The main unforeseen (until very recently) outcome of the Scottish independence debate and referendum is devolution of powers in England. The law of unintended consequences is writ large in the UK at the moment, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara.
A constitutional wrangle between the current member states and the Scottish government has been avoided. The Catalan independence movement has failed to gain momentum from the result. Flemish separatist will take no solace from the outcome. It looks increasingly likely that Juncker’s Commission will not have to deal with any enlargement or split for its entirety.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, announced a highly political manoeuvre less than twelve hours of the polls closing in Scotland, in what appeared to be an attempt to lay a trap for the Labour party opposition. Cameron appears to want to block Scottish MPs voting on matters that predominantly effect England, but gives no substance as to how English voters will enjoy any devolved powers. At heart the Conservative party is a centralist party that is utterly averse to giving up any powers.
Central to any plans should involve directly elected regional assemblies in the regions of England but, crucially, linked to the abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. as well having a form of 100% elected members in the second chamber.
- To be introduced on-demand from the regions, maybe by a e-petition (5% of the registered electorate per region minimum?) to Parliament followed by a local referendum. This would probably only involve NE England, Yorkshire and Humberside plus the North West to begin with (maybe the South West also). The concept will spread as other regions see the benefit of regional devolution.
- Directly elected Regional assemblies with powers similar to the Welsh Assembly (but not control of the NHS). This would involve re-introduction of the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). One could, in parallel, introduce city regions in the framework of being part of the regional assembly.
Proposals to be based on the plans for the Regional Assembly for the North East (referendum 2004)
- Regional assemblies to be formed on the basis of proportional representation (probably with the Alternative Vote system but STV could be considered). One could consider a mixed PR system e.g. two thirds by the De Hondt sytem (favours larger parties) and one third by the Sainte-Laguë system. (favours smaller parties).
- Second chamber in Westminster to be based on representatives from the regions either through direct elections or by nomination from the regional assemblies (e.g. German Bundesrat).
- Have a minimum of 10 English regions. Split the South East into two.
- Co-ordinate the Members of the European Parliament into the Regional Assemblies (they are already elected on a regional basis). Even if only as information networks for EU policy developments.
- MPs to have an information role (see 5 above).
- Possibly consider all MPs and MEPs for the region to form a second chamber of the regional assembly. With powers to be consulted and make recommendations but not block political initiatives. Individual leaders of city regions within the region (e.g. Liverpool and Manchester in the North West) should also play a part.
- The involvement of MPs in the regional assembly would forestall accusations that MPs would be being paid full-time salaries for what could be described as part-time jobs (compared with their current responsibilities).
- Regional assemblies and RDAs have the ability to have a transformative effect if given substantial strategic powers out from under the dead hand of the Treasury and it’s tendency (need?) to micro-manage public expenditure. By coordinating the economic motors in the regions, e.g universities, SMEs and large enterprises, use of regional large firms leading to a possible reconnection of people to politics.
New Second Chamber
- Scrap the hereditary principle entirely.
- No power to initiate legislation – only revision. ‘Salisbury convention’ would still apply.
- 150 members? smaller chamber meeting less – reliant on committees to do the donkey work.
- Election cycle to synchronise with the mid-term of the Government’s electoral cycle.
- Keep peerages – have peers appointed (as at present) but with ability to intervene in debates but not vote. Keep the expertise of peers on select committee work. Useful for party management issues (patronage). Hereditaries would be excluded from any legislative/committee work unless elected.
- The new second chamber would only have to meet once or twice a month. Salaries would only involve a small top-up element over and above regional assembly member salary level (plus travel expenses). Daily allowance for working peers to be scrapped unless linked to specific tasks in committees.
The worst thing that could happen is rushed legislation that would inevitably contain significant flaws. It would imperil public acceptance of devolution and risk leaving the conservatives to hang on to the status quo. Under current circumstances it would be foolhardy to attempt to devolve powers in England under the same timetable as powers being devolved to Scotland.
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.