Nick Clegg: This opportunity cannot be hijacked

Within hours of the momentous decision by the Scottish people to remain in the UK, Westminster found itself once again bogged down in conventional party political point scoring.

I have seen for myself the way in which the vested interests in the two old parties can conspire to block reform - scuppering elections to the House of Lords and a clean up of party funding in recent years.

We cannot allow an exciting new chapter of empowerment and constitutional renewal to be held hostage yet again by a Labour and Tory pre-election stand off.

The Conservatives, in their rush to protect themselves from an attack from the right, are only concerned about English votes on English matters. Of course we need a solution to this dilemma but, by appearing to link it to the delivery of further devolution to Scotland, they risk reneging on the commitment made to the Scottish people that, in the event of a No vote, new powers would come what may.

Worse still, if the Conservatives enter into a Dutch auction with UKIP over ever more extreme solutions to the issue of English votes they could jeopardise the Union they purport to defend. Surely we haven't fought to save our Union in a vote north of the border, only to see it balkanised in Westminster?

Labour, by contrast, appears to have been taken by surprise by the unavoidable consequences of devolving sweeping new powers to Holyrood. They are choosing to ignore the dilemma of non-English MPs taking decisions on purely English issues - as a party with dozens of Scottish MPs they have the most to lose. 

So, unless they're careful, the Conservatives may end up turning their back on Scotland, while Labour ignores England: a recipe for stalemate when we should we working across political divides to renew our creaking constitution from top to toe. 

We need action on three fronts.

First, delivering the devolution that has been promised to Scotland. No ifs, no buts. The package of reforms myself, Ed Miliband and David Cameron all committed to must be delivered on time and cannot be made contingent on other constitutional reforms, even as we pursue agreement on them in parallel. 

We must deliver further powers for Wales as recommended by the Silk Commission while strengthening devolution in Northern Ireland too. And, on the divisive issue of English votes for English matters, we must start with the work of Sir William McKay, who has already done a lot of the heavy lifting after the Coalition asked him to look at this. Sir McKay suggested a number of ways of giving English MPs a special right to vet legislation where it only affects England, bringing in Welsh MPs where appropriate, in a way which avoids fragmenting the Commons.

Second, we need a much more radical dispersal of power within England. 

In Coalition I have been determined that – against all of the instincts of central government – we hand back an array of powers to Britain’s communities and cities. But we need to turn this relationship fundamentally on its head. Currently the best local councils can hope for is to be granted new powers when the government of the day deigns to do so. Instead we must guarantee a new, legal right for local authorities to demand powers - decentralisation on demand if you like -  with central government having to meet a much higher threshold before it can refuse. 

My aim is a statutory presumption in favour of the decentralisation of powers away from Whitehall. I see no reason why we cannot publish draft clauses for this early next year alongside our other pressing reforms.

Finally, as we move towards a more federal system we will need to codify the division of labour between Westminster and the constituent parts of the UK and set out a clear statement of the values we all share. In short, what amounts to a written constitution.

I welcome Labour's decision to embrace the longstanding Liberal Democrat call for a constitutional convention – but it needs a precise mandate, beginning next year and concluding in 2017. It should have a Citizen’s Jury at its heart, representing every corner of the UK. One area it will need to address is the future of the House of Lords which, in my view, would better serve people as an elected second chamber, in keeping with federal political systems across the world. Ultimately, however, it will not be up to politicians – this process will be led by the people.

Together these changes will rewire power across the UK. This opportunity cannot be hijacked by old fashioned ya boo politics. It would be a tragic irony if the stale and self-serving politics of Westminster that has fed the appetite for change now frustrates the possibility of radical reform. The Scottish referendum may have come and gone, but it's legacy of UK-wide constitutional renewal still remains within our grasp.

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  • followed this page 2014-10-11 12:50:19 +0100
  • commented 2014-09-30 22:46:26 +0100
    Yes what you are saying is correct. Let our voice be heard on this and give Scotland and indeed the rest of the UK what is needed. At the moment in Scotland it just seems to be the Conservatives and Labour that talking about more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

    Get into action and not just words
  • commented 2014-09-30 07:29:08 +0100
    Really? What about the UK parliament? an what has Jerusalem got to do with any of it?
  • commented 2014-09-29 22:27:26 +0100
    In response can I say that an English parliament is the necessary precursor to any devolution of regional power in England. E.g. only English MPs considering if an alliance of English Northern cities could have more local control – especially as, for example, England is the only UK country with prescription and other ‘taxes’.
    The Scottish parliament could devolve power to the Northern Isles similarly.
  • commented 2014-09-29 20:44:00 +0100
    An English parliament would be a nonsense – it is not devolution in any meaningful sense and England would remain one of the most centralised countries in the world. Subsidiarity is the key which means decisions being taken as locally as possible. We have not thought imaginatively enough about the vast range of powers which could be devolved down to local councils and the idea of devolution on demand is one of the best I’ve come across for some time.
  • commented 2014-09-25 13:12:51 +0100
    To create a government that the average voter understands and supports : Westminster would become an English only parliament with 502 MPs. A First Minister and devolved powers for health, education, transport etc.. to all countries.
    The House of Lords to become a UK elected parliament with 234 UKMPs elected regionally – maybe on EU boundaries with proportional representation. Prime Minister, chancellor,defence, foreign, home and maybe benefits portfolios.
    The Monarch to be constitutional head of latter.
    The Bank of England to be renamed the Bank of Britain.
    ‘Jerusalem’ to be English national anthem [as it was in commonwealth games].
    The Prime Minister and others in the UK parliament would become largely free of constituency duties.
    Blair Labour would have had a majority in England as well as Wales and Scotland and one should not predict the future.
    The above would provide strong democratic government in all countries as well as the UK
    and avoid the conflicts of US democracy. Of course there might be a Tory led UK parliament and an SNP parliament in Scotland and Labour in Wales, local councils have similar conflicts but the system works.
  • commented 2014-09-24 14:53:58 +0100
    If 5million or so electors in one part of the UK can have a devolved government why not others? We must move political power closer to the electors and bin once and for all the outdated imperial model of government. Politics in Scotland has been invigorated by this debate and we can do the same in England. Lets see some leadership on this Nick, lets see some passion, lets just do it.
  • commented 2014-09-23 17:35:49 +0100
    In an earlier post, I suggested we should have a look at the German constitution for inspiration. However, on reflection I wonder if I and many other people have been thinking about it the wrong way round. Instead of considering what powers might be devolved and how that might be achieved, how about deciding first what powers may not be devolved either in whole or in part. After deciding this fundamental question, it would be up to each member of the UK family of nations – and any sub-divisions thereof – to decide the extent it wished other powers to be devolved from Westminster. Obviously if, say, London or for that matter Orkney and Shetland wished to take charge of health issues, its MPs would not be able to vote on these issues for the rest of the UK. In the case of Orkney and Shetland, the same would apply to its MSPs in Scotland.
  • commented 2014-09-23 17:23:27 +0100
    1. I am not convinced by the McKay proposals which seem to enshrine England as an entity but without the political or administrative power to make it effective. Can you imagine a situation in which a UK Labour Chancellor and a UK Labour Health Minister for England, both appointed by and accountable to a Labour PM, are trying to deal with a system in which decisions on the NHS in England are made by a Tory majority of English MPs? Combining Labour control of the economy with Tory control of the NHS may be the nearest thing to a voter’s nightmare as it’s possible to get!
    2. If there is an early decision on English votes for English MPs, what happens in the Lords? Exclusion of the small number of pre-1707 creation hereditary peers elected by their fellow hereditaries to stay?
    3. Not all second chambers in federal democracies are simply directly elected on the basis of equal votes. Think of the US Senate with two members from Wyoming and 2 from California (over 60 times the population); the German Bundesrat, the French, Spanish or Canadian Senates. It is worth thinking about the interplay between first and second chambers.
    4. “Balkanised” is an unfortunate choice of word both because of what it implies about the Balkans (much better-off since separate countries) and the UK where it seems to belittle the idea of a strong second-tier of government.
    5. “Identity” is a slippery concept in politics. It can shade easily into racial and national identity. Vince Cable and Michael Ignatieff have both written about it. I agree that units in a federal system should have a degree of shared interest and identity, but that’s not the same as being a nation and it’s important also to have cohesive and efficient governments – some of which may be small in population and/or area (think, Val d’Aoste, Bremen, Rioja, Rhode Island) but which are still part of a coherent structure of national government.
    6. Some participants refer to the lack of appetite in England for devolution. They are quite right. They should be reassured by the evidence demonstrated by Robert Putnam that devolved and federal structures whether legislated (France, Italy) or imposed (Germany, Japan) are within ten years much more entrenched by public support compared with a re-centralised alternative. Scotland and Wales are further examples. Structures which are part of the founding Constitution (US; Canada; Australia; India) are even more entrenched – imagine telling any of those countries that they would be better off run directly from Washington DC, Ottawa, Canberra, or Delhi.
  • commented 2014-09-23 15:07:54 +0100
    Whatever we do do we must address the Scottish issues first. That was Nick’s promise and I don’t want any more “I’m sorry” excuses.
  • followed this page 2014-09-23 12:44:32 +0100
  • commented 2014-09-23 12:35:05 +0100
    After years of not being persuaded about the need for this kind of reform, I agree that, today, no change is not an option. I think these proposals are all sound, and I hope that they lead somewhere and that the Lib Dems are a driving force behind them. The only comment I’d have is that it’s important that identity is considered as an essential ingredient in any settlement, especially for England – if we are to give a voice to the people, we need to listen to what they (we!) say about our sense of national, local, regional identities. Otherwise we will end up with a better, but still ultimately top-down, constitutional set-up that doesn’t match people’s feelings about their own country – a recipe for alienation and future division.
  • followed this page 2014-09-23 11:31:24 +0100
  • followed this page 2014-09-22 21:14:37 +0100
  • followed this page 2014-09-22 20:45:26 +0100
  • commented 2014-09-22 19:40:27 +0100
    We really must not be rushed into this, it`s too important, and the chance will not come again in a generation.
    The constitutional upheaval is so great that proportional representation MUST be brought back into play
  • followed this page 2014-09-22 16:48:50 +0100
  • commented 2014-09-22 14:39:43 +0100
    With the present distribution of safe seats in England, an English assembly would have a permanent Tory majority under the First Past the Post system. England would become a “one party state”. Suddenly PR is as much in the interest of the Labour party as it is of the Lib Dems. This is the point at which Labour and the Lib Dems should insist that their cooperation on English devolution is dependent on a move to PR, while continuing to work to the agreed timetable to fulfill the party leaders’ promises to Scotland without waiting for the English matter to be resolved.

    If Labour were to win the 2015 general election, with the help of Scottish constituencies, it would not be unreasonable to use this to introduce PR provided that a requirement for all elections to be held under PR were to apply to the entire UK.
  • followed this page 2014-09-22 13:35:32 +0100
  • followed this page 2014-09-22 10:34:33 +0100
  • commented 2014-09-21 23:44:51 +0100
    The three party leaders had no mandate to pledge further huge constitutional change and must formally seek a mandate from the people of the rest of the UK BEFORE carrying out any further devolution – not on the same time scale. The people of England have been lumbered with the West Lothian question since the original devolution was carried out without any vote by them. This democratic deficit must be addressed before any more constitutional change exacerbates the situation and the mess of the West Lothian question will take many years to sort out in a proper manner that is equitable, workable and will stand the test of time.

  • commented 2014-09-21 21:59:51 +0100
    All three leaders have signed the “vow” to give Scotland far more powers and responsibilities for their own affairs. They have also got the facilities in place to ensure that they are governed and scrutinized in a correct manner.
    If the other parts of the UK are to get similar / like minded powers it follows that the other facilities will have to be put in place.
    However the one thing that has helped it all to be accepted in Scotland is that the governance has been elected on a proportional representative base and I want to see that any regional governance that is put in place for the rest of the UK is on a PR slate.
    One of the big arguments that was used 10 years ago to defeat the regional base referendum was “another layer of government with its attendant cost” etc etc.
    I firmly believe that we should set out from the beginning to ensure that the cost of any regional centers that have to be established will by and large be met from reducing the number of MP’s that we send to Westminster.
    We will get nowhere by just adding onto the layers of government that are already existing. We need to bring as much as possible down to local areas.
  • commented 2014-09-21 21:54:05 +0100
    Dear Nick,
    Beaconsfield Liberal Democrats met on Sunday to discuss the implications of the referendum and your statement was helpful. We reached the following conclusions:
    1. It was unwise of the leaders of the three major parties to make promises on more devolution which their party members and their MPs don’t agree with.
    2. We were surprised to hear the prime minister say early on Friday morning that devolving more powers to Scotland would proceed at the same pace as solving the West Lothian question. We were surprised because it appeared to add conditions to the vow which had been expressed only a few days earlier. Although we were surprised, we were also pleased because the West Lothian question has remained unsolved for far too long.
    3. It is not the case that only Tories and UKIP members feel aggrieved. Rank and file LibDem party members also feel that it would be unfair to devolve more powers to the Scottish Parliament without restricting the powers of Scottish MPs to influence legislation applicable only in England or in England and Wales. We are particularly fearful that a future Labour government might push through changes to the NHS or to education in England using their Scottish MPs to decide a critical vote which it could not win without them.
    4. We do not think that the Barnett formula is unfair to the extent that it compensates Scotland for its low population density, remote islands and adverse winter climate. We do think it is unfair to the extent that it allows Scotland to enjoy free personal care for the elderly and free university tuition which is not available in England.
    5. We recognize that the promise to devolve more powers to Scotland has created a difficult political situation. Exacerbating the West Lothian question has made its solution more urgent. We agree that the promise must be implemented quickly or all Westminster politicians’ credibility will be further reduced. We agree that the other issues will take more than 6 months to solve and that a constitutional commission needs to solve a number of issues so that the new constitutional settlement will last for a generation or even for a century.
    6. However English voters are too impatient to wait for 2 years to find out what is going to happen. We demand interim progress on some issues so we can have confidence that these problems are not going to be fudged or shelved as too difficult.

    Peter Chapman
  • commented 2014-09-21 21:47:28 +0100
    Really interesting discussion – particularly like the emphasis on more powers (and therefore tax raising powers transferred to local government). I think Anthony Kremer’s warnings below about creeping privatisation of council functions is important to note, so the democratic mechanism must be enshrined here.

    It will be crucial not to run away with ideas of expensive and unpopular new tiers of regional government. Can we not consider building these extra powers and tax-raising powers around existing but strengthened city/ unitary councils, taking us more in the direction of the powerful local government we reputedly had in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? The need then will be to ensure that strong city regions are balanced by neighbouring areas.
  • followed this page 2014-09-21 21:43:44 +0100
  • followed this page 2014-09-21 21:11:15 +0100
  • commented 2014-09-21 19:59:55 +0100
    The whole of the South East is too big, and if we are working on sensible regions, some way would need to be found to divide it so that there was some genuine community of interest in the new boundaries.
  • commented 2014-09-21 19:57:58 +0100
    The referendum in the North East was NOT for a directly elected assembly, so local people would have had no more control over what it got up to than they do over Westminster. I think that’s why they voted no. Also, then, there was NO HOPE that REAL change was possible. The Scots have shown us that it now is possible for ordinary people to have an impact on government.
  • commented 2014-09-21 19:35:51 +0100
    I agree with most of what Nick says, especially the part about the need to not renege on the commitment made to the Scottish people for the delivery of further devolution to Scotland, a.s.a.p.; and that in accepting the need for a solution to the ‘English votes for English Laws’ question, it cannot be linked on the same timescale. New powers in Scotland must come what may – Wales and NI to follow suit.

    Constitutional convention
    This is definitely needed, but working out English devolution is really difficult as in:

    Devolution should work in the north where you have number of very large cities, who together as one region, or as city regions jointly could have enough devolved power to make a really big difference to their communities & economies. E.g. HS3 Newcastle to Liverpool high speed rail line?

    Dog’s breakfast
    Believe me I see no real appetite in the south of England for a regional tier of Government. Moving powers from London to Bristol may excite a few political anoraks, but does not grab the people of Gloucestershire.
    I think the statutory presumption in favour of the decentralisation of powers away from Whitehall, with powers only be delegated on demand could end up a complete dog’s breakfast. Where does that place District Councils in this brave new world? An early job before you can devolve anything is Unitary Councils across England.
  • commented 2014-09-21 19:28:57 +0100
    It should not and it must not be up to political parties to decide democratic processes. Gerrymandering will be an inevitable consequence if they are allowed to. We need a think tank set up as a Royal Commission to listen to ALL concerns and produce an equitable solution.

    The priority now is devolvement of power to the four countries. This debate should not be combined with notions of giving greater powers to local authorities. This is a separate issue and does not involve a reorganisation of the democratic process and will only confuse the process. Sort the countries out first and then let each country decide what additional powers they wish to delegate down.

    Whilst doing that, lets sort the language out so that everyone is clear about it
    Countries =Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland
    Nation (or State) = United Kingdom, or if you like, Britain or Great Britain but in my view this refers to the physical landmass and does not include Ireland.

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