Conventional thinking

George Foulkes on the urgent need to review the UK’s patchwork democracy and power structures

Devolution within the UK is an incoherent hotchpotch which leaves many people feeling more distant than ever from the decision-making processes of government.

The most obvious problem is that the English regions, with many of the same economic and social issues as Scotland and Wales, have no parallel structure of devolved government which allows them to do things differently, according to their distinctive needs.

When we emerge from Brexit there will be a greater need than ever to bring a divided country together. A key to that could be a coherent strategy which gives equal voices to every part of our United Kingdom.

On Thursday, I will lead a debate in the Lords aimed at establishing a Constitutional Convention that listens to people in every part of the UK and seeks to address the existing democratic deficits.

Creating a Convention will be a Labour manifesto pledge with the remit to “examine and advise on the way Britain works at a fundamental level”. But there is no reason why this should be the left to one party – or why we should not get on with the work now.

Existing attempts at devolution within England are patchwork and unsatisfactory. It has given us catchy concepts such as ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘Metro Mayors’. At Parliament meanwhile, David Cameron’s ill-conceived ‘English Votes for English Laws’ has been a damp squib.

‘Metro Mayors’ formed part of Cameron’s devolution attempts and led to a new breed of elected Mayors for eight city-regions. Although the lack of transferred powers have caused frustration. Plus much of England is of course, outside this network.

A Constitutional Convention would address the imbalances which this piecemeal approach has created. Unless the picture is considered as a whole, it is unlikely that any other route will lead to a coherent outcome that meets both needs and reasonable expectations.

There is a precedent. I was a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which, between 1989 and 1995, brought together Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and Communist parties, as well as representatives of the Scottish TUC, local government, churches and civic society. Only the Conservatives and SNP stayed away.

The mission was to create a blueprint for Scottish devolution. When Labour was elected in 1997, the work of the Convention provided the foundations for the Scotland Act that created the Scottish Parliament in 1999. While not perfect, the Convention demonstrated what could be done if all areas of society come together early on. Rather than legislation starting from a blank sheet of paper once a government is elected.

A new Constitutional Convention post-Brexit could advise on how decision-making can best be devolved, where appropriate, throughout England as well as the rest of the UK.  It cannot simply be a case – in England, any more than Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland – of powers repatriated from Brussels going straight to Whitehall and staying there.

Such a Convention across party lines could start to make sense of an extremely complex network of powers and responsibilities. It could also make coherent recommendations about how the UK is governed – with proper respect paid to each of its nations and regions.

With the right structures in place, it could also form the basis for the Lords to be replaced by an Upper House which reflects the whole of the UK. The months and years ahead are going to be difficult but they can be used constructively to advance democracy and bring it closer to the people we represent. 

Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock is a Labour Peer and former Scotland Minister 

Published 10th December 2018

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