UK constitutional conventions inevitable: but will not come from Westminster


By Mark McNaught
The recent concession by Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones that he could not assure Scots that London would devolve further powers following a ‘no’ vote, because Wales has not received the powers recommended by the Silk Commission, should be ringing alarm bells in Westminster.
Not that Scots needed to be reminded after the failure to deliver more powers after the 1979 referendum, but his statement underlines the resentment over UK broken promises over devolution that has been simmering for decades.

Perhaps Mr. Jones is implicitly supporting a ‘yes’ vote, because it may be the only way to goad Westminster to act on the commission’s recommendations.

David Cameron has contemptuously responded to pressure to enact the Silk Commission recommendations, cynically opining that “The bubble in Cardiff is completely obsessed by powers whereas the people in Wales, actually, what they want to know is results.” Not that Cameron himself has ever been ‘obsessed’ with power.

This is in the context of many other unresolved constitutional issues. Scottish Tories have hinted that the power over the bedroom tax could be devolved after independence. The Northern Ireland assembly is unanimously opposed to transferring their Driver and Vehicle Agency to Swansea. Assembly Finance minister Simon Hamilton had hinted that this power could be devolved, but the decision is not his.

Boris Johnson has allied with other UK city mayors to call for a ‘radical devolution’ of property tax, and other powers over economic development.

Ruth Davidson has called for a constitutional convention, and apparently Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde (Nicknamed ‘Lord’ Strathclyde) is chairing a commission on further powers to be devolved to Scotland should they vote against independence. If he exhibits the same degree of enthusiasm as he did to Lords reform, I wouldn’t expect much.

Even Gordon Brown has advocated a written constitution if Scotland remains in the UK. When such an improbable combination of politicians agree on something, maybe it’s time for Westminster to act.

The only problem is that Westminster cannot act. David Cameron is busy preparing to haul the UK out of the EU, and fretting over losing corporate lobbyist donors to UKIP. Ed Miliband is busy taking labour out of the Labour Party. Nick Clegg did make an effort to make the House of Lords an elected chamber, but was thwarted by Tory backbenchers, thus dashing their hopes of gerrymandering constituencies to favour conservatives.

We are already witnessing the effects of the Scottish independence debate: the beginning of the end of Westminster as we know it. The next 5 years will witness monumental changes to the UK constitution whether Scotland votes for independence or not.

While the future shape of the UK constitution is impossible to predict, Westminster is institutionally incapable of reforming itself. The rotting corpse of parliamentary supremacy  still languishes in UK jurisprudence. They could abolish all of the devolved parliaments tomorrow if they so voted, including the Scottish Parliament following a ‘no’ vote. Whatever democratic legitimacy Westminster may have had has been washed away by its descent into corporate oligarchy.

There is nothing preventing the Welsh Assembly from drafting a written constitution, which establishes that the assembly is irrevocable, codifies its current relationship within the UK, and institutes the Silk Commission report, with the exception of its reliance on ‘studies’ from the Office of Budget Responsibility.

No powers could be taken back by Westminster without the consent of the Welsh people. Amendment mechanisms can be created to make it adaptable to future circumstances. Provisions would be made so that Wales would remain in the EU even if the majority of the English vote to leave in 2017. Details could be worked out with the UK government, then submitted for referendum in Wales. Westminster is the only obstacle.

There is no legal obstacle to the assembly in Northern Ireland Assembly also drafting a written constitution with similar provisions, codifying their relationship within the UK as well as the Republic of Ireland, capable of being amended to new circumstances. Westminster obstinacy is the only impediment.

It is clear from the current state of implementation of the Leveson and Silk Commission reports and that as currently constituted, no promises made by Westminster for further devolution can ever be trusted. Westminster itself would need to be radically reformed, the House of Lords and Monarchy abolished, for any democratic legitimacy to be established.

If Westminster immediately devolved welfare policy to Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, so that each could scrap the bedroom tax, this would mark a good first step towards resolving these questions. A UK-wide constitutional convention could establish a credible, fair, and enduring arrangement to hold the UK together, with Westminster having no veto over the ultimate agreement.

What David Cameron fails to realize is it that lack of clarity and broken promises over these constitutional issues will be the undoing of the UK. If he truly wants to keep the UK together, these issues must be resolved. They aren’t going away after Scotland votes for independence.

Until this process begins, the current the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies must take matters into their own hands, and codify the conditions under which they can satisfactorily live within the UK well into the future. How long can a people continue to live under oppressive constitutional conditions? Not long!