On 14 December Michael Kenny, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, spoke at a Unit seminar on English nationhood and the current debate around the English Question in British politics. Sally Symington reports on the event.
Michael Kenny’s talk ‘Understanding the Resurgence of English National Identity’ placed the current policy debate about the English Question in a wider context and brought to bear some of the values associated with English national sentiment upon some of the proposed solutions. Kenny drew on the results of his research project (sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust) which are detailed in his recent book ‘The Politics of English Nationhood’. The analysis triangulated quantitative polling data and qualitative research regarding the kinds of meaning people attach to their English identity in order to give a deeper and more rounded understanding of the issues. Kenny also discussed the territorial political dynamics which have contributed to the situation whereby the Conservative party makes the idea of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) a salient part of its political and electoral appeal.
Kenny argued that it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, a politicised English nationalism (apparent in attitudes of about 25% of the population) and a much broader and more significant pattern involving shifting forms of national self-awareness. In his opinion, the rise in English national consciousness pre-dates devolution; indeed it can be traced back to the early-mid 1990s and arguably even to the 1930s. The European issue, the bumpy shift to post-industrial economy and debates about the viability of the UK all contributed to growing English consciousness and since 2006-07 have been supplemented by a populist, grievance fuelled notion of a ‘golden-age’ for England. However, Kenny saw the broad consensus of ‘English’ identity break down in London where the prevalence of ethnic minorities results in a much higher rate of self-identification as ‘British’; this is one of the antinomies of England to which Kenny referred in respect of English nationalism.
The Constitution Unit is pleased to announce that a new version of Constitute is now available online. The new version has many new features and includes a number of new constitutions, including that of the UK. This will provide a tool for comparing extant UK constitutional laws with constitutional texts from across the globe.
Back in September of last year, a post appeared on this blog announcing the launch of Constitute, a website for reading, searching and comparing constitutions from across the world. The Constitute site is host to the English language text of almost every national constitution currently in force. It not only provides users with free and easy access to these texts, but by drawing on data collected by the Comparative Constitutions Project (CCP) over the last 9 years, it also facilitates powerful, topic-based searches of over 300 common constitutional themes.
Since the launch of Constitute, we have been accumulating feedback from our users and have now launched a significantly improved site. Among the new features on the site are the ability to compare two constitutions side-by-side, the ability to pin more items, improved sharing of constitutional provisions and, for researchers, better access to the data underlying the site (for a full description of new features, see here).
However, for our users in the UK, none of these changes is probably as significant as the inclusion of the UK’s constitution on the site. Up until now, there has been one glaring omission from the Constitute site: the constitution of the UK. As arguably one of the most influential and historically significant constitutions in existence, any tool for comparing the constitutions of the world was incomplete without the inclusion of the UK. Which is why today, we are pleased to announce that the UK’s written constitution has been added to Constitute.
Patrick Tomison considers evidence submitted to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee inquiry which is assessing where the challenges lie when it comes to redrawing electoral boundaries in the UK.
On 16 February 2011, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act received Royal Assent. It sought to pursue the dual aim of reducing perceived over-representation of certain areas while setting out plans for the AV referendum in its Schedules. Despite, and perhaps due to, an over-ambitious timetable for implementation by the 2015 General Election, the Boundaries Commissions of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales had to abandon their Sixth Report and the redrawing of boundaries was put on hold until after the election. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee agreed on 17 July 2014 to hold an inquiry into the redrawing of constituency boundaries. In essence the inquiry asks what could be improved with the current rules.
This blog post guides readers through the dense wood of constituency boundaries using the Committee’s terms of reference as a breadcrumbs to keep us on the right path. Evidence submitted to the inquiry will be used to highlight the direction (and sticking points) of the debates.
The first crucial question the inquiry seeks to answer is what are the advantages and disadvantages of setting constituency boundaries within 5% of the ‘electoral quota’? The quota referred to is the requirement in the 2011 Act that constituencies do not vary by more than 5% from the ideal average in electorate size. In his oral evidence, David Rossiter identifies the primary culprit of the difficulties found by the Boundary Commissions in 2013 as being the 5% targets. He recommends a more relaxed 10% quota that would allow other factors, such as continuity and community, to be considered. Tony Bellringer, the secretary of the Boundary Commission for England, agreed with this assessment in oral evidence. A theme throughout the written submissions is that the strict 5% tolerance must go if other factors are to be respected.
On 12 November, Dr Alan Renwick and Katie Ghose spoke at a Unit seminar addressing the question ‘A Constitutional Convention for the UK: What form should it take?’ Sonali Campion reports.
In the wake of the Scottish referendum, the idea of a constitutional convention is gaining popularity. It appeals to the public and the Conservatives are now the only major party resisting a convention in principle. However, as has been discussed on this blog, the process of realising a convention that can deliver subsequent reform is likely to be fraught with difficulties. If Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens or the SNP were pushed to define the nature and purpose of a UK constitutional convention, it is almost certain that any consensus would fall apart very quickly.
At a recent Constitution Unit seminar Dr Alan Renwick, Reader in Politics at Reading University and author of After the Referendum: Options for a Constitutional Convention, and Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, explored in detail the scope and potential of a UK convention.
Renwick opened with the theoretical perspective, urging the audience to consider what would be desirable in a UK convention, and how options should be judged. More specifically, he offered five criteria to assess effectiveness:
- It should promote reasoning over the interests or passions of particular groups
- The quality of the reasoning is also important. The design of the convention should offer participants the time and support to fully understand the questions under discussion, as well as the implications of suggested solutions.
- The process should aim to include all sections of the population
- It should have public legitimacy, producing outcomes which can be taken seriously
- It should also have political legitimacy so politicians feel an obligation to respect and follow up on outcomes.
Akash Paun considers the potentially transformational constitutional implications of the Smith Commission Report.
The Smith Commission report on further devolution to Scotland sets out a package of further powers that the unionist and nationalist parties have agreed should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. Inevitably this goes too far for some and not far enough for others. The detail of the package – which includes further tax, welfare and other powers – is being pored over across the media. Less commented upon are the constitutional implications of the proposals in the report, some of which are potentially transformational.
Beyond parliamentary sovereignty?
First is a commitment to make the Scottish Parliament and Government ‘permanent institutions’. At present the devolved bodies are ‘creatures of statute’ that could – according to the convention of parliamentary sovereignty – be abolished by a simple majority at Westminster, as Margaret Thatcher’s government did when it scrapped the Greater London Council in 1986.
So the implication is that the devolved bodies will somehow be protected from normal majoritarian rules. Quite how this will be done is another matter. Simply stating on the face of a bill that something is permanent cannot prevent a future Parliament from repealing or amending the legislation. One option is to include clauses requiring a super-majority in the Commons (and/or Lords) in order to amend the legislation in future. This would be unusual and contentious – though these are unusual times. But in any case, such a clause could itself be removed by a later piece of legislation passed with a simple majority.
In the wake of a second UKIP win in Rochester and Strood, Rosie Campbell, Chrysa Lamprinakou and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson consider how the background of UKIP candidates selected so far compare with the other parties.
Mark Reckless’s win over Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst in the Rochester and Strood by-election doubled the number of UKIP MPs in Westminster and reignited speculation as to who will be next to defect.
The Tory defeat in Rochester was indeed a bad day for Cameron and the party, with many commentators highlighting what was seen to be an ineffective campaign, despite reports that MPs were required to campaign in the constituency three times in the run up to 20 November. Others, however, argued it was worse day for Labour with Emily Thornberry’s controversial tweet, subsequent resignation and the fact that UKIP continues to pull Labour party supporters into its ranks. It’s a day the Lib Dems will also want to forget, polling 5th, 1300 votes behind the Greens and 150 votes ahead of the Monster Raving Looney party.
On the back UKIP’s success in Rochester and in Clacton, pollsters and pundits have turned their attention to estimating the number of seats UKIP will win come May 2015. The numbers vary considerably: projections range from 5, 30 or even 128 seats. Back in 2013, Farage claimed that UKIP would put a UKIP candidate in every parliamentary seat. However, given the rate of UKIP selections to date, this appears (perhaps as it did from the start) highly unlikely. Instead, and on the back of success in both by-elections, UKIP will have to concentrate its campaign resources on its target seats—reaching out to a broad base of potential supporters in those seats.
Federalism has rarely been seen as an attractive option by the British political class. Yet it may be the only solution to the deep imbalances which will come with radical new powers for the Scottish Parliament if the Smith Commission proposals are implemented, writes Stephen Tierney.
The Smith Commission Report issued on Thursday promises a restructuring of the United Kingdom which may prove to be more significant than the devolution settlement of 1997-98 itself; the acquisition of extensive tax and welfare powers would make Scotland one of the most autonomous regions in western Europe.
Notably the UK’s economic and fiscal coherence has hitherto been a key factor in allowing the asymmetrical and ad hoc nature of devolution to embed itself without any great disruption to the constitutional structures of the central state. With the dismantling of this system it seems that a tipping point might well be reached for our lop-sided and messy system of territorial government. The Smith Commission proposals, if implemented, will have knock-on consequences for several fundamental features of the UK constitution: parliamentary supremacy, the idea of the House of Commons as a national chamber for Britain, possibly the nature and composition of the House of Lords, and the relative freedom of the UK Government in its dealings with the devolved executives. It is perhaps ironic therefore, but I believe also inevitable, that a process which was designed studiously to avoid the federal question will now bring federalism to the table as possibly the only medium term solution to the deep imbalances which will come with further, radical powers for the Scottish Parliament.
How does Smith raise the federal question?
Federalism has rarely been seen as an attractive option by the British political class, and its feasibility as a constitutional project for Britain is certainly not beyond question. But some kind of federal solution will surely be needed to deal with two related issues: the extent to which Scotland’s representation within the House of Commons, so far only marginally affected by devolution (reduced from 72 to 59 by way of the Scotland Act 1998 as amended), will appear ever more anomalous as the Scottish Parliament’s powers expand; and the very real risk that as Scotland becomes ever more detached from Westminster, the Union will become largely irrelevant to many Scots. The latter is far more dangerous since it could well mean that Scottish independence is in the longer term now more rather than less likely. If this is true the unionist parties, which make up the majority of the Smith ‘Commission’ (which was in reality an inter-party bargaining group), risk seizing defeat from the jaws of referendum victory.