Karen Buck

Working tirelessly for Westminster North

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After Scotland has voted: why we need a Constitutional Convention for the whole country

Our national identity is an important part of who we are. Most of us, of course combine multiple identities during the course of our everyday lives-our sense of self being shaped so many different elements: from faith; gender and politics to work, sexuality and the deepest elements of our personal lives and history. But our national identity remains part of us, and it, too, is multi-layered. The Scotland I visit and love feels like part of my country. The United Kingdom that Scotland will now remain part of- that is my country. I feel a strong sense of Englishness too, partly rooted from growing up in an Essex village. I feel an awareness of my Irish heritage. I am a Londoner to my toes, and my home is the slice of London that is north Westminster. I have a strong sense of our shared global humanity. None of these things are unusual- we are all rarely one thing or the other. Government must enable us to live with this complexity, this fluidity.

Like many people, I welcomed the decision of the Scottish people to remain part of the UK. Yet while the implications of the Scottish ‘No' vote and what happens after are still being digested, politics is moving on. The Scottish vote is turning out to be not an end but another stage in a process of change. The same must now be made true for the other parts of the UK and that does, of course, include England.

One immediate response to the Scottish settlement has been a call for an English equivalent, and indeed we should look carefully at any proposals that are brought forward to give English MPs more powers to scrutinise legislation that particularly affects English constituencies. However, some of the ideas now being discussed throw up serious problems that have not yet been worked through. I get no sense of a public appetite for a new ‘English' Parliament, for example, with more politicians and all the associated costs that would entail. Nor is it so simple to just give ‘English laws to English MPs'. Neither legislation nor taxation powers lend themselves easily to such neatness. How would our second chamber- the House of Lords- fit in? It is not currently organised on national or regional lines, but is part of Parliament, with the power to amend the law. Potentially, members of an unelected second chamber could vote on issues that an elected member of the House of Commons could not. Would Scottish MPs in future be barred from being government Ministers? If not, a situation could arise where a Minister was unable to vote on a law he or she was responsible for introducing. How would a government work if, once elected with a national mandate, able to carry a majority for some of its programme, including economic and foreign policy, it could be blocked by a sub-section of Parliament on other issues? As constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor explains:

"A bifurcated government is a logical absurdity....A government must be collectively responsible to parliament for all the policies that come before it, not just a selection of them. Bifurcated government would become deadlocked government...."
There may be answers to these and other questions but answers there have to be. Answers, too, that don't seek to divide the UK in the aftermath of a popular decision to keep us ‘better together'. One way forward lies in far greater devolution of powers to well below the national level. I can see a strong argument for greater freedoms being passed down to cities and city-regions, including London. Indeed, Labour has already proposed taking £30 billion of spending decisions away from central government and to cities and city regions in England, so decisions can be taken in line with local needs.

Whatever the specifics, change is essential, it is coming, and public opinion must be heard. One lesson from the Scottish referendum is that solutions imposed directly from the national government at Westminster will no longer be tolerated by the people. Personally, I regret the decision not to change our electoral system from ‘First past the Post', which I think is ill suited to the modern age, but although we can't revisit that, there are other ways we can adapt our politics to the times. The debate about how we are governed can't be restricted to the organisation of votes in Parliament.

That is why it is right to establish a Constitutional Convention, so we consider how best to resolve these issues and to look at how we can improve the political system without dividing or driving our country apart. Over the next year, there must be a vigorous consultation at local and national levels, in which citizens and communities are properly engaged. As Bogdanor says, this will be ‘political...but should not be party political'- the way we are governed can't be constructed to suit any particular party or agenda. Whatever we do next will shape our country for many decades to come and we must get it right.

 

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