Murdo Fraser is Member of the Scottish Parliament for Mid-Scotland & Fife, and the Scottish Conservative spokesman on Covid Recovery
The British constitution needs reform – and it always will. It is part of the essence of the United Kingdom that our unique Union continues to evolve and change.
Some misunderstand that and buy the Nationalist myth that it is moving down the road to its terminus. Or, as the late Labour MP Tam Dalyell put it, that devolution was a motorway to independence without exit.
It is not unless we let it be so. Devolution instead strengthens our Union and should be developed to continue to do so. It puts the interests of the people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, London, or Manchester, or Tees-side, at the forefront. But, firstly, it is in the interests of all of those people to remain within the United Kingdom.
There is no reason to fear constitutional change or to see it as some kind of dilution of one identity and the assertion of another. In the UK we tend not to amend our constitution as grandly as the Americans who innumerate their amendments, or as the French do, numbering their republics.
We have, however, managed to update and reform our Parliamentary democracy over centuries – expanding the franchise, responding to demands for home rule, entering the Common Market and then leaving the EU – whilst avoiding revolution and social upheaval. It is a pattern we should continue to follow.
Our next change should be a grand one: the reform, abolition, or rather the replacement, of the House of Lords. While its revising function and expertise will always be needed, it is hard to find anyone now who defends the Lords as it currently exists. It has grown far too large, rivalled in size only by the Chinese legislature.
Its members are either political appointees, relying on the patronage of party leaders in the Commons, or alternatively members of a small rump of hereditary peers, or are there by virtue of being bishops. Today, the Lords has fewer supporters than at any point in the past, and is ripe for reform.
The existing house should be replaced with an upper chamber, a Senate, which is largely, if not entirely, elected, rather than appointed. This Senate would represent different parts of the United Kingdom, providing the requisite political balance and the appropriate counterweight to the House of Commons, with its own electoral mandate.
Hereditary peers and bishops, historical anachronisms if ever there were, should be removed.
The new upper house should fulfil the role of a revising chamber, not a challenge to the House of Commons, and of necessity be much smaller in size (perhaps 300 or so) but providing representation from the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, including (assuming there were demand) the different regions of England.
The challenge in setting this Senate up will not be in the arguments of the constitutional lawyers who write its rules, but in the conventions of behaviours established by party managers. At its best the current House of Lords has moments of candour and expertise that goes beyond Party political allegiances. That tenor should be retained. If it is to work then while representing the interests of the nations and regions that elected them, senators would need to work together to gain consensus.
The House of Commons would remain the more powerful of the two Houses of Parliament, with its electoral system leading to decisive initiation of legislation and policy. A more proportional and geographically weighted Senate could then be set for more reflective revision with voices of diversity rather than the current selection.
The aim of its design would be to be more representative of every corner of the Union, thus enmeshing the constituent parts closer.
The same principle should underpin the second reform of the constitution which should be rather less grand and more functional – replacing the existing Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) system with a different structure, a UK Council of Ministers.
It is widely recognised that the intergovernmental relationships within the United Kingdom need to be put on a more formalised footing. This is particularly urgent given the post-Brexit legal environment, where powers returned from Brussels (for example on farming or food standards) need to be regulated by common frameworks which apply across all parts of the UK.
Rules, agreed by all devolved administrations and the centre, should be put in place.
The Joint Ministerial Committees machinery should be amended so that the UK Government is less dominant within it, making the arrangements more of a partnership and less of a hierarchy. There should be regular meetings of a UK Council of Ministers, representing the component parts of the country, meeting to discuss matters of mutual interest, and seek resolution of disputes.
It is a model that would require a substantive engagement from government at all levels, and significant input from the UK Government in particular, if it were to function properly. Again, the reality of the atmosphere in which this Council operates will be as important as its rules.
There is the danger that this may be used by Nationalist politicians as a stage upon which to grandstand. But that is as much a danger for them as those of us who want the Union to work more effectively. Grandstanding will not deliver results for their voters but could just as easily expose them as lacking the maturity to appreciate the realities of representing a nation trying to work with others.
These changes must be seen as, and must be, clear-eyed improvements to how the United Kingdom governs itself. We cannot go down the route of the Labour Party that has always seen devolution as the appeasement of Nationalism. They offer more powers to devolved administrations not to make government work better or improve peoples’ lives, but to use constitutional change as a grubby tactic to win votes and buy off opponents.
There is little need for more powers, certainly in Scotland where the current SNP administration doesn’t use the powers it has: a Party that claimed it could set up a nation in as little as 18 months has still to implement the welfare powers it was granted under the Smith Commission enacted in 2016.
During the confected controversy of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ it was pointed out to the SNP Deputy First Minister John Swinney that he already had the powers to alleviate what he saw as the detrimental effects of the policy. He told the Scottish Parliament he did not wish to use them and “let Westminster off the hook.”
That is the kind of mindset – detrimental to Scotland and the Union – that should be exposed and alleviated by the reforms outlined to improve the government of the UK as a whole.
Ecclesia semper reformanda est – the church must always be reformed – is a motto popularised by the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. The principle it encapsulates could equally be applied to the Union: not set in stone, but always adapting to the circumstances of the times. A reformed, and reforming, Union will pass the test of time more easily than one which is unwilling to change.