Constitutional reform: a coherent national policy or not?  – Part 1

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I have voted Liberal or Liberal Democrat since my first opportunity in 1987, having seen as a teenager the emergence of the SDP and the Alliance and having understood the need to reform British politics. I then became more and more aware of the many flaws of our anachronistic, dysfunctional and increasingly corruptible political system and I clamoured for a sea-change in our political landscape. It was never “just PR” for me.

In many walks of life it is the structure of our governance that holds the country back – the stultifying straitjacket placed on England by the unitary state and the increasing polarisation of Scottish politics producing division, not progress. I grew to believe that a more diverse political landscape, with power taken wholesale from Westminster and exercised at the lowest practicable level, would foster an evolution and reinvigoration of political attitudes as well as a better distribution of wealth, culture and well-being. This evolution should benefit every corner of the kingdom equally, not be one of increasing constitutional asymmetry, unfair distribution of empowerment and more disengagement by the electorate.

I was shocked when becoming a more engaged party member 25 years later, to find our policies were incomplete and failed to portray us as the torch-bearers for far-reaching constitutional reforms. Six years after a divisive independence referendum in Scotland, we still have no fully-formed vision for a new United Kingdom fit for the 21st Century or to inspire wavering Scottish voters away from separatism. Such ideas – a federal union and all the structural reforms and constitutional guarantees that would accompany it – should have existed before 2014. The national party leaders Cameron, Clegg and Miliband should not have been scrabbling around for votes at the last minute with the great Vow, necessitating further constitutional bodges such as English Votes for English Laws.

Talking of England, it is the biggest problem when it comes to constitutional reform. A constitutional proposal benefiting Scotland still requires an answer to the English Question and the relationship between the home nations. And yet, our Autumn Federal Conference will debate – for only 50 minutes – Motion F11 “The Creation of a Federal United Kingdom” written by Scottish members but with not a word of English input nor a single word about England’s constitutional position. How can we form a national party policy affecting the very essence of the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by sweeping England under the carpet?

The blame for this omission doesn’t lie with the individual authors, the Scottish Party or the Welsh party. Neither does it lie with English members who have tried to influence party policy on constitutional reform and/or governance of England, and whose input the Scottish authors of the motion actively sought and received earlier this year.

In Part 2 of this article I will provide some background to Liberal Democrat policy on federalism and governance of England, and outline previous attempts to make progress on these issues. I hope I can show how an amendment to the federalism motion could end six years of no progress and avoid leaving Liberal Democrats with a policy with an embarrassingly enormous English-shaped hole in it.

* Michael is an English Council representative for the East of England

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “the stultifying straitjacket placed on England by the unitary state and the increasing polarisation of Scottish politics producing division, not progress.”

    Mr Kilpatrick’s article is to be welcomed….., but illustrates in itself the problem. It is written from an Anglocentric viewpoint given away in the sentence quoted above. If there is any ‘stultifying straightjacket’ it is that imposed on Scotland by a larger (in population) England dominated by a Conservative Party the Scots didn’t vote for which ties Scotland into a Brexit Scots didn’t vote for.

    Ultimate economic and political decisions are all made in a first past the post Parliament still affected by an over populated unelected unaccountable second chamber.

    A liberal solution would be to allocate full fiscal and sovereign powers to a Scottish Parliament elected by PR unencumbered by a House of Lords but with special free trade arrangements at the Border negotiated in such a way as to enable the Scots to rejoin the EU should they so choose (which Scotland did vote for).

    England would then be in a position to sort itself out.

  • It’s not Anglocentric to point out that England is the biggest problem – it’s a big problem for the other parts of the UK not just from its point of view as a large nation with poor internal structures of governance. We (all of us) owe it to each other to sort it out. England isn’t an island within the UK, neither are Wales, Scotland or NI. That’s why a national party policy on a new constitution needs to have input from all parts of the UK and to acceptable to all parts of the UK.

    There will be more on this in Part 2 of the article which I believe will be published here at about the same time tomorrow.

  • John Marriott 3rd Sep '20 - 4:27pm

    I think I’ll wait for Part Two before commenting on what Mr Kilpatrick has written so far.

  • Antony Watts 4th Sep '20 - 8:06am

    But we have “constitutional reform” going on right now. Its called BREXIT. And it is wrong.

  • The liberal solution to which the Lib Dems are already committed in their aims and objects is a federation. This means an end to the failed Westminster model of an all-powerful legislature that is doing this country so much damage right now in the hands of the Tories. Instead, we, the people in the component nations and regions of the federation, would elect governments with legislative and tax-raising powers. Only things that have to be decided at federal UK level – international relations, defence and security, laws that have to be federation-wide in order to work – would be decided by a federal government. (It can be at Westminster if people don’t mind paying the enormous bill to modernise the place.) This is subsidiarity, self-government to the greatest practicable extent.
    Federalism and subsidiarity put into practice our belief that legitimate authority is vested in people themselves, and cannot be taken from them. It is exercised by electing their legislators and leaders according to systems that they choose. Currently Britain doesn’t do that.
    Federal government is not devolution. Devolution assumes a top-down authority handing down power from above, but able to take it back again at a whim, as the Johnson regime is doing right now with some aspects of competences devolved to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments. This is an affront to the dignity of the people of the nations and regions. Federal government is respectful of it.
    Federal government can be seen in action in the most successful democracies around the world. We don’t have to re-invent it. We do have to start speaking up for it. Instead we keep talking about a confused notion of devolution. Why? It is not a route to federation; it can’t be. Devolution depends on and reinforces an all-powerful Westminster, which is the opposite of what we believe in.
    Policy motion F11 coming up at the virtual Federal Conference goes some way to aligning our policy with our aims and objects, but is incomplete because it doesn’t deal with England. I hope members will back amending the motion to put that right.

  • Thank you, Jo, for adding to the calls for the Lib Dems to sort out a comprehensive federalist vision and for highlighting the way federalism would bring power wholesale downwards from Westminster to more localised government – as has already happened in Scotland since 1997, except that Scottish Parliament could still be abolished at the whim of the UK Parliament, which is not how things should be, as you pointed out with your comparison between federalism and devolution.

    Part 2 of the article will appear in a short while, describing just what Jo has done – the problem that we can’t call ourselves federalists if we can’t define England’s status within the union. The motion F11 is a good step in the right direction and it specifically mentions the notion of the UK govt being subsidiary to the component parts of the federation, but it simply can’t have an enormous English hole in it.

  • When Part 2 appears this afternoon, I may add the text of our proposed amendment to the comments unless there’s some reason why that’s a bad idea. The proposed amendment already has the support of some Welsh and Scottish members too – that’s because they understand that a policy on the essence of the whole United Kingdom needs to be more than a sop to the Scottish Party’s needs at the 2021 election and needs to describe the constitutional arrangements for *all* of the UK – which failing to may prove dangerous if Scottish voters choose to ask more about the proposed federal union what relationship Scotland would have with its large neighbour. Welsh and Scottish support demonstrates support for particular proposals for England. That sort of consensus is exactly what the motion should have expressed from the outset: the various parts of the Liberal Democrats discussing and cooperating on a policy of national impact.

  • Sue Sutherland 4th Sep '20 - 2:31pm

    I think Michael and Jo are correct in thinking that England is the problem when dealing with federalism and it’s to do with fairness not being Anglo centric. The question is : are there any specific powers which should be exercised by the political entity which is England? This question also comes up in discussions about our own party structure.
    Scotland and Wales have been dealing with tricky issues of education and health because of the pandemic and it seems that having a localised government has enabled these problems to be
    sorted out more easily than the centralised attempts in England. So Health and Education could both be dealt with by regions.
    At the moment it seems to me that there is no need for England in a federal GB or UK because the federal government would be creating defence and foreign policy. However, this issue does require an immense amount of thought and detailed study.
    I think one of the issues which isn’t really dealt with at the moment is the fairness and quality control of service delivery. It may be that England could still exist as a political body which monitors this when decisions about health and education are taken by regions.
    I realise that we would be on 0% in the polls if we abolished England but it might help with organising a federal GB/UK if we think the unthinkable just for a little while.

  • Sue, it’s impossible to “abolish” England unless part of it actually wished to secede from the country and declare itself a separate, independent state. Dividing it up for administrative purposes (which, of course, would be done in a process which takes into account local and regional ideas of identity and such-like) would be no more abolishing England that the Union abolished it in 1707, since which time England (and indeed Scotland) no longer had a government of its own. Have a look at the second article which discusses proposals for England – I think it goes online at 3pm.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Sep '20 - 5:16pm

    Within the UK, England is too large for a federal system and should be broken up. It is the fact that the other states are the sort of size of some regions that makes the carve up appealing. It must however be federalism (devolution) by consent and it might be that England remains or at least a substantial portion of it.

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