The West Lothian question? Or the Westminster question? An initial Green response to the Smith Commission

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Dr. Rupert Read reflects on the consequences of the Smith Commission for UK democracy and argues for a constitutional convention to give an opportunity to fully consider the constitution that is needed.

So, the Smith Commission has reported.

This is a big big day for British democracy. Our common future depends on the response to today.

But a key point is this: It’s too soon to say exactly what that response should be. This isn’t quite Devo-Max, but it is a big step forward, that the Green Party, with its Scottish Parliamentarians, has been crucial in achieving as part of 5-party cross-party talks that only concluded late last night.

The stage is now set for similar powers to be decentralised down to regions and localities in England (as well as for a further devolution to Wales).

But, while it is right – it is vital – that Scotland, which had a referendum and a solemn promise from the Unionist parties in that referendum campaign, gets its new powers asap, and without delay, the broader ramifications need to be explored more carefully and not rushed. Widespread constitutional reform has to be got right. So, in terms of the great decentralisation to England and Wales that Greens now want to see, the form of this ought to be decided by a Citizens’ Constitutional Convention, perhaps on the model of what Ireland has had in the last few years.

Included in that discussion should be how to represent the future – future generations – adequately in our democratic arrangements, as I have recently argued in Parliament and and on the Open Democracy Blog; and how to reform Parliament radically, including a reformed upper chamber at last and electoral reform (proportional representation of some sort). It would be a grave mistake to think that all that matters here is achieving ‘economic growth’, which would actually harm future generations by trashing our shared resources. On the contrary, what matters is to achieve true democracy and fairness. To share better, and to decide how to do it with reference to the common good and by means of as many people as possible being involved.

Furthermore, it would be a complete mistake to think that ‘English votes for English laws’ would solve anything, and the Smith Commission has rightly blocked that route. The West Lothian question matters far less than the Westminster question: the question of what to do with the rampant over-centralisation in Westminster which completely stifles ‘localism’. The way to settle ‘the English question’ is first to have some suitable way in which a special English interest can be represented in Parliament as it is – the best candidate for this is probably something like an English-MPs-only Committee stage for ‘English laws’. And second, to give English people some power back: that means real decentralisation, democratically done, not just giving power to a tiny handful of council-leaders and businesspeople.

Again: these tricky and profoundly-important questions for the future of our kingdom cannot be settled on the back of an envelope. Let’s have a Constitutional Convention Now.

Dr. Rupert Read is the Green Party MP-candidate for Cambridge, Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, and Chair of Green House.

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