At a rally in Edinburgh on 1 June, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, and West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin joined together to campaign for urgent reform of the UK’s democracy. The formation of the Alliance for Radical Democratic Change is to be welcomed.
In terms of economic activity, the UK – with its stark contrast between the prosperous southeast and other, much poorer, areas – is one of the most unequal of the world’s developed states.
So a comprehensive decentralisation from Westminster and Whitehall is now essential. Firstly, to enable communities in various parts of these isles policies and programmes which better satisfy their needs and priorities, and secondly, to identify and administer the local and regional initiatives required to tackle the economic disparities apparent.
In so doing, the different ‘territorial personalities’ of the arrangements for national devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and that of decentralisation within England should influence how constitutional reform be approached on an isles-wide basis.
National devolution recognises that the UK unitary state is a construct of formerly discrete national entities whose diverse histories and identities are enduringly acknowledged at an institutional level. Decentralisation within England involves the reorganisation of power inside a time-honoured nation of considerable population size (c. 56m) to better align decisions to local democratic concerns and demands.
Change must therefore take account of these different characteristics of governance, distinguishing between reinforced arrangements for national self-government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (particularly as related to their interactions with Westminster), and increased devolution within England.
Through both, the deeply asymmetric nature of the UK can be addressed.
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Typically, an energised programme of devolution within England would initially involve, locally, a fuller rollout of directly elected mayors across its territory and, at a national level, updated parliamentary arrangements in Westminster. This initiative could eventually develop into the offer of devolved assemblies for the English regions if desired.
The democratic legitimacy held by the mayors should be accompanied by significantly enhanced executive powers to direct locally appropriate services and strategies. These might be defined along the lines of those held by today’s devolved nations who must now, in turn, be placed on a stronger constitutional footing, as befits their national parliamentary status.
The fundamental ‘architectural’ issue of our time is that the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cover merely 15% of these isles’ inhabitants. Consequently, intergovernmental relations across the UK have become marginal to the affairs of Westminster.
An all-encompassing package of devolution for England would beneficially ensure that decentralised bodies become focal to isles-wide affairs.
To this end, a new constitutional design must place weight on the structural relationship between the devolved governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and the government in London — in its dual capacity as that for the whole UK and for making English laws.
Once far-reaching executive devolution is introduced across England, however, much of the work of the English government would be taken away from London and sit under local or regional direction, leaving Westminster to focus on its strategic isles-wide functions.
Complementarily, the House of Lords should purposely represent the various regions within all four UK territories in its composition, and the existing joint ministerial committee for intergovernmental relations continue as a forum of nations—so as not to confuse the concerns of regional devolution within England and its relationship with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
This whilst always bearing in mind that institutional forms of decentralisation should undermine neither the social solidarity which, to some extent at least, mitigates economic inequality across these isles, nor our common defence.
Constitutional reform is unfinished business in the UK and should now be advanced with purpose and vigour.
The work of Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future and the Welsh Labour Government’s Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales is important in this context. Looking to the longer term, greater separation of the UK Parliament’s dual role—a model for which is explored in my booklet A League-Union of the Isles — would seem, in my view, desirable.
As we head into the third decade of the 21st Century, it is high time that we enacted devolution comprehensively within England, and in so doing create the conditions in which a new, stable isles-wide partnership of modern states, the ‘solidarity union’ described by Mark Drakeford, could become a reality, to address the challenges and opportunities of our generation and beyond. For that reason, the launch of the Alliance for Radical Democratic Change is a timely development.