British constitutional conundrum

Scotland has decided to stay in union with the rest of the United Kingdom with a phenomenal voter participation, which is a great credit to the Scottish electorate, and with a larger margin than perhaps was expected or feared. There is a palpable sense of relief in many quarters that the break-up of the state has been avoided, not least by RBS-owned NatWest that drew up a contingency plan in case Scotland had voted yes to independence as it informed me when I was logging into my account, but at the same time it heralds a period of great constitutional uncertainties for the UK.

While the UK has been saved, well over 1.5 million Scots voted for independence. That cannot be ignored and their dissatisfaction will have to be addressed. The political narrative now centres on those who voted no in that they did not wish independence, but wanted, were promised, and now expect changes to the status quo. This group combined with the yes voters form, the narrative goes, the majority of Scots in demanding changes to the current constitutional arrangement. In a binary yes / no referendum, there is no way to know how many of the no voters were committed unionists, and how many of them were reluctant unionists who felt the risks of independence were too great: as with most political issues, there is most likely a great continuum of opinions, and the differences in some cases between yes and no might have been wafer thin. Based on the promises by the main three UK parties at Westminster, further powers will be devolved to Holyrood, even though the details are unclear. Reneging on the promises would not be a feasible option for the party leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats, though the SNP will probably play the opposition against Westminster while being in government in Holyrood as it has done, and demand as much powers as possible which it might not consider sufficient.

One big question concerns the future constitutional arrangement in the rest of the UK, or the English question as it is now called. If more powers are going to be devolved to Scotland, and possibly to Wales and Northern Ireland, then the legislative powers for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will reside with their respective parliaments and assemblies, and the executive will be required to command a majority in their respective parliaments and assemblies. What happens when there is a piece of legislation that only affects England? One possible solution is restricting voting on English matters to the MPs elected from constituencies in England within the current Westminster parliamentary set-up. Another possible solution is create an English parliament or create regional parliaments. There is no doubt the UK will be federalized in some manner: the question is whether England will be federalized. The former option – restricting voting rights on English matters to English MPs within Westminster – is said to create two classes of MPs. It is however possible to assign two distinct roles: one role as an MP for the whole UK, and in cases of MPs elected from English constituencies as an MP for English matters. It just happens that an MP elected from a constituency in England has two roles, whereas MSPs in Holyrood (voting for Scottish matters) and MPs in Westminster from constituencies outside England (voting for UK matters) have one role. The latter solution – creating a unitary English parliament or regional parliaments – would be neater, and keeps the different roles distinct, and in my opinion a better solution.

Another crucial problem in my view is the executive or the government that the legislature holds account to, if the executive-in-legislature parliamentary model is going to be retained across the various parliaments and assemblies in the UK. In short, there needs to be a separate executive or government for the UK, distinct from those in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. A single government for the whole of the UK and England in particular, as is broadly the case at the moment, and allowing only MPs elected in constituencies in England to vote on English matters may be expedient, but it will necessarily cause confusion and indeed be untenable, as such would be riddled with oddities and anomalies. If the prime minister for both – for the UK as a whole and for England – were to be the same person, it excludes an MP from a constituency outside England. It may be possible to have a UK prime minister from a constituency outside England, a UK deputy prime minister elected as the prime or first minister for England, but that is messy. Because some matters would be for the UK government and the UK parliament and others for the English government and the English parliament to decide, there will be two sets of cabinets.

Some sort of a unicameral English parliament may be the unavoidable, necessary, and perhaps natural outcome, given England’s long history as a highly centralized state since 1066. One issue of creating regional assemblies is that that would divide the country into many parts, leading to a hugely increased number of politicians, and if the past proposals were to be revived, then they would not be a proper devolution: it would be something similar to London, where some executive powers were devolved to the directly-elected mayor, but not the meaningful legislative therefore fiscal powers as have been and will be devolved to Holyrood. Creating an English parliament, and devolving the same powers to England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland would be the only way to ensure that constitutional anomalies will not arise. Northern Ireland may be a tricky case, but giving different parliaments and assemblies different sets of powers will be a cause of incessant confusion and constant argument over the competences, powers, and responsibilities.

The biggest question is how to elect the federal government, in other words, the UK government: it is possible to use a slimmed-down version of the current Westminster parliament. Or Britain could go down the presidential route and elect the prime minister on a popular ballot, which would be a departure from the current constitutional arrangement. However, there is an issue that needs to be addressed, namely that England – its government, legislature, or agenda – should not be able to dominate over the other parts of the UK, which points to a bicameral system, where one chamber is elected proportional to the population (in a first-past-the-post system the constituency should roughly be of the same size), and another chamber is composed equally of different constituent members of the UK, a little like the Congress in the US. There may be an argument that England should be divided – as far as this chamber is concerned – into regions, so that no one part of England can overrule other parts on a UK matter. If a bicameral UK parliamentary system were to be introduced, then the executive either will have to be elected separately, or be commanding the confidence of both or one of the chambers. The last option will be possible by assigning different powers in each chamber, and require the government to have a majority in one chamber, while giving the other chamber some sort of veto or delaying power, somewhat analogous to the earlier arrangement of the two Houses of Parliament.

The route to and process of federalization have been made more or less inevitable, should the UK political parties honour their promises to Scotland – Mr Brown’s Scottish Home Rule has the echoes of the Gladstonian Irish Home Rule – which came out of a moment of blind panic as one opinion poll stated that yes was ahead that might well have been an outlier. This referendum will precipitate huge changes in the British constitution. The people of Scotland debated and participated in that process, and now the challenge is for the other parts of the UK to ask and discuss how the country can be governed. While it will not have the resonance of the independence referendum, it would be hoped that the process will engage the public, and determined not just by politicians behind closed doors or media barons and their editors.

This process of federalization is likely to weaken the party political system, where people will be voting for different parties for different roles. Some politicians and sections of media think that voters are somehow only capable of supporting one party at one time for all different levels of politics. Voters aren’t stupid: people have no problems voting for different parties in different elections. For example, in Scotland, many people probably have voted for different parties in local, Holyrood, Westminster, and European elections. There will be detailed analyses on which way people in Scotland have voted, but I would not be surprised if a substantial number of people had voted in the opposite way from the party they ordinarily support. Politicians might be tribal perhaps due to the first-past-the-post political system, but people are not necessarily so. The end result may even be a move towards consensus politics.

In any case, the British constitution will change, because it has to change. There already exists anomalies that have been papered over, but if the main UK parties do as they have promised, no change is not an option. What will come out of the process? It is hard to say, but it will be something different. The UK is now in a process of fundamental constitutional change, and there are interesting few years ahead.