the failure of either party to win an overall majority], if it lasts more than a very few days, will cause a run on sterling, turmoil in the bond markets and a possible need to raise interest rates, which would slow down and perhaps reverse Britain’s economic recovery. To avert this potentially damaging fall-out from a hung parliament, the Cabinet Secretary, encouraged by the prime minister (and possibly with the agreement of the other party leaders), has written a new “rule book” — although No. 10 Downing Street has demurred at this description, asserting that it’s no more than a codification of existing and hitherto unwritten constitutional practice. The Cabinet Secretary’s code, apparently taking the form of a new chapter for the Civil Service Manual, provides, among other things, that if a hung parliament results from an election, the incumbent prime minister, regardless of the number of votes or seats his party has won, should not and must not resign as prime minister until it’s clear that there is a specific alternative MP likely to be able to form a government that will win the support of a majority of members of the House of Commons, expressed in majority support for that government’s programme, as defined in the Queen’s Speech. This formulation is designed to protect two fundamental constitutional principles: the nation’s government must be able to be carried on without a significant hiatus; and the monarch must not be placed in a position of being forced to make a decision (such as having to choose whom to invite to try to form a government when there is no consensus on whom she or he should choose) that would entail, or seem to entail, political partisanship as between the parties, thus potentially damaging confidence in the monarchy’s position above party politics.
This (probably new) rule has important implications. Newspaper editorials claiming that Brown will be morally and politically obliged to resign immediately as prime minister if Labour comes second or third in terms of votes cast, have got it wrong. Brown and the Labour government would be obliged to continue in office for as long as there was any uncertainty about how the LibDems would vote on a Labour or Conservative government’s Queen’s Speech or on a vote of confidence in either government.
What’s more, the dilemma facing Nick Clegg will not be which of Labour or the Conservatives to ‘support’ in a hung parliament, but whether deliberately to bring down the existing Labour government in the vote on the Queen’s Speech or in a vote of confidence in the government.
As we all now know, my prediction turned out to be wrong on at least two counts: Gordon Brown, lambasted by the media for his failure to resign the day after the election as soon as it became clear that the Tories had won more seats than Labour, resisted pressure from the LibDems and the Tories to hang on as prime minister until the terms of a Tory-LibDem coalition under Cameron had been agreed, got fed up with being vilified for “clinging to office”, drove to the Palace, and resigned anyway, taking the rest of his administration with him (not physically, of course); and it became clear that whatever the state of the parties’ negotiations in the effort to glue together a coalition commanding a Commons majority, there could be no question of the LibDems being willing to serve in or even support a government under Gordon Brown as prime minister, so low was his standing in the country at the time. His resignation was thus inevitable, whatever the new O’Donnell rules might say about the incumbent prime minister having a duty to remain in office until a clear successor with majority support in parliament had emerged.
With apologies for returning once more to the subject of my recent (first and last) book, What Diplomats Do, I want to let you know that three new reviews of the book have been published recently: on the DiploFoundation’s website, by Dr Katharina Hone; on the website of LabourList, by Sir Keith Morris, retired British diplomat and former British ambassador to Colombia; and in the journal of the Foreign & Commonwealth Association, Password, by Sir Alexander Downer, Australian High Commissioner to the UK and a former long-serving Australian Foreign Minister. All three of these reviews have now been added to the earlier reviews on my website at http://www.barder.com/wdd/reviews-of-what-diplomats-do. These reviews, especially the one by Dr Hone, provide very good descriptions of what the book sets out to do and how it does it, as well as offering judgements on how well (or badly) What Diplomats Do lives up to its title. It is not a diplomatic memoir, not a text-book, and certainly not a novel, although as several reviewers point out, it has elements of all three.
The 20% discount on the list price of the book for individual (but not institutional) buyers in the UK expires at the end of the month. Individual buyers in the US continue to enjoy a significant discount. I couldn’t possibly comment on the grounds for this discrimination. The discount is available to those using the order forms that can be downloaded from http://www.barder.com/wdd.
End of commercial! Watch this space for a forthcoming blog post that will seek to correct some common misconceptions about the possible consequences of another hung parliament following the UK general election in just five months’ time.
It’s not often that a fascinating and important new book — in this case about an accomplished diplomat, journalist, whistle-blower, novelist, dissembler and controversial celebrity of Victorian times — is made available, totally free of charge, to anyone with a computer, internet access and Adobe software for downloading a book-length PDF file. This is what Professor Emeritus G R Berridge, prolific writer and author of the classic textbook Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, has done with his latest book, A Diplomatic Whistleblower in the Victorian Era: The Life and Writings of E. C. Grenville-Murray [pdf].
A quick web search reveals plenty of information about Eustace Grenville-Murray, including the texts of some of his writings and many references to him in the writings of others. But there has not hitherto been a full-length biography, and in his new book Professor Berridge describes some of the difficulties he has encountered in assembling the material for it:
First, his birth was illegitimate, so the records of his early life are either largely fictitious or non-existent. Second, because he was a whistleblower but relatively impecunious, he went to great lengths to cover his own literary tracks in order to safeguard his salaried income, so it is by no means easy to identify his writing, especially his newspaper articles. Third, because aristocrats both inside and outside the Foreign Office were desperate to contrive his downfall a whole raft of damaging myths was created about his official conduct and particular events in his life, and these have been constantly re-cycled – and inevitably embellished. … Finally, he left no personal collection of private papers – no private correspondence, no diaries, no unpublished memoirs…
Berridge closes his book with these words:
Grenville-Murray’s ultimate misfortune was that his two great patrons, Dickens and Palmerston, tugged him in opposite directions: the former to the literary exposure of social evils, the latter to the important work of diplomacy. He was no saint but it remains to his credit that, despite the tension between them and the strain that simultaneously plying these two trades imposed on his family, he made such a valuable contribution to both over such a long period. He deserves a better place in history than that pegged on the lazy re-cycling of the myths that he was a ‘scurrilous’ journalist deservedly ‘horsewhipped’ by a nobleman he had offended.
In the introduction to his book on his own website, Berridge sets out no fewer than 16 reasons for his decision to publish it as an ordinary PDF file on his website rather than submitting it to his publishers for publication as a book, whether in hard covers, as a paperback or as an e-book, or any combination of the three. All book publishers should take the precaution of thinking carefully about the professor’s 16 reasons, which have significant lessons for them. The downside seems to be the greater difficulty in spreading awareness of the existence of the book on a single semi-private website: very little chance of reviews in specialist or general interest journals or newspapers, no mentions in publishers’ lists or advertisements. It’s there, absolutely free and ready to be downloaded, but how many people know about it? It’s even quite easy to send it from one’s own computer to a Kindle, if you have a Kindle account, so that you can add it to your Kindle library to read on the train, or plane, or in your favourite Chinese restaurant when lunching or dining alone. So please heed this earnest plea: if you’re prompted by this to download and read A Diplomatic Whistleblower in the Victorian Era, and if you enjoy it as much as I did, spread the word about it, and send your friends and family without delay to http://grberridge.diplomacy.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/GrenvilleMurray.01.pdf.
Alan Mumford, leading collector of and expert on political cartoons, has produced another in his brilliant series of political cartoon biographies, this time of that always fascinating character David Lloyd George, the Welsh wizard (the one before Nye Bevan). Illustrated with numerous contemporary cartoons of the great but controversial man, some of them not previously published in modern times, the book’s text includes a highly readable potted biography of LG followed by an informative and lively commentary on the cartoons themselves, setting out their historical background and explaining political references in them with which the modern reader might be unfamiliar. Not all the cartoons are designed to be ‘funny’, but nearly all make an often sharp political or personal point with more impact in a smaller space than a paragraph of writing could hope to achieve.
Full disclosure: Professor Mumford and his wife Denise are among my own and my wife’s oldest (in both senses!) friends. Before Alan embarked on publishing his cartoon collection books, he had been the author and co-author of many authoritative and much esteemed books on management and management training. For details of all these you can do a search for ‘Alan Mumford’ on Amazon.
More information about this eminently collectable book is provided in the book’s flyer, including links to the page devoted to the book on the Lloyd George Society website and to the relevant page of the publishers’ website where you can order a copy of the book for the modest sum of £20 (+p&p). Please click on the picture below to see the full-size flyer and to access in it the web page for buying it.
PS: If you enjoyed the Mumford collection of Lloyd George cartoons, you’ll be sure to enjoy equally my own book describing “What Diplomats Do: the life and work of diplomats” — details and link to order form with generous discount here.
We’ve barely stepped off the roller-coaster of the Scottish independence referendum, dizzy from the sudden swoops and dives but exhilarated to have survived as a country, before we’re plunged into another heated debate on how England is to win more control over its own internal affairs to match the increased powers for the Scottish parliament promised by the three UK party leaders as the price of Scotland’s vote to remain in the United Kingdom. Ever ready to take the low road of party political advantage at moments of historic importance for our country, David Cameron waited for hardly an hour after hearing the referendum result before announcing to the nation from No 10 Downing Street that he proposed to couple with the promised increase in devolved powers for Scotland arrangements to prevent Scottish MPs exercising their right to vote (or speak?) on legislation at Westminster affecting only England, representing this half-baked proposal as the answer to the West Lothian Question (which it certainly is not).
A slightly shortened version of my letter to the Guardian about this is published in today’s print edition of the newspaper while the full text of the letter as I submitted it appears on the Guardian’s website (here – scroll down to the third letter):
The referendum result is welcome and heartening. The prime minister’s instant reaction is neither. His false equation of the West Lothian question with “English votes on English laws” obviously foreshadows an attempt to fob us off with a clumsy constitutional fudge, pretending that MPs in English constituencies can be an acceptable substitute for an English parliament when they can provide no accountable English government, no English government departments or civil servants to staff them, no distinctive English elections, and no way of identifying draft legislation or other parliamentary business that will affect only England.
Increasing the powers of English local government bodies is similarly hopelessly inadequate. We English should refuse to accept anything short of our own parliament, with internal self-government at least equal to what is now promised to Scotland; and that inevitably requires, in turn, the extensive safeguards against English domination that only a full federal system can provide. Mr Cameron’s promise to solve these monumental constitutional issues, along with further devolution to Scotland, on the same timetable, within a few months, is frankly ludicrous.
Labour’s feeble and non-committal response to these great issues is terribly disappointing, especially after it was left to Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown to supply the intellectual and emotional case for preserving the United Kingdom. LibDem support for federalism is sound, but the LibDem voice is half-hearted and almost inaudible. We face the depressing prospect that the only political leader making the incontrovertible case for an English parliament and government is Nigel Farage. Labour needs to act urgently to prevent Ukip’s support for what plainly needs to be done becoming its kiss of death.
Since I wrote my letter and submitted it to the Guardian Ed Miliband and one or two other Labour spokespersons have announced Labour’s rejection of Mr Cameron’s attempt to bounce the country into swallowing his plan for tinkering with the voting arrangements in the House of Commons by linking it to the promised timetable for more devolution of powers to Scotland and fast-tracking it through parliament before the UK general election due in May 2015. This opposition to Cameron’s plan meets one of the points in my Guardian letter.
Even more encouragingly, Labour seems to have committed itself yesterday (also after my letter was written) to holding a national constitutional convention to consider and make recommendations for overall changes in the UK constitution, presumably including addressing the glaring anomaly whereby of the four UK nations only England, the biggest and richest of the four, still lacks its own parliament and government, the organs without which no nation can take responsibility for its own internal affairs in the way that Scotland is close to doing, with Wales and Northern Ireland not far behind. This meets another of the central points in my Guardian letter, although some Labour statements muddy the waters by suggesting that the first task of the constitutional convention will be to consider increased powers for the English cities and regions, no doubt a commendable ambition but no substitute for the central need to establish an English parliament and government — whose responsibilities would certainly need to include the much-needed devolution of powers to the English cities and regions away from the federal centre at Westminster and from the English centre of power at Manchester or York or wherever else the English parliament and government is to be established. That kind of internal decentralisation within England is however a quite separate issue from the key question: namely, England’s need for the constitutional organs with which to govern itself. Precisely how decentralisation within England is to work should be for decision by the English people through their own elected parliament and government, not to be dictated to us in a tearing hurry by Mr Cameron’s quasi-federal all-UK government at Westminster, whose main preoccupation is clearly to score points against Labour in the run-up to next May’s elections.
I have listed in my Guardian letter above some of the killer arguments against the Tory claim that “English votes for English laws” can ever be an acceptable substitute for the belated establishment of self-governing organs for England and the extensive devolution to them of powers over internal English affairs similar to those already enjoyed by Scotland and those about to be added. Some other misconceptions need to be, er, scotched, if that’s the right word in present circumstances:
1. With partial devolution to three of the four UK nations we are already more than half-way into a federal system, but one that still lacks the essential safeguards inherent in full federalism against domination of the whole federation, and of the smaller member nations, by the biggest and most powerful of them.
2. The disproportionate size and power of England compared with the other three nations are a fact of UK life that is badly aggravated by the UK (or English?) disease of gross over-centralisation. An article in today’s Financial Times points out the utter imbecility of having HM Treasury in Whitehall laying down, through its control of local government budgets, the frequency of garbage collections in Liverpool. When we finally have a written federal constitution, one of its main principles (in addition to an entrenched Bill of Rights) should be to make the four national governments responsible for putting into effect in each of the four jurisdictions the principle of subsidiarity — that all decisions should be taken by institutions as close as possible to the people who will be affected by them, right down to ward councils and village mayors.
3. The disproportionate size and power of England compared with the other three nations are the main reason why Britain needs a federal system, not an obstacle to federalism. A federal constitution is essential to protect the three smaller nations against interference in their internal affairs by England or by the federal government and parliament at Westminster by laying down a well defined division of powers between the federal and national levels, and by providing for a federal second chamber in which each of the four nations has an equal number of elected representatives.
4. There’s bound to be some danger that the English government will tend to overshadow all the other federal and national governing organs by reason of England’s size, and the repercussions of what happens in England in the rest of the UK. But that’s a fact of geography and population which can’t be changed. The danger should not be exaggerated: the all-UK federal parliament and government at Westminster will have totally different powers and functions from those of the English national parliament and government at Manchester (or wherever), the latter dealing mostly with bread-and-butter issues such as health and education, the former principally with foreign affairs and defence — and with any additional subjects that the four nations agree are best handled on an all-UK basis and which they therefore devolve upwards to Westminster. Other subjects may be shared between the two levels. The two kinds of organ, federal and national, will attract different kinds of politician. The experience of existing successful federations such as Australia and the US should dispel any idea that even the biggest and most powerful second-tier governments, such as those of New York State or New South Wales, will overshadow their first-tier federal opposite numbers at Washington DC or Canberra.
Once we have parliaments and governments for all four nations, we shall in effect have a federal system. Much work will need to be done over several years to complete that process, including a written constitution and other safeguards. That will constitute the only definitive answer to the West Lothian Question. There will be no need to create categories of federal MP able to vote on this issue but not on that: matters affecting only the four nations, or some of them, simply won’t be within the competence of the federal organs, and vice versa. Other countries run successful federal systems and have solved most of the problems that federalism entails. Let’s not try to invent the wheel. We can learn from Australia and the US and many other models. All it needs is boldness — a commodity not much in evidence in our present polity.
There seem to be some dubious assumptions behind much of the current speculation from the commentariat south of the border:
(1) That there’ll be a in/out EU referendum in 2017 in the UK, whether or not it includes Scotland by then — which assumes a Tory overall majority at the next UK general election. Not a single opinion poll so far points to the likelihood of that happening. Of course it might, but as of now it’s extremely unlikely.
(2) That between a Scottish Yes vote next Thursday and whatever date is eventually set for Scotland to become independent, Scotland will be a foreign country and its MPs at Westminster will cease to take their seats: clearly wrong. Until the date of independence, which will depend on how long it takes to complete the separation negotiations, Scotland remains a part of the UK and its MPs remain UK citizens. At any UK election (such as that currently scheduled for May 2015) held before Scotland becomes formally independent, Scotland will continue to elect its MPs in the usual way. The UK parliament’s eventual legislation providing for Scotland to become independent on a specified date will need to include provision for MPs in Scottish constituencies to vacate their seats on that date. Presumably there will then need to be a fresh election in rUK (the rest of the UK).
(3) That the separation negotiations will be completed on the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s timetable, i.e. within about two years from a Yes vote on 18 September. Highly unlikely, in my view. I can’t see the negotiations being completed in less than five years, given their complexity and the potential for strong disagreement on a long list of issues.
(4) That there’ll be no UK general election until May 2015: probably correct, but we shouldn’t rule out a scenario in which —
(a) David Cameron, the UK prime minister, resigns very soon after a Yes vote in Scotland, either of his own volition or with the LibDems and disaffected Tories voting with Labour for a No Confidence motion in the house of commons. (Many media commentators seem to have forgotten that the whole government resigns when a prime minister resigns);
(b) the Conservatives elect a new leader, presumably George Osborne;
(c) Mr Osborne (or whoever) tries but fails to form a government able to win a vote of confidence in the Commons, the LibDems refusing to join a new coalition with him; accordingly,
(d) there’s a UK general election before the end of 2014; and —
(e) Labour wins it with a very small overall majority, and takes control of the separation negotiations with Scotland. No EU in/out referendum.
So why are Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, and his front bench colleagues not already emphasising publicly and on every possible occasion that in the event of a Yes vote by the Scots, the Cameron government will be totally discredited by the greatest failure since the loss of the American colonies in 1776? Why are they not promising that the moment a victory for Scottish independence is proclaimed, Labour will at once demand the government’s immediate resignation and the holding of a general election before the end of the year to decide which party is to lead the separation negotiations with Scotland? I have no idea why they are not. All I know is that they should be.
If you’re reading this, you’re entitled to a substantially discounted price if you order your copy of my new book, What Diplomats Do, using the order form on my website at http://www.barder.com/wp-content/uploads/Flyer-What-Diplomats-Do-June14.pdf (for buyers in the UK, discount 20 per cent) or using WDD-Flyer-and-Order-Form-for-US (for buyers in the United States, with a whopping discount of 30 per cent off the list price).
For UK buyers the discount applies only to the hardback version of What Diplomats Do but not the e-book version, whether from the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield or from Amazon for your Kindle. For buyers in the US, the even bigger discount applies to both the hardback and the e-book (but not to Amazon and Kindle).
Please note that these order forms and discounts are only for individual buyers. Libraries, university departments and other institutional buyers wanting to buy or ask for inspection copies, and journals or other papers wanting a complimentary review copy, need to contact the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, using the relevant link in the left-hand panel of https://rowman.com/. Please also note the advice on the US order form: “Rowman & Littlefield offers special discounts for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact Nancy Hofmann in the Special Markets Department at  301-459-3366, ext. 5605.” I suggest that bulk buyers in the UK might use the contact addresses and other advice at http://www.nbninternational.com/Ordering/tabid/59/Default.aspx.
What Diplomats Do is not a memoir or autobiography. It aims to describe what working diplomats, not just ambassadors, actually do, day by day, in all the varied situations that they work in. It’s meant as a teaching tool for university (or school) teachers and students of international relations and diplomacy, but also as a guidebook for people contemplating a diplomatic career and above all as an entertaining and readable book for the general reader interested in current affairs. It has already won warm praise from eminent academic authorities in the field of diplomacy and also from equally eminent former ambassadors (see for example http://www.barder.com/wdd/reviews-of-what-diplomats-do). Although written from the viewpoint of a British diplomat (which I used to be), it’s equally valid as a description of the essence of what American and other European and indeed all diplomats do, although the terminologies and some of the procedures naturally vary.
If you want further information about the book, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me by using the contact form at http://www.barder.com/contact, or by clicking ‘Contact me’ at the top of almost every page of my website, or by private email if you have my address.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading What Diplomats Do.