Regardless of the outcome of the Scots vote, we must seize this chance to reimagine the constitutional order of these isles, argues Rupert Read and Rebecca Johnson.
On Thursday, Scotland will vote. Suddenly Nigel Farage is all over the news saying the English are getting a raw deal and should get a ‘constitutional settlement of their own’. As former and current Co-Convenors of Compass Greens, it’s unsurprising that we’ve been discussing and circulating ideas for a new social and constitutional compact. Unlike the UKIP demand for a federal UK based on Little England as a fortress outside the European Union, Greens and progressives should seize this historic moment to argue for a new constitutional and democratic compact, with electoral reform, including proportional representation for both houses of parliament, greater participatory democracy in the regions, and a written constitution with a citizens bill of rights.
If Scotland votes yes, they will go ahead and forge a new constitution, with all that that implies. The rest of the UK ‘rUK’ should seize that opportunity to initiate a People’s Constitutional Convention and work out the solutions we need south of the border, preferably in parallel and constructive cooperation as Scotland develops a new constitution by March 2016, and in accordance with the Edinburgh Agreement. If it’s a No vote, the momentum must not be lost for all UK citizens to promote a new social and democratic compact through a genuinely participatory People’s Constitutional Convention.
The independence debate in Scotland has served to expose the much deeper crisis of democracy in the UK as a whole. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the declining levels of voter-turnout, and the mass of people that agreed with Russell Brand when he told Newsnight last October that he hadn’t ever voted because “the UK’s political system has created a ‘disenfranchised, disillusioned underclass’ that it fails to serve’. When 22 percent of people in Hackney vote Green, as happened in the May elections for the council, without getting a single Party councillor, you have to admit this is a major democratic deficit.
Many people, not only in Scotland but in significant parts of the rest of the UK, have been left feeling unrepresented, neglected and alienated by Westminster politicies and politics. As well as Scotland, all of us in the UK need to rethink our democracy, institutions and role in the world. Whatever happens in Scotland, it must now be clear that it is impossible and unacceptable for the dominant political parties to carry on business as usual with a Westminster parliament elected by ‘first past the post’.
People throughout the British Isles need to be empowered further, in a way that has not happened, perhaps because we are supposed to be ‘subjects’ rather than citizens. Many of the issues raised in the Scottish independence debate mirror the deep and growing concerns felt in Wales, Northern Ireland and many English regions about rising inequality, rural and city-centre impoverishment, inadequate representation by London, and other serious democratic deficits. We also need to address how young people are especially alienated from political processes and do not feel that democratic rights and responsibilities belong to them. In taking up the challenges of democratic reform and a new social compact with a written constitution, our aim – unlike that of UKIP – is to bring British political institutions and democracy into the 21st century so that we can all become more engaged and responsible in tackling the serious social, economic and environmental challenges we face.
The basic elements that would need to be negotiated include (but not limited to):
- Electoral reform – including proportional representation for Westminster parliamentary seats, and a reformed Second Chamber to replace the anomalous House of Lords. Electoral reform must include the right of constituents to hold MPs accountable and recall them if necessary. Party and election funding need to be reformed, to regulate and fairly apportion expenditure by candidates in local, national, regional and European Union (EU) elections, including advertising and paid media. More broadly, democratic reform should include mechanisms to increase participation and representation of under-represented genders and communities.
- Systems of patronage and influence-peddling must be eliminated, so that political parties and candidates are clearly independent of financial pressure from special interests, especially international business.
- Local government elections should be in accordance with proportional representation. Local governments should have enhanced powers to rein in harmful business activity affecting local resources, environment, housing and amenities, protect local areas, interests and services, and tackle corruption. These powers need to be established legally and protected from corporate and other forms of financial or political bullying including bribery and the abuse of legal and court processes to suppress information or silence debate, protest and local representatives. In this regard, though we continue to support Britain’s membership of the European Union, we must challenge and oppose EU initiatives that are against the needs of European citizens, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), between the EU and US, which would – if agreed by the EU – hand enormous legal and political power to US and multinational corporations to ride roughshod over our public services, environment, local business interests, and local democratic decision-making and agencies working to protect public health, agriculture and food standards.
- Democracy needs to be enhanced locally and regionally as well as in Westminster. Citizens need to be involved in new deliberative, participatory and decision-making democratic processes and fora.
- Regional representation and autonomy should be increased, for example through directly-elected regional assemblies. While the details would be worked out through consultations and negotiations, regional assemblies could perhaps be based on the constituencies used for European Parliament elections. It will be up to people living in Wales to decide if they wish to turn the Welsh Assembly into a parliament at this stage or continue with the current structure.
- In considering how best to reform the Second Chamber and make it more democratic and representative, options for consideration should include direct elections or some form of ‘Senate of the Regions’. Direct elections would make sense on a regional basis, ensuring a relationship of accountability and representation with the relevant regional assemblies.
These are initial ideas for discussion and consideration. Any viable option that enhances legislative effectiveness, accountability and participatory democracy across Britain should be considered.
Irrespective of where you stand on the question of Scottish independence, it has been inspiring to see how the referendum has engaged and energised people from all walks of life in considering – and in many cases arguing for – the kind of country they want. From the newly enfranchised 16 year olds (and their younger sisters and brothers) to ninety-year old pensioners in corner shops, pubs and care homes, people in Scotland are passionately discussing the pros and cons of the momentous choice they face. Their debates are what democracy should be about. The Yes advocates have not just been talking about ‘independence’, but about what they would do differently if Scotland becomes independent – like prioritising social needs, strengthening NHS provision, affordable education and housing, and abolishing nuclear weapons, first from their territory and then joining with other governments to ban and eliminate them worldwide, and much, much more. And the No side has belatedly realised that they can’t win on fear-mongering but need also to argue for the kind of changes Scotland needs… hence the late offers from Gordon Brown and others of ‘Devo-Max’. If that shifts the outcome to No, then what is needed has to be more than a federal UK, such as UKIP proposes, or more devolution, as the Lib Dems advocate.
After 18 September, whatever the outcome, the UK (or rUK) needs to initiate a process for a a People’s Constitutional Convention to take up the challenges that can no longer be swept under a UK carpet. If the Scottish people’s inclusive passionate debates about their future have shown “how politics can be done when a proper invitation and opening is made”, as noted by Compass Chair Neal Lawson, then a People’s Constitutional Convention must not only make “demands the political class can ignore” – it has to “build a movement to deliver on them”.
Thank you Scotland for opening up the space and creating this long overdue opportunity to reinvigorate democracy in the British Isles!
Rupert Read is a Reader is Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. He was a Green Party councillor in Norwich and a candidate in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. He is Chair of the Green House thinktank.