by Babak Moussavi
In the USA, the constitution is held to be sacrosanct. Children can even recite parts of it. In the UK, it is not written down in one place. And it is in the hands of the political elite. Few seem to have grasped its importance.
The constitution was a rare top story again this week though. Alex Salmond, the wily leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland’s devolved Parliament, wants to hold referendum on independence. But, as any canny political operator would, he wants to hold it at a time when he thinks he would win. Having achieved a majority in the Scottish parliament in its elections last year – in spite of the so-called ‘lock’ of a proportional representation voting system that was supposed to make secessionist majorities impossible – Mr Salmond believed he could do what he wanted. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, sitting in Westminster, had different ideas. On Sunday, he played a risky hand, trying to call Mr Salmond’s bluff by offering a binding referendum on Scottish independence, provided a go-ahead is agreed by both parliaments, and that it is held in the next 18 months. After that somewhat arbitrary deadline, the referendum would become merely ‘advisory’ – which is the norm for referendums, given that in the UK, sovereignty lies with Parliament, not the people. The plot continues.
The issue of whether Scotland should be allowed to secede is a tricky one, but not my concern here (for the record, though, I am no fan of nationalism). What I am concerned about is what this highlights about our constitution, and our politicians’ attitude towards it. The UK’s constitution may be famous for its flexibility, having not been inscribed in one place, and relying often on ‘conventions’, but this evolutionary nature can easily be manipulated. The question of holding a referendum over an issue with such importance will still be decided through partisan manoeuvring, not through genuine democratic concern.
The referendum is a political tool deployed by those in power when they think they shall win. If they do, it gives them a solid mandate on a specific issue. But if they think they will lose, they have no reason – nor obligation – to hold one. Political considerations trump democratic ones. Even in the case of the Lisbon Treaty, which the Conservative party was so vehemently against, Mr Cameron he declined to hold a referendum once it had been ratified, given the repercussions he could have expected.
Vernon Bogdanor, Mr Cameron’s former tutor at Oxford and now Professor at King’s College London, has argued in his past two books, that rapid constitutional change has been occurring in the UK, but that it remains confined to the hands of the elite, and that it is not necessarily driven by democratic principles. While society has changed enormously since the early post-war years – becoming more fluid, mobile, affluent, aspirational, and less ideological – the constitution has failed to keep up. There are no longer just two main parties that absorb over 90% of the vote. Nor is the parties’ support based on loyalty and identity nowadays, as it is on belief and agreement with policies. A constitution that worked fine in a more hierarchical era of clear political trench warfare is not necessarily well-suited to our times. And yet, it remains the concern of those above the political ceiling.
In The Coalition and the Constitution, Professor Bogdanor examines the coalition government’s constitutional reforms – in particular: fixed-term parliaments, constituency boundary changes, shrinking the Commons, Lords reform, and a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) – and shows clearly how these were borne out of partisan considerations, rather than a genuine belief by the proponents that these would improve the UK’s governance or democratic involvement. For example, the proposal for fixed-term parliaments is designed to maintain the coalition, but dissolution is important for accountability (and, in the event of possible no-confidence vote, for governance too). A much better mechanism would be to simply subject a dissolution order to a parliamentary vote. Similarly, boundary changes will do virtually nothing to eliminate the apparent pro-Labour bias in the voting system, as this is a geographical phenomenon, existing through over-concentration of Conservative voters in certain constituencies, and under-concentration of Lib Dem supporters. Similarly, AV was a policy only Labour advocated in its pre-election manifesto, and yet it came to divide the coalition, and produced a spluttering of idiotic arguments, mainly by the No camp, who worried openly that this system would increase proportionality and destroy Conservative chances of ever regaining a majority.
The constitution in the UK is stuck in a different era, thanks to self-interested calculation by political parties, and an absence of evidence-based, constitutional policy. Until it is reformed with democratic principles in mind – a variety of complex suggestions are offered by Professor Bogdanor, including, perhaps controversially, the introduction of proportional representation – it will remain the playing ground of the political elite.
Mr Salmond and Mr Cameron will fight out the timing and questions on a referendum, but the people will not be their main concern. Social justice demands otherwise.