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David Torrance: Time for a UK Constitutional Convention?

For some reason – or perhaps I’m alone in considering it significant – the following press release from last Thursday has escaped any press attention:

“The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee agreed at its meeting today to conduct a new inquiry into whether there is a need for a constitutional convention for the UK. The inquiry aims to look at how a convention might allow a debate on the future of the Union as a whole, rather than piecemeal through a focus on specific issues or nations.”

Furthermore, the House of Commons Select Committee plans to “hold a seminar to launch the inquiry” and is inviting submissions on three areas: 1) Grounds and basis for establishing a convention, 2) Composition and 3) Remit and working methods. The deadline for written submissions is 14 June.

I think this is a significant development, because such a convention could form part of the UK Government’s (and indeed Labour’s) referendum strategy. Indeed, I first proposed such a move in the Scotsman last May. Here’s some of what I wrote:

Now that a referendum campaign is effectively under way, the Prime Minister needs to make the weather on this. First, he could initiate a UK-wide constitutional convention (royal commissions, as Harold Wilson quipped, take minutes and waste years), a genuinely cross-party exercise modelled on the Scottish Constitutional Convention and drawing on expertise, academic and political, as well as the views of civic society. The SNP would obviously be invited to participate, although of course they did not back in 1989.
            But this should be no constitutional talking shop. As with those gatherings on The Mound in Edinburgh more than 20 years ago, the direction of travel should be implicit. We already live in a quasi-federal UK, following the ad hoc devolution of the late 1990s, so it makes sense to explore formalising this. And given that the coalition government has already conceded the principle of fiscal autonomy via the Scotland Bill and a consultation on devolving corporation tax to the Province, the notion of ‘fiscal autonomy-all-round’ should also be added to the mix. Underpinning it all could be a new bill of rights or written constitution, in which Mr Cameron has already expressed an interest…
            Mr Cameron could rightly argue that constitutional reform is too big for any one party to tackle, while in Scotland the convention would be a visible and sensible extension of his much-vaunted ‘respect agenda’. It could also dovetail, conveniently, with long-overdue House of Lords reform, while silencing what Iain McLean called the ‘two mad men in the attic’, the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula.”

I think that analysis still stands, not least the ongoing omnishambles (to borrow the Leader of the Opposition’s new contribution to the political lexicon) over the West Lothian Question and House of Lords reform. The UK Government’s constitutional strategy has, to date, been incoherent and piecemeal; a constitutional convention offers them the perfect opportunity to tie everything together in a holistic and inclusive fashion.

If the current constitutional flux doesn’t justify such an exercise then I don’t know what would. Ireland, for example, is about to convene a
constitutional convention to discuss the relatively minor issue of emigrant votes (among other matters).

Now obviously, this is only a Select Committee inquiry and even if it becomes a formal recommendation, the UK Government will not be compelled to do as they wish. But I think they ought to consider it. I suspect the Prime Minister’s advisers realize they’re vulnerable in light of his “more powers” kite flying in Edinburgh, and that they need to demonstrate they’re serious lest the ghost of Sir Alec Douglas-Home cast a dangerous shadow.

Such a move would not be unexpected by the SNP. Indeed, a senior Scottish Government adviser recently told me he wouldn’t be surprised if Westminster initiated some sort of constitutional convention over the summer. How would the SNP respond? I suspect they’d abstain, citing their 2011 mandate and depicting it as yet more interference from London. But the Unionist parties are blessed with time, which any constitutional convention worth its salt needs.

Posted by David Torrance

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