A referendum on EU membership, ECHR and human rights reform, implementing the Smith Commission proposals on Scotland, English votes for English Laws, changes to the Lords, new powers for the Welsh Assembly over ports and energy consents and for the Northern Ireland Assembly over Corporation Tax, devolution to cities…the package of constitutional reform in the Conservative Manifesto is sweeping.
It is none the less also cautious – at least in relative terms. For example, the English Votes for English Laws is the softer of the two main options for implementing it: MPs from other parts of the United Kingdom will still have a veto on whatever MPs from English constituencies put forward. Devolution to Scotland will stop well short of Home Rule.
And it therefore leaves major issues to be resolved. If the Commons is moving towards speaking and voting together only on federal-type matters, such as foreign affairs and defence, what should be the role of the Lords? If new powers are to be devolved to cities, where do the counties fit in? Do we really need a Fixed Terms Parliament Act?
Before the election, we supported a Constitutional Convention to discuss and debate these issues – on the ground that, with a hung Parliament the most likely outcome, no single party would have a mandate for constitutional change. The result has changed all that: the Government has a majority for its manifesto proposals.
The Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy, and perhaps Labour are either campaigning now or may do so shortly for a full Constitutional Convention. ConservativeHome agrees that one is needed – but also that it should be scaled-down, given the voters’ recent verdict at the polls. Ministers should have a close look at the recommendations of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.
In particular, local authorities and councillors in England should have a say in the shape of devolution in England. As David Hodge, the Leader of Surrey County Council and Chairman of the County Councils Network, pointed out recently on this site, the County Councils Network and the District Councils Networks have a joint devolution view. This should be part of the discussion.
One model for a convention is that it would be Parliament-led, with formal involvement from local authorities at the first stage. It would not be drawn up so as also to include the great and the good of the quangocracy – which tends to be self-selecting – but it would find space for what the committee called citizen participation: in other words, a form of Direct Democracy.
The long and short of it is that substantial powers are to be devolved within the different parts of the United Kingdom – in England, within cities. We’re all for that – and the trailblazing experiment in Manchester, part of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse ideal, is an exciting one. But if localism is to be meaningful elsewhere it can’t be synonymous with a plan that’s simply drawn up in Westminster.