Purring – Mr Cameron, the Queen and the British Constitution

bob-morris

Bob Morris reflects on what the Prime Minister’s recent transgression might tell us about the constitutional status of the UK sovereign.

Speaking recently to a former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg – the nearest to Yankee royalty – David Cameron spilled the beans on his own sovereign’s reaction to the Scottish referendum decision to stay in the United Kingdom: ‘She purred down the line’. Does this incident tell us anything about the current state of the British constitution or is it best written off as a trivial prime ministerial gaffe?

For the gaffe view is that the conversation was intended to be entirely private and was picked up by a journalist’s microphone by accident. One might get hoity-toity about whether a relationship of personal confidentiality was transgressed by some immature behaviour. On the other hand, as a Times columnist (Carol Midgley, 27 September) put it ‘indiscretions show politicians at their most human’. David Cameron apologised publicly and vowed to do so personally at his next regular audience with the Queen. Nothing otherwise will eventuate.

Precisely – the incident on the other view illustrates an important, largely unrecognised fact: the UK sovereign has no significant constitutional powers left. The most important – discretion to choose the Prime Minister and the power to grant (and, by implication, withhold) dissolutions of Parliament – have been lost. The first was lost when all political parties adopted internal rules to appoint their own leaders, and post-electoral manoeuvring was rather later made subject to procedures now publicly set out in the Cabinet Manual, which excluded/shielded the sovereign from participation short of recognising the outcome. The second, the power to grant or withhold dissolution, went following 2011 legislation for fixed term Parliaments.

The latter’s significance for the Palace falls to be judged against the view of a former Queen’s private secretary observing that the dissolution power was one that kept politicians respectful:

The power to grant or deny a dissolution in certain circumstances … adds enormously to the wariness with which British Prime Ministers approach the sovereign. (Sir W. Heseltine, ‘The Fabian Commission on the future of the monarchy’, Constitutional Law and Policy Review, February 2004, 84-92 at pp. 86-7).

No doubt David Cameron’s relationship with the current sovereign remains personally respectful, but does the incident show that constitutional respect has now gone? And, if so, what does this bode for the monarchy in the longer term? And what also for prime ministers no longer obliged to show deference?

In other words, far from his remarks being simply a careless gaffe, was David Cameron in fact making an unconscious statement about current constitutional realities? Discuss.

 Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant.At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, particularly FOI. Latterly he has tended to lead on ecclesiastical and royal issues, for example on the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, at the same time contributing to the recent study on Commons Public Bill Committees led by Meg Russell.

The English Question comprises two broad questions, with half a dozen different answers

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The Constitution Unit conducted a three-year research project into the English Question, with a team of ten people led by Robert Hazell. This blog post summarises their main findings and conclusions.

For a more concise introduction to the English Question and the points discussed here, see Robert Hazell’s “Bluffer’s guide“.

For their book, see Robert Hazell (ed), The English Question (Manchester University Press, 2005).

1              The English Question comprises two broad questions

The English Question is not a single question, but a general heading for a whole series of questions about the government of England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a stronger political voice as a result of their elected legislatures, which have all been given greater powers. England and the English regions risk losing out in the distribution of government funds, in competition for inward investment, in making English laws. For the first 15 years of devolution the English did not seem to care. Polls showed they were quite content for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish to have devolution, but did not want any for themselves. That has changed following the Scottish independence referendum and the proposal to grant Scotland further powers. Politicians have rekindled the debate about English votes on English laws; but it is not clear whether the English want a stronger political voice, or simply fair treatment on issues like the territorial distribution of funding.

Answers to the English Question vary because they are responses to different versions of the question. If the aim is to give England a separate political voice, to rebalance the louder political voices now accorded to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, then solutions are English votes on English laws, or an English Parliament. But if the aim is devolution within England, breaking the excessive domination of the central government in London, then the solutions include elected regional assemblies, city regions, stronger local government, elected mayors. Conservatives tend to favour the first set of solutions, and Labour the second (but with exceptions on both sides). If they appear to be talking past each other, it is because they are answering different versions of the question.

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The English Question: A Bluffer’s Guide

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Robert Hazell offers a quick introduction to all the different answers to the English Question. A more detailed explanation of the reasoning behind the answers can be viewed here.

 

  • Devolution to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland throws up related questions about the government of England. These fall into two broad kinds: giving England a stronger political voice; and devolving power within England.
  • To rebalance the Union, England could find a stronger political voice through an English Parliament, or English votes on English laws.
  • To devolve power within England, possible solutions include: regional government; city regions; stronger local government; elected mayors.
  • The Conservatives have focused on rebalancing the Union, arguing for English votes on English laws. They are opposed to regional government. Labour when in government focused on devolving power within England, strengthening the regional tier, but failed in their attempt to introduce elected regional assemblies.
  • An English Parliament would create a federation of the four historic nations of the UK. Such a federation could not work because England would be too dominant. An English Parliament would be a rival to Westminster, and could come to be seen as just as remote. Few heavyweight politicians have espoused it, and support for the idea remains flat.

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UK constitutional reform: No means Yes?

Meg-Russell

Although a Yes vote would have meant a very obvious change to the existing constitutional structure of the UK, the consequences of the No vote will still be complex and profound. The outcome has already put contentious issues such as the West Lothian question back on the agenda, writes Meg Russell.

This article originally appeared in the Observer. A version is available on the Guardian website.

The constitutional consequences of a Yes vote in Scotland would have been momentous, leading to months – possibly years – of fraught negotiation with uncertain consequences. But the consequences of no for the rest of the UK may, paradoxically, be even more complex and profound.

Since establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 the ‘West Lothian question’ – Scottish MPs voting on legislation not affecting Scotland – and wider ‘English questions’ have rumbled on but rarely reached centre stage. They were temporarily sidelined by announcement of the independence referendum. Had Scotland voted yes, their urgency would have declined. Controversies over Scottish MPs at Westminster would clearly have ended with their departure, however painful that might have been.

A No vote was always going to put these issues back on the agenda, particularly because the status quo ante was not an option. Under the Scotland Act 2012, a No vote was already to hand substantial new powers to the Scottish Parliament, particularly over taxation. During the campaign, political leaders went far further, promising additional devolved powers including on welfare and tax. This has angered Conservative MPs.

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Scotland has voted decisively to stay – now devolution must be delivered

Today’s result came as a relief to many but it is not an excuse for complacency. Jim Gallagher writes that both Westminster and Holyrood must consider the lessons learned from the campaign and start delivering politics for Scotland, not just about Scotland.

Well it’s over. 2 years of campaigning. 5 years of shadowboxing before that. Acres of newsprint, millions of social media posts. TV debates, and family arguments. Street stalls, and chanting mobs outside the national broadcaster. Oh, and truckloads of academic analysis. It’s been a fascinating, exhilarating but also worrying campaign.

But Scotland has finally made a decision. Independence has been rejected, and the UK affirmed. In an extraordinary democratic act, 97% of the population registered to vote and 85% of those voted. The authority that gives the decision is overwhelming. The choice is made.

For many people the overwhelming feeling will be one of relief. They didn’t demand a referendum, and were never part of the Yes project. It was not campaigning that made them worried about the risks. They are Scots who were comfortable in their own constitutional skin, and have now been found to be the majority.

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Will the polls get the Scottish referendum right?

As the Scots goes to the polls Anthony Wells considers to what extent we can expect the outcome to match the predictions.

The Scottish polls at the end of last week and the weekend were broadly clustered around a small No lead. Perhaps a more likely route to a YES victory is if the polls are underestimating the level of YES support for some reason. Over the last couple of days I’ve seen several blogs or articles pondering whether the polls could be wrong, could they be underestimating YES or NO?

It would be hubris to suggest the polls couldn’t be wrong. Obviously they can. At most elections there are polls that perform better or worse than their peers, some of that is better methodology. When the polls are close most is probably just normal sample variation. That’s a matter for another time though, here I’m pondering more about the possibly that all the polls are wrong, the potential for a systemic bias with everyone a bit too yes or a bit too no. This is possible too – think of the way all polls overestimated Lib Dem support in 2010, or most famously how all the polls overestimated Labour support in 1992. How likely is that?

The Scottish referendum is a bigger challenge for pollsters than an election would be because it’s a one-off. In designing methodology for voting intention the experience of what worked or didn’t work at previous elections weighs heavy, and most companies’ weighting schemes rely heavily upon the previous election – if not directly through weighting by recalled vote, in using the data from the previous election in designing and testing other weighting targets. For a referendum you can’t take that direct approach, pollsters needed to rely more on modelling what they think is an accurate picture of the Scottish electorate and hoping it reflects the Scottish people well enough that it will also reflect their referendum voting intentions – it’s complicated because Scotland has a complicated electorate. Scottish voters have two Holyrood votes and a Westminster vote, and they use them all in different ways with different political loyalties. Within the space of a year Scotland managed to be a Labour stronghold at Westminster and to produce a SNP landside at Holyrood – using either election alone for weighting gives a rather different picture of what the Scottish electorate are like, even though you are trying to model the same population. Different companies have arrived at different methods of political weighting to deal with the issue – Survation, ICM and TNS weight by Holyrood recalled voted alone, YouGov weight by Holyrood recalled vote with a nod towards 2011 Holyrood voters who backed Labour in 2010, Opinium weight by Holyrood and Westminster recalled vote, Panelbase weight by Holyrood and European recalled vote, Ipsos MORI don’t use political weighting at all. Despite the variance they have all converged to produce the same sort of result, and that gives me some confidence – if there was a particular skew from being online or from using Holyrood recalled vote we would expect to see different results.

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What follows the referendum: negotiating Scottish independence, or delivering Devo More

Earlier this year Alan Trench gave a lecture at the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus about what might follow the vote in the Scottish referendum. In this article, he picks out the key points.

The full speech is available on the Social Science Research Network here, or can be downloaded directly here

Perhaps the most important and novel part of the lecture is where I map out what would follow a Yes vote – the sort of steps needed, particularly on the rUK side to tackle the many uncertainties that will follow. This is a separate issue from that of the strengths of each party in the negotiation (discussed here earlier in the week).  This would call for a great deal of imaginative thinking, in the midst of a first-order constitutional crisis. In particular, it seems to me that:

  • The negotiating process needs to move with all due speed, to preserve the democratic legitimacy of both rUK as well as an independent Scotland. There is no good reason for rUK to seek to prolong the process, and plenty of reasons for it not to.
  • The 2015 UK General election presents grave problems for that – the time lost to campaigning in an election and briefing a possible incoming new government means it will be impossible to make a proper start in negotiations before June 2015, since even provisional agreements reached under the present government might lack support from the new one.
  • One option – which appears to be gaining some support, particularly among Conservatives– is to postpone the 2015 election. But the present government has already been in office for 4½ years, and has no mandate to negotiate something so important to rUK as Scottish independence.
  • A better option would therefore be to hold a general election early, before the end of 2014, so there was both certainty about the composition of the UK/rUK Government and that government had a political mandate for independence negotiations. This would need approval by a two-thirds majority in the Commons, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

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