Lord Paul Tyler writes…Progress in Magna Carta’s Birthday year

Magna Carta by EteeIn a week when the big news is about changed faces in government, there is also much manoeuvring in the political undergrowth about the rules which govern government:  our constitution.

The House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform (P&CR) has launched a debate on a written constitution for the United Kingdom.  This has been a Liberal and Liberal Democrat objective for all my time in politics, but the question has always been how such a document would be drawn up, agreed and entrenched beyond the usual parliamentary processes and partisanship.

Such a process could today be so much more open than it might have been had all our allies in Charter 88 made it start 26 years ago.  Today, this need not be the preserve of a closed convention of the great and good.  The Select Committee is asking expressly for the public to give their views through their A New Magna Carta? website.

Meanwhile, a new All-Party Parliamentary Group is launching today (Wednesday) on Reform, De-Centralisation and Devolution in the United Kingdom.  This is bringing together parliamentarians in all parties with academics to consider where to go next, particularly if – as we hope – Scotland votes to remain in the UK, but with a stronger hand still over its own affairs.  Even the once anti-devolution Conservative Party now strongly acknowledges this need in its latest report in its Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland.   The Welsh Assembly too looks set to gain more power over finance and there is building pressure to move to a ‘reserved powers’ model where only powers expressly reserved to the UK Parliament are retained there and all else assumed by default to be dealt with by the Welsh Assembly.

Yet people are also beginning to talk about what is going to happen within England.  I sense the other parties are beginning to follow the Liberal Democrat lead for ‘devolution on demand’, allowing areas to draw down power from Westminster as of right, but on boundaries, terms and timetables which are proposed at a local or regional level, not artificial constructs handed down by Whitehall.  Some call this ‘messy devolution’ since its great advantage is acknowledging the absence of a ‘neat’ solution, we might call it a form of asymmetrical Federalism. Even some non-Lib Dem Peers used the ‘F’ word in a recent Lords debate!

Beyond that Graham Allen MP, Chair of P&CR Committee, is in his own right promoting a Bill in the Commons to entrench the independence of local government in England.  The Bill would require Ministers to declare all other legislation ‘compatible’ with a code of independence for local government, and make changes to the code – once instituted – subject to a two-thirds majority in both Houses.

All these moves are towards the greater ‘subsidarity’ Liberal Democrats have always argued for: taking decisions as close as practically possible to the people they affect.  The ideas are germinating now, as a General Election approaches, the question is which ones will sprout afterwards, and to what extent.  ‘A new Magna Carta’ is the grail which reformers have sought for decades.  Yet to get such momentous progress, I think we may first have to sort out the Lords.  Just as it was the Barons’ self interest (800 years ago) which pushed King John into the first Magna Carta, their Lordships may be the most reactionary about a second!

Photo of the Magna Carta by Etee

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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  • What we need is a Magna Carta that limits the power of the UK parliament over England and enshrines the English having a say on England. The last census proved beyond all doubt that the majority of people in England identify as English NOT British – it is a disgrace and an affront to English traditions of democracy that the English still have no parliament and no say. This illustrates the point https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BrxeMLsIgAAghYH.jpg

  • matt (Bristol) 17th Jul '14 - 9:48am

    “assymetric federalism’ is a great way of putitng a complex idea in one phrase; it’s starting to look more attractive to me, however much I have so far instinctively distrust it.

  • it is a disgrace and an affront to English traditions of democracy that the English still have no parliament and no say

    People who live in England don’t want a Parliament. We already have parish councils, district councils, city council, county councils… why on earth would we want yet another level of bureaucracy?

  • Graham Allen MP 17th Jul '14 - 11:39am

    There are some great comments here – please do send your views to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee so that they can be taken into account as part of our consultation on ‘A new Magna Carta?’: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/consultation-new-magna-carta/

  • Peter Hayes 17th Jul '14 - 1:14pm

    There is a simple solution for an English parliament. If a bill affects only England then the only MPs eligible to vote are those with constituencies within England a sort of English Grand Committee.

    There is a problem at local levels too. Cheshire East was formed as a unitary authority with parish councils consulted on planning etc. Now they have realised there are towns that have lost the local council but do not have complete parish coverage, Macclesfield lost its council but the surrounding villages have parish councils. They are now consulting, 7 new parishes or 1 town council.

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