Whether Scotland votes Yes or No in the 18th September referendum on independence, the outcome is expected to be close. The expected high turnout, issues raised in the debate, and closeness of the vote show that the ‘United Kingdom compact’ is no longer fit for purpose. If Scotland votes yes, they will go ahead and forge a new constitution, with all that that implies. In that situation, we must argue for the rest of the UK (rUK) to do likewise. We must make it impossible and unacceptable for the dominant political parties to carry on business as usual with a Westminster parliament elected by ‘first past the post’.
Even if the vote is ‘no’ we should draw lessons and insist that the UK cannot just carry on as if this earthquake never happened. The debate triggered by the referendum has illustrated how many people – not only in Scotland but in significant parts of the rest of rUK have been left feeling unrepresented and neglected 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. Whether yes or no in Scotland, the British people need to seize this moment to argue for a new constitutional and democratic compact, with electoral reform, reform of how both houses of parliament are elected and carry out their democratic responsibilities, greater participatory democracy in the regions, and a written constitution with a citizens bill of rights.
We have sought in this memo to set out some ideas for how to bring about a new social compact, enhanced democracy and a written constitution. We consider this a great opportunity and challenge, and believe we should put this on the table and into debates as soon as possible. The Green Party and other progressives must be ready and equipped to take up and inspire the public to join us in making these profound but exciting changes in how our countries are governed.
Much has been focussed on what will happen in Scotland if the majority vote Yes. There will be negotiations on a new Scottish constitution, and with the Westminster government, EU, NATO and various treaty organisations. Under the Edinburgh Agreement the relevant sides have committed to engage constructively with each other in confirming the outcome and ensuring stability in its further implementation. The timetable set by the Scottish government is for the new constitution to be finalised and adopted in March 2016, at which point the current Scottish parliament will be dissolved and elections will be held under the new constitution. The Scottish parliament is already elected under a form of proportional representation.
Only recently, waking up to the possibility of a Yes majority, have UK politicians begun thinking about the implications of Scottish independence for rUK. Amid speculation about postponing the May 2015 election and what to do about Westminster MPs representing Scottish seats (who are predominantly Labour), little thought is being given to the great opportunities (and challenges) for the future of British democracy in rUK.
If Scotland votes No, what then? After insisting on a binary Yes-No choice and refusing to allow a “Devo-max” option to be put on the ballot, the UK Conservative-LibDem government (together with Labour) have been belatedly scrambling to give Scottish voters an incentive to vote No by promising some form of “Devo-max” under a reformed UK arrangement. What would still be on offer if the No vote wins is debatable. However, there would be considerable anger and potential revolt if Westminster failed to negotiate and deliver on the promises of “Devo-max”, in the event of a No vote.
A key starting point for how to think about what this means for British politics is this: People in Britain need to be empowered further, in a way that has not previously been possible because we have been regarded as ‘subjects’ rather than citizens. High turnout and a close vote in the referendum demonstrate the importance of addressing the causes of Scottish discontent with the status quo. Progressives like the Greens and Compass need to show full support for Scottish progressives making this case – and also acknowledge the wider crisis of legitimacy and governance throughout Britain. We should highlight and address the fact that many of the concerns raised in the Scottish independence debate mirror the accelerating concerns felt in Wales, Northern Ireland and many English regions about inequality, inadequate representation by London, and other serious democratic deficits that have been growing across the UK. 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.
As soon as the Scottish decision is known, we should push for negotiations on what domestic, national and international roles and institutions rUK needs to put in place for a renewed and sustainable democratic future, with the same target date of March 2016 for concluding those talks (which could however be extended if necessary). As Scotland has done through the referendum debates, we must initiate discussions about what kind of Britain we want for the future. We should demonstrate the importance of this as a vitally important and exciting opportunity for civic engagement, reflection and debate across Britain.
Whatever the final outcome of the Scottish referendum, we need to act now to turn the British political system into something fit for a modern citizen-centred constitutional democracy, in accordance with the needs and aspirations of all citizens. It has become clear that people living in the UK need a new constitutional settlement that should include a written Constitutional Convention and bill of rights.
If Scotland goes independent, a new constitutional compact becomes unavoidable for the rest of the UK, the sooner the better. In the event of a No Vote, a process and convention to agree a new constitutional compact is just as necessary – not least because of the ‘West Lothian’ question on whether Westminster MPs from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland etc should vote on issues that relate solely to England. This issue has to be addressed, especially if Scotland gets Devo-Max, and should be settled in a manner that involves the public, and is not merely imposed upon them.
Negotiations on a new constitutional compact must take into account the harm done by the political ‘short termism’ fostered by existing political institutions and processes. We need institutional reform and removal of pressure by those who prioritise their own short term political or financial interests and profits over the sustainability of our planet and basic needs of future as well as current citizens. In view of the threats to our global and human security by business and environmental practices that prioritise short term profits over long term sustainability for our ecosystem, consideration should be given for how to ensure representation of the future needs of our children and unborn future generations.
The post-referendum negotiation process, including a publicly accessible Constitutional Convention, should involve democratically elected citizen-representatives and a range of stakeholders as well as MPs and constitutional lawyers in the deliberations and decision-making. It must not be carried out solely by Westminster elites.
The resulting Constitution should then be democratically adopted, either by the parliament elected in May 2015 (with an understanding at the time of the election that those being elected were being elected with this as a key, defining task), or by being offered to the British public to be adopted (or not) by referendum.
Elements should include but not be limited to:
1) Electoral reform – including appropriate forms of 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.
2) 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, whether big business or unions. Expenditure for elections and costs of candidates for office and their parties, including media and advertising, should be regulated and fairly apportioned.
3) 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.
4) 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.
5) 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.
6) 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 in any case be held on a regional basis, ensuring a relationship of accountability and representation with the relevant regional assemblies. Any viable option that enhances legislative effectiveness, accountability and participatory democracy across Britain should be considered.
We should oppose any proposals to postpone the 2015 election. That should go ahead on the basis of the current constituencies, enabling there to be an elected government in place to oversee the constitutional negotiations and changes.
The parliament elected in May 2015 would be dissolved once the new constitution has been adopted and constituencies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been redrawn in conjunction with adoption of an appropriate form of proportional representation to provide fairer and better political and regional representation in Westminster. Consideration should be given to electing the regional assemblies at the same time, though it ought not to be made mandatory to hold all elections on the same date, as there may be other factors to consider.
New elections in the UK (or rUK if Scotland has established its own independent constitution) would be held under the newly adopted constitutional arrangements – preferably but not necessarily with the same timing as in Scotland.
If Scotland votes no, then, as we have implied, there is still a very strong case for a Constitutional Convention, as is also being pressed by the Welsh as well as Scottish. Our strong belief is that such a Constitutional Convention should be deliberative, and not only composed of elites. It should take as an illustrative model the impressive and inclusive deliberative process that took place in Iceland after the financial crash there.
If it’s broke, it needs fixing. British democracy has been cracking for a long time. Scotland’s referendum should be viewed as a positive challenge and opportunity for the whole UK to fix the democratic cracks and deficits.
Whether the result of the referendum is Yes or No, we need to take up the challenges of democratic reform and a new social compact with a written constitution, to bring about something more fit for our 21st century democracy and the serious social, economic and environmental challenges we face.
There is a wider crisis of democracy in this country, whose symptoms include rampant dissatisfaction with politicians and declining levels of voter-turnout (though not, strikingly, in the Scottish independence referendum, it would appear), and whose causes include the increasing power of international business and finance at the expense of citizens.
In our view, the crisis of democracy should also be seen as including the chronic short-termism of our system, and its failure to include the basic interests of future citizens, future generations locally, regionally and internationally.
It is essential that the post-referendum political scene responds vividly to this wider crisis and does not merely rearrange a few deckchairs on the sinking Titanic.