The time has come for comprehensive constitutional change in the United Kingdom. Carried out precisely without partisan political consideration, I believe that we are capable of producing a solution which will benefit Britain for decades to come. My immediate proposal is for the creation of a new federal parliament.
It is an elegant solution designed to resolve effectively the four main domestic constitutional uncertainties of the United Kingdom, which have plagued the political arena during the last three decades. With a federal UK parliament and four elected national parliaments we would maintain the Monarchy, strengthen the Union, resolve the questions raised by an unreformed House of Lords, and give independent and equal parliaments to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There would be no extra MPs, no extra costly buildings or staff and our democracy would be strengthened not weakened as a result.
The British Constitution has been one of the success stories of modern politics. It has kept this country together, united under a common Crown and a common parliament, for over three hundred years. Not for us the coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions that have plagued Europe over that period. So successful has it been that we Britons had stopped thinking about it.
Until ten years ago no one lost any time worrying about constitutional niceties; we knew instinctively that, messy as it was, the British constitution worked well and worked for the whole British Isles. Then a Labour government under Blair and Brown changed everything. They reformed the House of Lords by removing the independent hereditary element and created hundreds of new Life Peers. In response to the demand of the people of Scotland and Wales, a demand, I acknowledge, that the Conservatives were too slow in accepting, they have created devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is a deep – and increasing – disquiet from many in England at the effects of devolution and the imbalances left by Labour’s partisan settlement. These are easily stated. MPs from Edinburgh and Cardiff can vote on health and education policies affecting Londoners and Mancunians, but not on policies affecting their own constituents. Why? That’s not just. Under the Barnett formula, residents of Edinburgh have 23% more spent on their healthcare and education than do my constituents. Why? That’s not fair. Scotland merits a parliament. Wales and Northern Ireland only merit an Assembly with vestigial powers but England is left with nothing. Why? That’s not equitable.
Our mission should be to maintain and strengthen the Union. It is all too easy for a negative sounding solution to the West Lothian question to be portrayed as putting the Union at risk such as “English votes for English laws”. Make no mistake this will play badly amongst Middle England voters who continue to value the Union and all it has meant to us. It also runs directly counter to the positive, optimistic messages that the Conservative Party is trying to cultivate elsewhere. The English – indeed the British – like and respect the concept of fair play and there is a deep groundswell of unease about Labour’s one-sided deal.
Since the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers, I have, in principle, favoured the option of a largely-elected House of Lords. However, I recognise that such an outcome is unlikely to be within the realms of practical politics. For a start, the strongest opposition to an elected House of Lords comes from existing life peers from across the political spectrum. Their support for any reform will be essential if we are to avoid constitutional deadlock and the list of other practical difficulties is almost endless.
As a result, I now propose the creation of a completely new federal parliament. Four, full, national parliaments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with all the existing powers of the House of Commons and over them a federal United Kingdom parliament, which would debate defence and foreign affairs, make treaties and administer a cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the UK. It would be funded by a per GDP levy on the national parliaments. There would be no need for extra politicians, as the national parliaments would send representatives to the UK parliament and meet together for its debates, which could be held in the old House of Lords chamber, perhaps once a week. Abolishing the House of Lords means that the parliaments would be unicameral but that hasn’t proved a problem in Edinburgh or Cardiff over the last eight years.
This proposal cuts the Gordian knot of House of Lords reform and provides an equitable structure that respects national differences, whilst strengthening the ties that unite us as a nation of equals. It saves the cost of the House of Lords and the Scottish and Welsh Offices and reduces the total number of politicians.
It is a bold, indeed a radical, suggestion. I believe that the only way to restore the balance of the British constitution, which had served us so well for so long, is to offer the British people this fairer alternative in a referendum.