John Leonard: Strengthening and sanitising our democracy
John Leonard, an IT Management Consultant, gives his take on the devolution debate and proposes that constitutional affairs and the interpretation of the law should be separated from the political legislature.
Through decades of mismanagement by successive governments, our democracy seems no longer fit for purpose and is now more a vehicle for political machinations than it is a vehicle for the public’s representation. Much has been written on Conservative Home such as Matt Wright's - Localism As A New Unionism or Mark Fields - Its Time To Create A Federal UK Parliament and elsewhere but none address the whole issue. Here is my attempt to open up the debate.
By implementing some radical changes to our current system this mismanagement could be greatly overcome.
As many have identified, our membership of the EU is the ‘elephant in the room’ in terms of strengthening our democracy.
We neither have appropriate representation (1 representative for every 750,000 citizens) nor a clear roadmap from our political parties of where the European Project is going. Enough is enough! After 30 years, polls suggest that our membership is a misfit and seems to provide little true benefit to the people. The current situation is democratically untenable and we should repatriate powers (via a mandate from referendum of course).
It is true that there are issues where we need to work with our European neighbours. What these are and how achieved, I’ll leave to experts but I will set out one simple rule of thumb to work by: if the issue at hand does not extend beyond British waters then it does not require European involvement.
Whatever view of devolution is taken we currently have a situation where three of the home nations have four elected tiers of domestic government whilst the other has only three. Many of the inequalities that this creates and the risks to the Union have been discussed ad nauseum.
However, what has been missed in all this debate is the fact that one home nation now suffers three times less national representation than any other home nation. Only two proposals address this fundamental democratic inequality:
1. Repeal the Devolution Act
2. Create a national assembly for the ignored region
As repealing the Devolution Act seems unlikely there is only one choice. This is particularly true if we also consider that unless we increase our elected representation as population grows representatives’ ability to provide a service to their electorate will lessen.
To include an additional assembly requires reform of the overall structure of government. In doing so it must be ensured that no national assembly can hold the UK parliament to ransom. Extending the previous rule of thumb, if the issue/service is wholly within the bounds of the elected bodies geographic boundaries they own it.
So here is an outline of the four tier system:
1. UK Parliament – international affairs, major capital projects, strategic policy development (primary legislature) and tactical development & operational delivery of UK wide public services.
2. National Assembly – tactical policy development and operational delivery of national public services. Implementation of medium sized capital projects
3/4. County/Unitary/Local Councils – responsible for local operational policy development and delivery of operational services and minor capital projects
Accountabilities and funding arrangements should be distributed as appropriate using localism as a fundamental concept within this structure but with a view to keep funding as simplified as possible. Complex funding arrangements such as the Barnett formula need to be reformed and consolidated.
Whether we need two chambers at the highest level, I will leave others to debate but it should not be discounted. I say this because I have another use for the House of Lords. As for the Union it will need to be reviewed but I do not see anything here that should endanger it.
In an era in which we have seen MPs imprisoned, the Lord Chancellors debacle, dodgy statistics, dodgy dossiers, cash for honours, WLQ and our sovereign powers given away, to name but a few examples, our political representatives are considered with increasing derision. Our democracy does not belong to the people but to a political elite and the people demonstrate their cynicism and distrust by failing to turn out for elections in the numbers that once was the norm. The answer to this derision and distrust from our politicians is no more than tinkering at the edges.
I propose a radical solution:
Constitutional/democratic affairs and the interpretation of the law should be separated from the political legislature. For this purpose, I would propose a reformed, independent, ‘non political’ partially democratically elected, House of Lords reporting directly to the Head of State. Any subordinate body that has a primary role of administering our democracy and Parliament (e.g. the Electoral Commission, National Statistics) would report directly to this reformed House of Lords and a new Supreme Court body would be created to interpret and validate legislation produced by Parliament.
The Lords would still have nominated representation from the Church, legal profession, and political parties as appropriate but the majority of representatives (say 55%) would be directly elected, and not current members of any political party.
This body will have no legislative power as all changes to the constitution will be decided by periodic referendum. Rules would allow that any group including Parliament can propose changes to the constitution (via petition based on a threshold of signatures or parliamentary bill). It would manage the implementation of elections, terms, conditions and behaviour of elected representatives and certain rules pertaining to political parties.
Such measures cannot be implemented overnight. It would probably take a decade or more but I believe the result would ensure that our politicians avoided many perceived conflicts of interests and our democracy would be closer to the true meaning of ‘democracy’ than we British have ever experienced.