There has been growing interest in the idea of staging a ‘people’s’ constitutional convention in the UK over recent years, but little evidence for how one could work in practice. With this in mind a group of academics recently convened two pilot citizens’ assemblies in Sheffield and Southampton. The Unit’s own Alan Renwick, who was involved in running the Sheffield assembly, draws out eight lessons from two highly successful weekends.
Interest has been strong for over a year in the creation of a ‘people’s’ constitutional convention to examine some of the major questions of governance and democracy that face the UK today. I have pushed the case myself, as have many other academics, politicians, and activists.
This debate has drawn so far mainly on examples from other countries. Now, however, we have some home-grown evidence to learn from. I am part of a group – including also academics from the Universities of Sheffield, Southampton, and Westminster and a team from the Electoral Reform Society, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – who recently convened two pilot citizens’ assemblies to test out how the model of a citizens’ assembly works in the UK.
With the Queen’s Speech due tomorrow, we continue our series of blogs about devolution and its consequences, drawing on the Unit’s latest report Devolution and the Future of the Union. Here Robert Hazell analyses the commitment to English votes on English laws, looking first at its history, and then at its prospects.
Cynics might assume that the Conservative policy of English votes on English laws was an opportunistic slogan designed to garner votes in England, but never intended to be implemented in practice. Some attribute the commitment to David Cameron, who flourished it in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum. But the policy goes back much further than that, having appeared in the last four Conservative manifestos, from 2001 onwards. In the 2015 manifesto it was given added emphasis by being repeated four times, and spelt out in unusual detail in chapter 7.
The details were developed by the outgoing Leader of the House of Commons, William Hague, who chaired a Cabinet Committee which produced a White Paper published last December. It now falls to the new Leader of the House, Chris Grayling, to implement the policy in the new Parliament. What are his objectives; what are the main obstacles to introducing EVEL; and what would be a sensible way forward?
The logic of EVEL
The case for EVEL rests upon principles of fairness and accountability. Now that issues such as education and health are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland assembly, it seems wrong that Scottish and Northern Irish MPs should continue to have a vote on such issues in England, or England and Wales. They have no accountability to the people of England; while the only people to whom they are accountable, their constituents in Scotland and Northern Ireland, are no longer affected by decisions made in relation to England. The conclusion is that English matters should be determined by English MPs alone.
Following the surprise election of a Conservative government with a small majority, Meg Russell and Robert Hazell offer an overview of the constitutional reforms which are likely to be prioritised and the associated difficulties that may arise.
Now that the election result is clear, it’s possible to start thinking through the likely constitutional reforms on the new Conservative government’s agenda. Some of these items are obvious, and others less so. Many of them are very challenging, as we explain below – and will expand in more detail on this blog in the coming days and weeks.
Scottish and Welsh devolution
The biggest story in this election, including as the results came in, has been Scotland. The challenge for Prime Minister Cameron is to hold the UK together, at the very moment when the SNP has almost swept the board in terms of Scottish seats. The Conservative manifesto, like those of the other UK-wide parties, committed to implementing the recommendations of the Smith Commission to devolve further fiscal and welfare powers to Scotland. The Scottish people have been led to believe that will happen easily and early in the new parliament. But this may be difficult. The Smith proposals were strongly criticised by two parliamentary committees – in both Commons and Lords. The SNP will press for more, in pursuit of full fiscal autonomy; while devo-sceptic Conservative backbenchers may argue for less. The sensible thing may be to introduce proposals via a draft bill, to see whether middle ground can be found.
Following the Scottish referendum, most of the main political parties committed to holding a citizen-led constitutional convention to deal with questions over the future structure of the UK. Alan Renwick welcomes these commitments, but argues that a convention will only be effective if it satisfies certain key requisites.
The prospects for a citizen-led constitutional convention in the UK have been transformed over the past twelve months. When I wrote a pamphlet last April arguing the case for such a convention, I was frequently told that, much as my analysis was interesting and the idea intriguing, it just wasn’t going to happen. Politicians care about the institutions that shape their power and they therefore won’t accept processes that give influence over the shape of those institutions to others.
But then came the Scottish referendum – or rather the week of mild panic preceding the referendum, which delivered the ‘vow’ to devolve further powers to Scotland. As everyone acknowledged, that raised big questions about the future structure of the UK as a whole – questions to which there are no obviously correct answers. Faced both with this problem and with the remarkable popular engagement around the referendum campaign in Scotland, most of the main political parties committed to holding a citizen-led constitutional convention in some form. These commitments are now reflected in the election manifestos.
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.
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.
Last week Robert Hazell set out some of the options for a possible UK constitutional convention. Here Meg Russell proposes some more specific answers to the questions that he posed: for example on what a constitutional convention should be tasked to do, timescale, and membership. She suggests that a more limited convention than Labour proposes, to a faster timetable, could offer a compromise to the benefit of all main parties.
Last week on this blog Robert Hazell set out the alternate options for a UK constitutional convention. Such a body has been proposed by various democracy groups (such as the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy) since before the Scottish referendum. Immediately afterwards Labour leader Ed Miliband threw his weight behind these calls, proposing that a convention should meet in autumn 2015. The idea also has the support of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP. In the Commons debate on devolution earlier this week William Hague indicated that the government was prepared to consider the proposal (col. 179).
Yet behind this apparent consensus there are huge splits between the parties, and the debate was otherwise highly polarised along party lines. Immediately after the Scots had voted Prime Minister David Cameron raised the issue of so-called ‘English votes on English laws’ at Westminster (a long-standing Conservative commitment), on which Hague is now chairing a Cabinet Committee and promising action by late November. Labour alleges that this is amounts to sorting out the constitution in haste ‘on the back of a fag packet‘, while Conservatives view Miliband’s convention plan as ‘the long grass‘. Labour clearly has the most to lose from ‘English votes on English laws’, given its relative strength in Scotland – and is thus reluctant to engage with the Cabinet committee process. The Liberal Democrats are at best ambivalent, making it doubtful that any proposals will get through. It is tempting for the Conservatives to make political capital out of this. But party political game-playing on both sides carries major risks. First, allegations and counter-allegations followed by failure of the Westminster parties to agree may simply fuel grievances and boost the UKIP vote. Second, inaction could leave the UK in a very difficult position after the May 2015 general election. Should Labour win the greatest number of Commons seats without being the largest party in England, immediate cries of ‘crisis’ could ensue.
In the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, and its aftermath, calls have grown for a constitutional convention to discuss further devolution, as well as wider constitutional reforms. Yet most constitutional conventions around the world have failed to deliver subsequent reform. Careful thought therefore needs to be given to the purpose, scope and terms of reference, timetable, selection of members, budget, staffing and links to government and Parliament if a convention is to have any chance of success. Robert Hazell addresses each of these issues in turn.
A constitutional convention is a group of people convened to draft a constitution (like the drafters of the American constitution in Philadelphia in 1787), or to consider specific constitutional reforms. In recent times conventions have come to include ordinary citizens, like the Irish Constitutional Convention which met from 2012 to 2014. A convention may be established for several reasons:
To build cross party consensus for further constitutional reforms
To harness expert opinion to chart a way forward
To develop a more coherent overall reform package, rather than further piecemeal reforms
To bring in ideas from outside the political elite
To create greater legitimacy and support for the convention’s proposals
To generate wider participation through innovative methods of public engagement.