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Bruce Bell: A federal settlement for the UK – the political reform we really need

Bruce Bell is a partner in a major international law firm and works in the City of London

Screen shot 2011-05-12 at 10.54.33 Voting reform has been an issue on the fringes of UK politics for many years now. I can recall as a teenager watching John Cleese railing against the inequities of ‘first-past-the-post’ voting in a Liberal/SDP Alliance election broadcast in the 1980s. It seemed then a very abstract and minor complaint when set against the titanic ideological struggle then going on between right and left, symbolized by battles such as the miners’ strike. But in recent weeks voting reform has been a very real issue and as a country we have spent in the order of £100 million of public and private money debating, and voting on, the respective merits of AV and ‘first-past-the-post’. The result is now well known - an overwhelming victory for ‘first-past-the-post’ – but we also know that the public agrees that voting reform is little more than trivia when compared with the most pressing issues facing the UK.

At the same time as the AV result came the SNP’s remarkable victory in the elections for the Scottish parliament.  This is a result of potentially enormous significance both to the Conservatives and to the UK as a whole. The SNP will at some point in the next five years hold a referendum on independence for Scotland. They will most likely lose such a referendum, but Alex Salmond will justifiably claim that the election result itself is already a mandate for him to push for further devolution and concessions for Scotland from the United Kingdom.

There was of course another election last week of interest to British Conservatives, and that was the national election in Canada, which delivered Stephen Harper’s Canadian Conservatives an overall majority for the first time in two decades. However, that election is also of note because it saw the separatist Bloc Quebecois virtually destroyed as a force in Canada’s federal parliament. Whilst there is some irony that Quebec’s separatists should have suffered such a defeat in the same week that Alex Salmond achieved such a stunning victory, there is also an important lesson for us to learn from the Canadian experience.

The Bloc’s electoral plight is in large part the result of Quebec’s Francophone voters calculating that Quebec has extracted as much as it sensibly can from Canada short of full independence. Further demands for concessions risk compromising Quebec more than they would benefit it, not least because the rest of Canada has grown increasingly tired of sharing the financial costs of Quebec’s demands.  But modern Canadian history shows that Scotland has a long way to go before Scottish voters are likely to make a similar calculation about their relationship with the UK. The Quebec experience suggests we can expect many twists and turns on the constitutional road before we reach that point; it also tells us that until we get there the traffic will only be in one direction, in the shape of concession upon concession from the UK to Scotland.

Of course the UK has more than one potential Quebec – Wales and Northern Ireland are unlikely to stand idly on the sidelines in all this. And all the while the West Lothian question will continue to gnaw away at the union. What is England’s position in all this? What, given the inevitability of further concessions to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that the Quebec experience suggests, should be the rights of English voters, and in particular of English MPs, to make decisions for England? Can there be any sensible justification for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs to continue having a say on English affairs when they have progressively less of a say in the lives of their own constituents?

The Coalition agreement contains a bland commitment to ‘establish a commission to consider the "West Lothian question’’ and this particular part of the Coalition agreement falls within Nick Clegg’s remit as Deputy Prime Minister. If Nick Clegg is to be believed, he is a passionate supporter of political and constitutional reform but thus far nothing whatever seems to have happened on this particular part of the Coalition deal and it is an issue that Clegg himself appears to have little interest in.

There is a great danger here for Conservatives. In the recent past Labour sought to defuse the West Lothian issue in England with its proposal of impotent regional assemblies. In the areas where assemblies were proposed the voters rightly rejected them but Labour will be anxious to respond to the issues raised by the SNP’s success and further Scottish devolution in a way that protects its ambitions at Westminster - any future Labour government will almost certainly need the votes of Scottish MPs to give it a majority. Accordingly we should expect some form of ‘regionalism’ to play a big role in Ed Miliband’s policy thinking and we will therefore face not only a direct threat to the union from the SNP but also the prospect of the ‘Balkanization’ of England. Such a result would be bad for the UK, bad for England and bad for the Conservative Party.

The Conservative leadership must wake up to this issue and take ownership of it as a matter of urgency. If we will need political reform anywhere in the UK then it is here. Supporters and defenders of the union should not fear the issue and in my view it is only by engagement and radicalism that the union can hope to be maintained in the longer term. I would argue that a federal settlement for the constituent nations of the United Kingdom would provide the best way forward: the UK as a whole making decisions on matters of collective interest and importance, such as defence and foreign affairs; each constituent nation making decisions on its own domestic matters, such as education and health. Necessarily this would also mean each individual nation having to take greater responsibility for its own funding requirements. And a happy coincidence of a federal UK is that it is something Nick Clegg himself ought to support  after all, the Liberal Democrat Party is itself a federation of local English, Welsh and Scottish parties.


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