Murdo Fraser is Member of the Scottish Parliament for Mid-Scotland & Fife and spokesperson for Scottish Conservatives for recovery from Covid
The British constitution is in need of reform, and it always will be. It is part of the essence of the UK that our one Union continues to evolve and change.
Some misunderstand this and buy the nationalist myth that is moving along the road to its terminus. Or, as Labor MP Tam Dalyell said, that devolution was a dead end highway to independence.
It isn’t if we don’t let it be that way. Devolution, on the other hand, strengthens our Union and should be developed to continue to do so. It focuses on the interests of the people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, London, or Manchester, or Tees-side. But, first and foremost, it is in all these people’s best interests to stay in the UK.
There is no reason to fear constitutional change or to see it as a kind of dilution of one identity and the affirmation of another. In the UK we tend not to amend our constitution as grandly as Americans enumerate their amendments, or as the French do, numbering their republics.
However, we have managed to update and reform our parliamentary democracy over the centuries – by expanding the right to vote, responding to calls for self-government, entering the common market and then exiting the EU – avoiding revolutions and social upheaval. It is a model that we should continue to follow.
Our next change should be great: the reform, the abolition, or rather the replacement, of the House of Lords. While his function of review and expertise will always be needed, it is difficult to find someone to defend the Lords as they currently exist. It has become too big, matched in size only by the Chinese legislator.
Its members are either politically appointed, relying on the patronage of party leaders in the communes, or alternatively members of a small rump of hereditary peers, or they are there by virtue of being bishops. Today the Lords has fewer supporters than at any time in the past and is ripe for reform.
The existing house should be replaced with an upper house, a Senate, which is largely, if not entirely, elected rather than appointed. This Senate would represent different parts of the UK, providing the necessary political balance and the appropriate counterweight to the House of Commons, with its own electoral mandate.
Peers and hereditary bishops, historical anachronisms if there ever were any, should be removed.
The new upper house should play the role of a review chamber, not a challenge to the House of Commons, and of necessity be much smaller in size (perhaps 300 or so) but provide representation from the constituent parts of the UK, including (assuming there was demand) the different regions of England.
The challenge in the constitution of this Senate will not be in the arguments of the constitutionalists who write the rules, but in the conventions of behavior established by the party leaders. At its best, the current House of Lords has moments of candor and competence that go beyond party political alliances. That tenor should be maintained. If it is to work, representing the interests of the nations and regions that elected them, the senators should work together to achieve consensus.
The House of Commons would remain the more powerful of the two Houses of Parliament, with its electoral system leading to the decisive start of legislation and politics. A more proportionate and geographically weighted Senate could then be set up for a more reflective review with voices of diversity rather than the current selection.
The goal of its design would be to be more representative of every corner of the Union, thus engaging the closest constituent parts.
The same principle should underpin the second reform of the constitution, which should be a little less grandiose and more functional, replacing the current Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) system with a different structure, a UK Council of Ministers.
It is widely recognized that intergovernmental relations within the UK need to be put on a more formal basis. This is particularly urgent given the post-Brexit legal environment, where the powers given back by Brussels (e.g. in agriculture or food standards) need to be governed by common frameworks that apply across all parts of the UK.
Rules should be put in place, agreed upon by all decentralized administrations and the center.
The mechanism of joint ministerial committees should be modified so that the UK government is less dominant internally, making the arrangements more of a partnership and less of a hierarchy. There should be regular meetings of a UK Council of Ministers, representing the constituent parts of the country, which meet to discuss matters of mutual interest and seek dispute resolution.
It is a model that would require substantial government engagement at all levels and significant input from the UK government in particular if it were to function properly. Once again, the reality of the atmosphere in which this Council operates will be as important as its rules.
There is a danger that this could be used by nationalist politicians as a stage on which to stand. But this is as much a danger to them as it is to those of us who want the Union to work more effectively. Glory won’t deliver results for their constituents, but it could easily expose them as they don’t have the maturity to appreciate the reality of representing a nation trying to work with others.
These changes must be seen as, and must be, clear improvements to the way the UK governs itself. We cannot follow the path of the Labor Party which has always seen devolution as the pacification of nationalism. They offer more powers to decentralized administrations not to make government work better or improve people’s lives, but to use constitutional change as a dirty tactic to win votes and buy opponents.
There is little need for more powers, certainly in Scotland where the current SNP administration does not use the powers it has: a party that claimed it could create a nation in just 18 months has yet to implement the welfare powers that were granted in the country. ‘scope of the Smith Commission issued in 2016.
During the controversial controversy over the so-called ‘bed tax’ it was pointed out to SNP Deputy Prime Minister John Swinney that he already had the powers to alleviate what he saw as the damaging effects of politics. He told the Scottish Parliament he didn’t want to use them and “let Westminster off the hook”.
This is the kind of mentality – harmful to Scotland and the Union – that should be exposed and alleviated by the reforms outlined to improve UK governance as a whole.
Ecclesia always reformanda est – the church must always be reformed – is a motto popularized by the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. The principle it encompasses could equally be applied to the Union: not set in stone, but always adapting to the circumstances of the times. A reformed and reforming Union will stand the test of time more easily than one that is unwilling to change.