Since the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum the British constitutional settlement has been pushed to the forefront of political discourse. The reaction from policy-makers has been piecemeal devolution and vague conversations about a federal UK. The problem with the federal UK proposal is that any future prospect of legislative decentralisation is contingent upon the UK remaining as a political entity. Notwithstanding one’s personal views on the British state, it must be said that a situation where the UK remains intact looks unlikely. The Brexit vote has seen Scottish secessionist feelings harden and there are serious questions about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, especially in relation to the Good Friday Agreement. Basing devolution on the future of the union, therefore, would seem foolish.
Further, such an approach would not be beneficial to England as centralised rule from Westminster will not quench the thirst for change. England has often been forgotten in these normative discussions, and this piece shall seek to end this injustice. The future of the English constitutional settlement should be based on that of Germany. In-built regional government with power diffuse across society will sufficiently address the appetite for reform. In addition, a parliamentary system akin to that based in Berlin will promote political co-operation whilst allowing for the English national myth- that which venerates parliamentary democracy and rule of law- to continue.
Firstly we must establish why the current programme of devolution is inadequate. The most notable problem with devolution in its current form is how asymmetrical the discussions have been. Holyrood is the most powerful parliament of its kind in the world, but Stormont and Cardiff Bay remain comparatively superficial. Are the people of Pontypridd any less deserving of self-determined devolved government than the citizens of Aberdeen? Of course not, yet the current system only allows devolution if there is a risk of seismic political upheaval.
Priority to Scotland was because of a desire to stave of secessionist feeling, but because no such feeling existed in Wales the concerns of people from Llandudno in the North to Llanelli in the South remain primarily addressed in Westminster rather than in Cardiff. Devolution was a defence mechanism, not a genuine attempt to create a modern nation-state of citizens with heightened autonomy.
If the consensus is that devolution is an inherently good thing, it would seem illogical to have a programme of devolution that is so slow. The uncomfortable truth that people across the UK have now come to realise is that promises of decentralised power were political weapons designed to win electoral support rather than to provide transformative change. The appetite for such change has remained and as such a massive transfer of power away from Westminster must be initiated.
The other aspect of opposition to the current programme of devolution is the question mark that hangs precariously over England. Unionist politicians have sought to establish an English parliament or to provide special sessions in Westminster purely for English representatives. Both solutions to this quandary are inadequate in my view because it predicates decentralisation on the continuation of the UK, which is a position that I oppose. Nevertheless the English question has to be answered. I contend that the solution is a federal system, based on the German model, with English counties having the maximum legislative power possible.
Under Tony Blair an attempt was made to redraw the map of British politics through the creation of regional assemblies, with referenda scheduled to take place across the country. The North East was the first and only English region to hold such a vote and the result was an emphatic rejection of the proposal. I contend that the reason that this failed was because there was a lack of knowledge about how powerful a local identity can be. If England is to decentralise power it must do so by incorporating existing political structures into the process rather than create new identities that people feel are artificial.
The way to solve this problem of identity is to have legislatures established in each English country. There are many parts of England where county affinity is strong and by adopting this stance, the pro-devolution side of the argument would be able to incorporate other national myths, for example like the cultural differences between Lancashire and Yorkshire, into a modern political situation. Each county would be led by a First Minister with a legislature that would act as a unicameral legislative body. Further, each county would have a devolved judiciary which would be subservient to a national court in London. As well as bringing the criminal justice system into communities, the number of courts would increase thus reducing the backlog currently faced by many judges and magistrates.
However in order to codify this transformative change a formal constitution would have to be written. For centuries constitutional scholars and politicians have had an understanding of where to look to ascertain the constitutionality of certain government actions, but having an unwritten constitution causes problems for ordinary people. In returning to the idea of political identity, a written constitution provides an articulation of the values that we collectively share. When people speak about ‘British values’ or ‘English values’ those in the know are aware of what they are talking about, but for many people this is just an empty piece of rhetoric.
The other benefit to having a new written constitution is that it can easily constrain the powers of the state. If there were restrictions on free speech, or freedom of assembly, or the right of a fair trial, the government’s actions could be deemed unjust and illegitimate, thus preventing a decline into authoritarianism. The Basic Law of Germany is a fine model to adopt in England as it is fairly comprehensive in outlining the roles of each branch of government, the fundamental rights for all citizens, and less glamorous provisions like the processes required for referenda and constitutional amendments.
There are many practical problems that the people of England wish to see resolved, from job creation to protecting a local bus route, but the status quo will not deliver the solutions they seek. Economic growth, environmental protection, and all democratic decisions are best made as close to the affected people as possible. The wisdom of Westminster has been shown on countless occasions to be an illusion. In order to restore faith in politics some fundamental work needs to be done to recast the political system.
The Union is in doubt, and whether it splinters or remains progress mustn’t be delayed. A decentralised England could exist as an independent nation-state or as a constituent country By adopting some key constitutional premises from our German comrades, democracy would be strengthened and a politicised citizenry could more effectively hold their representatives to account. The British government was instrumental in writing the Basic Law, and therefore it is only fitting that the English state evolves by adopting many of the same principles. Issues like the voting system and the future of the monarchy can be added through amendments or acts of Parliament, but in any case we should look to Germany for England’s political future.