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Why Britain needs a constitutional convention

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tags: britain, constitutional convention



Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he currently leads the freespeechdebate.com project, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is "Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name."

It is insulting to the peoples of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to suggest, as Prime Minister David Cameron has done, that this can be achieved in a few months, by next spring. The honouring of specific promises made by British political leaders to the Scots, including that tight timetable, must therefore be separated from a Constitutional Convention for the whole country. This Convention should bring its proposals to an all-British referendum before the end of the next Parliament. What is more, this constitutional settlement must address the question of what is done at the European level, as well as at the British (federal), national (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) and lower levels of government. In short, what we need is a coherent, carefully crafted, popularly deliberated and democratically decided proposal for a federal Britain in a confederal Europe. 

The absence of references to Europe in the barrage of first reactions to the Scottish referendum result was gobsmacking. On Friday morning, Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-EU and anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), was on BBC radio saying that the issue now is how we create 'a fair federal United Kingdom', which he explained as 'a fully devolved, federal United Kingdom'. So federalism, the dreaded F-word, trademark of all those nefarious Napoleonic designs of beastly Belgians, is now suddenly a good thing. But why did Farage not mention the EU? After all, arrangements for a federal Britain mean deciding who has the power to do what, where and over whom. And here is a man who has endlessly been telling us, to great effect among English voters, that too many such powers have been arrogated to federalist Brussels. 'Give us our country back' has been the war cry. So how on earth can we talk about a federal settlement for Britain without discussing the powers that belong to Europe? 

It's not just Farage. The British government has conducted an exhaustive review of the 'balance of competences' between Britain and the EU. David Cameron proposes to 'renegotiate' the UK's relationship with the EU, and then put our membership of it to a Scottish-style 'in or out' referendum in 2017. In what rational universe can that be separated from determining the balance of competences inside the UK? Ah, but 'we don't go in for European-style rationalism,' writes another English Eurosceptic, Daniel Hannan. 'We patch things up as we go along. And we're none the worse for it.' Really? None the worse for living in a country whose constitutional arrangements are now an incomprehensible, incoherent, right-royal bloody mess? 

We have been waiting a long time for this constitutional moment. Back in 1988, a civic initiative called Charter 88 demanded a process of open, popular deliberation to reach a new constitutional settlement. This was to mark the 300th anniversary of the 1688 Glorious Revolution, which overthrew King James II of England (and James VII of Scotland – same player, different shirt). Encouraging noises were made by leading politicians such as Gordon Brown, but it went nowhere. More recently, the scandal about British MPs' expenses, exposed by the British press, provoked another wave of rhetoric about a 'new politics' and systemic change. I will never forget returning from three months in the United States, in autumn 2009, to find that this wave, too, had just drained away, like floodwater in old meadows. We were back in what the Scottish writer Tom Nairn memorably called Ukania, an anachronistic, discombobulated, sometimes surreal kingdom, not unlike Kakania, the Austrian writer Robert Musil's label for the decaying Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. 

To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they did their best in the current coalition government. They put electoral reform to a popular vote, and a largely uninterested British electorate said no. They attempted, as British politicians have been doing for 100 years (yes, you read that right), to reform the House of Lords - and failed again. In federal systems, however, the upper house is typically the place where the distinct territorial components – states, provinces – are represented, as in the German Bundesrat. That is especially necessary in multi-national federations, such as the FKB would be. So transforming the House of Lords would have to be part of any serious constitutional settlement... 

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