The election may have been more decisive than predicted, but we still need to rewrite the rulesby Vernon Bogdanor / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Among the more touching details in a procession of bigger pictures,” declared Matthew Parris in the Times, two days after the election, “was the sight of hired constitutionalists slipping out of the television studios in the small hours of the morning, humbly aware that their services would no longer be required.” He was not alone in heaving a huge sigh of relief that the complexities of hung parliaments and coalition government were over for the foreseeable future.
He was quite mistaken, however, in believing that constitutional issues have now disappeared from British politics. Indeed, they have a habit of returning by the back door just when orthodox opinion believes that they have been expelled from the front door. So it is in 2015. Indeed, the three main issues on the political agenda are now constitutional ones—the Scottish question, the European question and the human rights question (raised by the Conservatives’ determination to repeal the Human Rights Act). And, over and above these, lies the fundamental question of the appropriate electoral system for the multinational state that Britain has now become. The answers to all these questions can be determined only by a constitutional convention representing the peoples of all the component parts of the United Kingdom.
The issue of electoral reform is likely to rise, like Lazarus, from the dead, following rejection of the alternative vote in the 2011 referendum. In a multinational state, in which divisions of opinion follow the lines of nationality as much as of social class, it becomes even more important than in a unitary state that its component parts are accurately represented in the legislature so that their opinions can be properly assessed.
Devolution—and where to stop
The devolution legislation implemented by Tony Blair’s government in the last years of the 20th century has fundamentally transformed the British state. What had been a unitary state has now become a quasi-federal state. What had been seen as one nation representing different kinds of people was now a union of nations, each with its own identity and institutions. Such a union raises new questions concerning the appropriate distribution of power and resources.