Tuesday 26 May 2009

UK Constitutional Reform: It's all the rage

Some of you will know from my earlier ramblings that I'm not exactly a fan of the UK Constitution, or at least some of the contradictory claims surrounding it. (At the same time, it has rightly been pointed out to me that I've ignored the Scottish question on the nature of the constitution and Parliamentary Sovereignty).

So as someone who's interested in constitutional questions (perhaps one of the main reasons I'm fascinating by the EU in the first place), it's been very interesting to see the rumblings on constitutional change that have begun to emerge since the expenses scandal. Jon Worth has highlighted the need for considered consultation with the public, instead of MPs hurriedly jumping into action to show that they can be decisive and are, contrary to current public opinion, able to run the country. Constitutional change is a big issue and it should be brought about by consensus and after a comprehensive debate on the issues behind each reform. Personally, I'm leaning towards a Constitutional Convention-like body, where members would be elected on constitutional policies and would formulate a draft constitution to be put to a referendum, instead of leaving it to Parliament, the composition of which will be affected more by everyday politics and the recent record of the parties rather than their constitutional ideas.

Still, it's good to see some debate emerging, with David Cameron poised to make a speech on reform later today, probably based on his Guardian article, and Alan Johnson arguing for proportional representation in the Times. The historian Professor Starkey has even called for a separation of the legislature from the executive on the Week in Politics (while having a go at the Scots and Welsh, as per usual), though he's in favour of keeping the Monarchy and supports the Church of England's established role despite being an atheist (something about it being a "civilising force", though I must say it hasn't always appeared to have served that role).

While I'd like to see a radical overhaul of the UK constitution (codified and with popular sovereignty at its heart would be a good start), I'll just make some random points.

1. Why the focus on cutting the number of MPs? I know it's tempting to not only claim a few heads, but also throw out a few seats, and there are some arguments for reducing the numbers, but why the focus? The quality of the ministers is dependent on the quality of the MPs (at least under the present constitutional arrangement), and though in an ideal world the quality of MP would rise the fewer seats there were, I doubt that this would be the case. This would leave a smaller pool of talent from which to draw the government. And what about the cherished link between the MP and constituents? Apparently a key argument against proportional representation, but we should be aware that with a reduction in the number of MPs, there comes the inevitable increase in constituency size, and that means more constituency work for MPs. Will fewer MPs be able to serve their constituents as well or do their work as well under these conditions? Perhaps they could, but there's no real debate along these lines.

2. What should be done with the House of Lords? Here there's a vastly better case for the culling of seats, in my opinion - the House of Lords is bigger than the House of Commons, with less power and less democratic legitimacy. However, where is the debate over what the role of the House of Lords (or whatever it may be renamed as, if it is renamed) should be. Should it be elected, just as the Commons are elected? Why - what would be the point in having 2 equally democratically legitimate chambers of Parliament, and why should one be superior to the other? Should the House of Lords simply be abolished and the UK be made a unicameral system?

Or should the House of Lords be a more expert-centred House - perhaps elected by a mixture of universities, the professions, the trades...? Should it be made up of directly elected county/city representatives? Or should it be part of a proportional representation system: if a party list system forms part of a PR arrangement, should the list-elected candidates be put in an inferior House of Lords to weaken the power/influence the list system would give parties while leaving the option of some forms of PR open?

3. Should there be a monarchy? Well, why not question this? And why should there be an established Church while we're at it? Personally, I'm suspicious of the claim that the Queen brings in tourists. She may bring in a few by herself, but I suspect that the changing of the guards, the history, the old castles and palaces bring in the tourists, not the Queen. Presidents can have palaces (or a palace, with the others as national trusts open for tourism and to the public) and a changing of the guard. Some of the romanticism may be lost, but I doubt many people got to see the Queen herself, and Britain has a rich enough cultural and historical heritage to reconsider the merits of monarchy, in my opinion.

(On a side note, I loved a list of "practically endless" reasons why Germany should restore the monarchy I saw once. One was that it would be more "Umweltfreundlich" [environmentally friendly] due to the lack of ballot papers, and another was that it would be more "Kinderfreundlich" [child-friendly], for reasons that weren't quite explained...)

4. Does the First-Past-The-Post system really keep voters close to their MP? On a purely on a "connection with the voter" point, if you live in a safe seat area with political opinions that are unlikely to ever be expressed in a winning candidate, do you feel a close connection with the MP, or the system? If it causes some voters not to vote due to the inevitability of the safe seat, does that not damage identification with the system and the MP?

5. If David Cameron supports fixed term Parliaments AND thinks that constitutional reform should come at the end of a considered debate, why does he call for a snap election? Ok, cheeky question there.

6. English devolution: what form should it take? The two options being considered at the moment seem to be exclusively English MPs voting on English matters in the UK Parliament, or a devolved English Parliament. What about other options? If the goal is to bring government closer to the people, how close should it be, and how should it be achieved - though some see regional government as a "balkanisation" of England, it should be remembered that Wales and Scotland have about 5 million people each, while England has around 48 million - the question of how close the regional government should be to people needs to be a bit more in-depth than some of the slogans that are being thrown about.

7. What should be the constitutional position of the devolved governments? Should they be given greater powers in the interests of bringing government closer to the people? What are the powers best exercised at UK level, and what's better exercised at the regional level? This is a vitally important question since is could concern the structure of the health service and questions of accessibility. Should devolved governments be more independent of the Westminster parliament, with power going upwards towards it (akin to federalism), or should the devolution model (Westminster leases out power to [possibly temporary] regional assemblies/parliaments)?

That's probably enough questions for now. It's clear what way I lean on each point, if not what my exact opinion is, but hopefully it's raised some interesting points to think about... Maybe.

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