Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:59 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 1:59 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate about our very complicated constitution, with a disparate range of views, not all of which are going to be easy to reconcile: that in a sense makes the case for having a convention. I join the tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, who has had a very distinguished career, both in this House and in the other place. He and I were reminiscing just a few weeks ago about a visit we made to Zimbabwe—he mentioned Rhodesia in his speech—at a time when we hoped we might be able to help Zimbabwe in a more positive direction than it turned out. We tried very hard; unfortunately, not enough people listened. He recounted to the House the wide range of activities he has been involved in, as a Minister and as a Member of both Houses, and the House has demonstrated how much it appreciates him and wishes him well in his retirement.

I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on securing this debate: I absolutely support the objective behind it of having a constitutional convention. A number of points have been made, but I reflected on what happened yesterday. It brought home to me just how dysfunctional and medieval our political system is. A dispute in a minority party at the other end of the House, which nobody but 317 people were involved in, was supposed to keep us all on the edge of our seats about the destiny of our nation. If that is British democracy, it is a shameful humiliation that it has been brought down to that. The reality is, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, says, that in fact our British political system is at the mercy of the minorities who control the two largest parties—which are in themselves minorities—and we have the nerve to call that a democracy. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on that. We have some very fundamental thinking to do, because people are angry, disengaged and alienated. If we do not do something about it, I actually think we have to worry about civil disorder and unrest when people do not find any democratic outlets for securing the things that matter to them.

I pick on the big picture—the more focused picture. The dimension of England is always the problem for those of us who believe that some form of federal United Kingdom is the only way we can resolve the piecemeal reforms that we have initiated. The argument is that England is too big, so we can do nothing about it, but my noble friend Lord Greaves and others have made some suggestions. For example, my noble friend Lady Janke said we could look at how local government was secured in other countries, and mentioned Sweden and Germany. One of the problems with local government is that it just does not have its powers or financial resources secured: these should be constitutional rights enshrined in the law, and not subject to the will of some passing Secretary of State to start changing the powers or the allocation of how money is distributed, if he needs to please the Daily Mail on a given day for a headline.

Yet this is how our country is being run and has been run and there is very little that people can do. People in local government are asked to do more and more with less and less and as a result people say, “You are no use, you can’t do anything, you are not actually delivering for us”. We need a radical rethink, from top to bottom and side to side, but I suggest that before we have a federal constitution for the United Kingdom we absolutely have to address proper, effective, accountable devolution for England. However, I say in passing that that one of the bad consequences of the Scottish devolution settlement and the creation of a majority SNP Government is that it has been the victim of exactly the same paranoia that has been characteristic, in England, of taking control away from local government and centralising it under the control of a few Ministers. In Edinburgh we have lost control of the police, the fire service and many aspects of planning. We have lost control of our ability to actually fund the services that the Government expect us to provide.

We need, therefore, to start thinking about how we can draw people together, analyse the dysfunctionality that is characteristic of the way we run ourselves and, yes, learn from other countries. The interesting thing about Europe, never mind over 50 years but over the last 20 or 30 years, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, is that when countries had the opportunity to look at the kind of democracy they wanted to be, none of them looked at the United Kingdom as the model to follow. They looked at countries that had proper constitutions and proper arrangements. My noble friend Lord Steel once famously said, “The British constitution is not worth the paper it isn’t written on”. Nobody quite knows what it is: it is there to be manipulated at will by minorities who happen to be in control at any given time.

I was a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and was very proud to be part of it. To be fair to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, he acknowledged that while we naturally and unsurprisingly give the Labour Party credit—which it deserves because it had had a bloodied nose and needed to learn from it, and did learn from it—the convention was an offshoot of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, which was cross-party and non-party, which is really important. When we established the convention, we wanted to be sure that it was as representative and as legitimate as possible, so every elected Member of Parliament and of the European Parliament from Scotland was invited, ex officio, to be a member. Every council in Scotland was invited to send representations and it was supplemented by representatives of trade unions, business organisations, churches, women’s groups and a whole variety of civic society, to enable them to participate and be involved in it. It was not official; the Government of the day treated it with a degree of dismissive contempt and the SNP turned up only to walk out—with the intention of walking out, I think it would be fair to say.

That was unfortunate because there was plenty of room for building consensus, and we did. Indeed, I remember an occasion on which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I were on the opposite sides of the argument about the voting system. He claimed that I had a gun to his head and the chair of the Labour Party at the time said that the gun was loaded. It was not loaded by me; it was loaded just as much by the Labour movement and other members of the Labour Party, because they recognised that if you were going to secure a Parliament in Scotland commanding the support of the people of Scotland, it had to be genuinely representative of all parts of Scotland—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will understand that— not just the Glasgow Labour Party, which was what people feared. I give credit to Donald Dewar and other leaders for acknowledging that that was necessary. As a result of that, we moved from having an assembly to having a Parliament, to having more than the powers of the Scottish Office and to being elected by a proportional system.

That takes us on to issues such as referendums. If anything has been a constitutional outrage and abuse, it has been the use of referendums in this country. We have no constitutional basis for a referendum. We have a representative system of government, which the people boast about and celebrate, and then we suddenly throw into it the whim of a referendum, which is nearly always to meet the needs of a particular party in a mess. The net result of that political party in a mess has made the country a mess. What a disgraceful piece of leadership that turned out to be. The Scottish independence referendum was possibly the only way to address an issue: if a nationalist party wins a majority and says, “We have a mandate to try for independence”, a referendum is the way to test it. However, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that a simple question and a simple majority is the answer. Something as fundamental as constitutional change has to carry a very substantial majority for it to stick. If not, we have exactly the situation we have now; a country split down the middle, incapable of resolving its differences by any proper mechanism.

I am personally not very keen on the idea of a second referendum. I support a people’s vote only as a default mechanism because there does not seem to be any other way of resolving the dilemma. If Parliament can find a majority for a system that is genuinely uniting, I would support that, but the reality is that that does not look likely so it seems to me that we have to consult the people.

Fundamentally, I suggest that a constitutional convention needs to look from the bottom up. It needs to consult as widely as possible. It needs to include politicians: I do not think we can exclude them because in the end it will be politicians who have to implement it. The people making suggestions and having ideas who do not have political antennae need to be informed by that, but I agree that the politicians should not be the drivers. It should be a collective decision that draws from all opinions and especially from the grass roots up.

It has been done in other countries. The founding fathers of the United States built their system on it. Talking about the United States perhaps builds in one particular factor, which is that the lack of a written constitution and of real guarantees means that we have a lack of checks and balances built into our constitutional system. To those who say that we should just do everything gradually, bit by bit, I say that doing it that way is how we have got to this state. We have failed to do anything fundamental by analysing what we need to do. Some say that having gone down the road we have, with a Northern Ireland Assembly, a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, a London Assembly and the demand now for much more local and regional government in England, we are well on the way to creating a quasi, if not actual, federal United Kingdom. It is not possible to have a federal constitution that is not written down. By definition, you have to define where the powers lie and how disputes are resolved and the mechanisms for doing so. The whole point about a federal constitution is that power is divided according to the appropriate body for delivering it, and the powers and resources for that body are secured by the constitution, not by the Government of the day or the political minority that happens to be in control.

That would be a fundamental, radical change to the way we do things in this country. It is a citizens’ contract that has never been built. To the extent that we have acquiesced in the way that the country has been run, it is now breaking down to the point where it threatens our ability to make the country governable. The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is very timely. I point out to him that my noble friend Lord Purvis suggested a Bill three or four years ago. Indeed, there is a fairly proud history of doing that. But the reality is that we need to move and to recognise that this constitution does not work.