Author Archives: Admin

Devolution: a flawed process exposed by the Supreme Court

When the Supreme Court published its ruling on the Article 50 case, it was one of the most significant developments in the UK’s recent constitutional history. The sovereignty of parliament was upheld, and Britain’s established model of representative democracy was reaffirmed, placing a clear constitutional limit on the executive power of the Prime Minister and the government. The case, which was brought originally by Gina Miller to the High Court who had argued that the Primer Minister could not use executive powers to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in order to begin the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, also upheld another established point of Britain’s constitutional framework. The judges of the Supreme Court found, unanimously, that the devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland do not have to be consulted and therefore do not have the power to veto decisions taken by the UK parliament at Westminster, even when those decisions ordinarily would require consultation of devolved legislatures by Westminster.

The ruling on January 24th exposed a key flaw in the process of devolution in the United Kingdom. Historically, Britain has been very resistant to decentralisation, and even today has been described as ‘almost the most centralised developed state in the world‘, with the vast majority of power concentrated in Westminster and Whitehall. The process of devolution has meant a gradual shift in a new direction, moving power away from the centre in London and distributing it around the country, empowering different communities around Britain much greater say in their own governance. Devolution for Scotland and Wales has seen the creation of new political institutions which can act independently of Westminster in certain areas, and have opened up British politics to a new level of citizen participation which offers the potential to invigorate democracy and restore public confidence in the entire political system. The process of devolution has continued, with further powers devolved from Westminster to Holyrood, the seat of the Scottish Parliament, following the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, and a successful referendum in Wales on further powers for the Welsh Government.

However, devolution has progressed in fits and starts, taking leaps forwards at times, and steps back at others. It has also been marked by considerable unevenness. Scotland possesses powers that go far beyond those of Wales or Northern Ireland. Yet England, thus far, has seen only very limited devolution, such as the planned creation of ‘metro-mayors’ in some urban conurbations based on the model of the mayoralty of London, and the so called ‘English Votes for English Laws’ law which allows English MPs at Westminster to veto certain bills. Indeed, demands for devolution in some areas such as Yorkshire and Cornwall remain largely ignored. Due in part to this unevenness and inconsistency in the progress of devolution, the process has yet to fully unleash its renovating and empowering potential for British democracy. On the contrary, disengagement, a strong sense of disenfranchisement, and anger at the political system remains a significant feature of public attitudes towards politics in the UK in 2017. This is perhaps most strongly felt in many of the areas around Britain which voted for Brexit on June 23rd 2016. It is little coincidence that those same areas are the ones which have experienced the least devolution and where the dominant political power over people’s lives is felt by many to be the distant and disconnected centres of London and Brussels.

In spite of the decentralisation and devolution which has occurred over the last three decades, the ruling by the Supreme Court in January, in particular its refusal to recognise the power of veto or even the right of consultation of devolved governments around the UK, shines a bright and revealing light on the true nature of devolution in Britain. Under this process, power has been delegated, rather than truly devolved. The UK Parliament at Westminster retains the final and ultimate authority. It can act at will, with or without the consultation, let alone consent, of any of the other parliaments and assemblies. This is the true nature of parliamentary sovereignty in the unwritten and barely legible constitution of British democracy in the 21st century. Devolution as we have it today is merely the illusion of self-determination, and it is insufficient to meet the needs and demands of the people, or to engage millions of disenchanted people with the political processes that govern their communities and their lives.

The solution to this fundamentally flawed system of decentralisation is an alternative system which puts all of the different parts of the UK on an equal footing with each other and with the central government in London. A system which truly empowers the nations and regions of Britain to govern their own affairs without undue interference from Westminster or having their rights and dignity trampled upon or completely ignored as if the days of Empire, when to be British meant to be English, were still with us. Today we live in a new era, where English and British are not synonymous and we have built an overwhelmingly open, tolerant and cosmopolitan society. It’s time our political system reflect our society and the nature of political relations within it. This is what federalism can offer Britain. But much more than this, federalism offers the possibility of a genuine political renewal, capable of gradually transforming public attitudes towards our democracy and our politicians. It can do this by putting power in their hands, moving it away from the Westminster bubble and out into the nations, counties, cities, towns and villages of Britain. By making local politics more meaningful it will garner trust and bring ordinary people to engage in politics.

Devolution as we have it simply cannot deliver this kind of vision. It is illusory, hollow and transparent. Ordinary people see through it and know who really wields the power. Federalism, on the other hand, offers us empowered local communities that maximise public participation and deliver better governance to the people, whilst maintaining the cohesion and identity of the United Kingdom nationally and internationally. To continue along our current path of limited devolution where the central government retains final control on every issue, will inevitably drive wedges between the peoples of Britain and push our historic and proud nation towards greater depths of nationalism, populism and social disintegration.

By Robert Jones, Federalist Party Board member.

Follow on Twitter

Disclaimer: This article expresses the personal views of its author, and may not necessarily reflect the official policies or views of the Federalist Party.

On Brexit and the future for federalism in the UK

On June the 23rd 2016 the government of David Cameron finally fulfilled a pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union which he had arguably been gradually cornered into by the eurosceptic quarter of his Conservative party and the threatening rise of UKIP. The validity and applicability of the result of that referendum has been, and will continue to be argued back and forth for some time. As the result became clear it was hailed as an overwhelming victory for the Leave campaign, mandating the British government to begin the process of withdrawal from the EU. This appeared to be validated by Cameron when he stood on Downing St the following morning and announced his resignation as Prime Minister, effectively conceding a total defeat. Whoever was to take over the leadership of the Conservatives, and by default become PM, would have the heavy responsibility of implementing the Brexit mandate, the ‘will of the people’ as it has been so frequently lauded. And that is just the role that Theresa May has taken up. But the truth is that the only overwhelming feature of the result was its unexpected nature. Most pollsters and political commentators, even politicians, indeed even on the night of the 23rd, Nigel Farage himself, had expected a victory for Remain. But Leave’s win, surprising and shocking though indeed it was, was in fact only by a very narrow margin. The referendum revealed a nation divided, and not at all some kind of all-empowering mandate for an absolute reversal in the country’s relationship with Europe and the world.

As soon as the result became clear, the hearts of millions who held out hope for a different result, sank. For them, the result wasn’t just about the EU and Britain’s membership of it, but about our place in the world, indeed, the cohesiveness of society beyond national boundaries. On June 23rd, the cosmopolitan world view took a beating. But for as much as we could attack the referendum, be it for its advisory nature, its limited participation, the complicated nature of the decision, or indeed the extent to which it might undermine established parliamentary representative democracy, the result was what it was. Many of those whose hearts sank, who awoke to a darker, less predictable, more dangerous world on June 24th, have begun to resist. We have been searching for answers, to find out why, what went wrong, and how can we stop it? The 48% as many proudly label their collective resistance to the Brexit nightmare, draw hope from legal challenges, parliamentary procedures, technicalities of international law and even opinion polls. And although there may be merit in many of the complex arguments that can be put forward, the most fundamental element of Brexit, whichever ‘type’ of Brexit we get, soft or hard, is that Brexit means the UK ceasing to be a member of the EU. For whatever voice and entitlement the 48% have to be heard, to have their views considered as we proceed towards this, the 52% also has a voice and entitlement which is at the very least, no lesser than that of the 48%. Britain must, therefore proceed to give notification of withdrawal under Article 50, and commence the march towards the door. For whatever others argue, there is a democratic and unavoidable mandate for that. But that alone. Any other element that might comprise Brexit has no clear mandate of any kind, be it leaving the single market, the customs union or restricting immigration from Europe. Just because Nigel Farage erected a racist billboard aimed at appealing to xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment for the Leave campaign, it does not mean and we cannot assume that anyone (other than perhaps Farage himself) voted Leave for any reason other than to leave the EU. We cannot play a game of interpreting the motives of voters with crystal balls, we can only act on their mandate, nothing more, nothing less. The final circumstances under which Britain leaves the EU must reflect the true mandate derived from the referendum. Prime Minister May has repeatedly called for the nation to come together, leaving aside the divisions and their accompanying labels of Brexiteer and Remainer, and she is right to do so. But they are hollow words, unless she is ready to bring forward a compromise between the two sides around which both can unite. Expecting Remainers to give up everything and accept an extreme version of Brexit such as she has proposed, to negotiate taking the UK out of all existing arrangements and seeking a new bilateral Free Trade agreement with the EU on Britain’s terms, is as unrealistic and unlikely to end these divisions as if she were to ask Brexiteers to accept not only staying, but further integration and joining the Euro.

The challenge before us, irrespective of how we voted, is to accept the result of the referendum within the terms in which the question itself was posed, but without shrinking away from the emerging political reality in the UK, or giving in to those who want to ‘tack on’ to Brexit additional meanings that would seek to turn us away from our cosmopolitan outlook. In Brexit Britain, the country’s identity and self-image, its social and political vision, and its constitutional arrangements are all in a state of flux, transitioning to an as yet undetermined and unknown future. It is now, more then ever, that we need to stand up and engage in the debates about the future of Britain, and in particular the potential for reshaping the United Kingdom’s political structure along federalist and more democratic lines that would move power and decision making much closer to the people who are affected by those decisions, to give a voice to millions of Britons who feel so disconnected and removed from Westminster politics, many of whom expressed their anger and frustration with the political classes on June 23rd. A federal future for Britain would also help to heal growing rifts within the UK, not just between different social, political and economic classes, but also between the home nations. Particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the referendum result was a further blow to the cohesion of the UK’s nations, contributing to the alienation of some segments of society and reviving threats of separation. A federal Britain would be altogether more cohesive, binding together the home nations, whilst empowering national and local governments to feel and act more independently.

We should also seek to forge a new role for Britain in the world, not buried within the EU, nor seeking desperate trade deals with whoever might listen, nor setting ourselves up as a super-Singapore tax haven. And we must never give in to some who hail the death of multilateralism and co-operation. The rise of globalisation, global warming, international flows of migrants and continuing political instability in many parts of the world demands an urgent new drive towards a reformed international system, no longer based on the spoils of war or some feigned principle of ‘sovereign equality’ of states but a federation of all democratic states based on the equality of all people, with the potential to bring social cohesion, justice and representative democracy onto the international level. We are not citizens of nowhere. We are citizens of Britain and of Europe, and to paraphrase Diogenes, we are citizens of the World.

By Robert Jones, Federalist Party Board member.
Follow on Twitter

Disclaimer: This article expresses the personal views of its author, and may not necessarily reflect the official policies or views of the Federalist Party.

‘English Votes for English Laws’ cannot deliver devolution for England

The 2015 General Election left us with a new balance of power that has the potential to massively transform the way British politics works and fundamentally reshape the relationship between Westminster and the nations and regions of the UK. This week the Scottish National Party, empowered by their election success and the strength of their contingent of MPs at Westminster, appears to have landed a significant blow in favour of devolved democracy by forcing the government to postpone a vote on its proposed reform of the Hunting Act, a law which applies only in England and Wales and does not directly affect Scotland. It is precisely the kind of law that David Cameron is thinking of with his plan for ‘English Votes for English Laws’ which he claims would deliver a measure of devolution for England and finally address the ‘West Lothian question’.

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP argue that such a proposal would leave Scottish MPs as ‘second class’ parliamentarians, unequal to their counterparts from England, and so undermining their authority in Westminster and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. But whilst it might look bad for Scotland, for the rest of the UK, and in particular England, the prospect of English Votes for English Laws is much worse. Scotland already has a devolved parliament with substantial powers over Scottish affairs and they may soon have ‘Home Rule’, meaning further powers including over taxation. The extent of devolution to other parts of the UK is limited at best, and in England it is nothing but a fantasy.

As English Votes for English Laws might leave Scottish MPs at Westminster in an inferior position, it is the voters in England who will find themselves short-changed by a proposal which pretends to offer English devolution, but in reality preserves the centralisation of power in a super-parliament at Westminster which will be supposed to act as both a parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom whilst simultaneously taking on the role of a devolved parliament, legislating for England alone. Whilst on the surface we could argue that there is no direct contradiction between these two roles, in practice England and its regions will miss out on having a dedicated legislature with its own MPs which could dedicate their time to devolved English issues (such as fox hunting). Under such an arrangement, the UK parliament at Westminster would be free to focus on areas relevant to the United Kingdom as a whole and its place in the world.

If the Westminster parliament, as it is today, is indeed a parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom, then it is important that all MPs elected there are of equal status and standing. Rather than addressing the democratic imbalance that the process of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not in England has left us with, the English Votes for English Laws plan risks further straining the unity and stability of the UK, and seeking only to counter one inequality with another, rather than removing the inequalities inherent in a system of asymmetric devolution, and replacing them with a fair and functional system of federalism, where each part of the UK is empowered to determine its own affairs and its own destiny whilst remaining comfortably anchored within the union.

As things stand, the government appears determined to push ahead with its plans and the SNP’s ‘intervention’ in English policy on the Hunting Act is likely to reinforce the determination of those in Westminster who, some argue, merely seek to strengthen their own position in parliament rather than deliver some kind of meaningful democratic settlement for the United Kingdom as a whole. Never before has the need for a serious and thorough overhaul of the UK’s constitutional arrangement been more urgent, and never before has the opportunity offered by federalism been so relevant, offering to deliver clear and democratic institutions and a fair political structure which can both accommodate and fulfil the diverse needs, identities and aspirations of all the peoples of the United Kingdom.

By Robert Jones

Disclaimer: This article expresses the personal views of its author, and may not necessarily reflect the official policies or views of the Federalist Party.