For a nation that prides itself on being the mother of parliaments, the UK’s democracy is looking troublingly outmoded. The chaotic handling of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have shown the need for more power to be shared with the nations and regions of the UK. A defining feature of the Brexit campaign was a commitment to democratic renewal and the pledge to take back control. This must mean more than a transfer of power from Brussels to Westminster, but a new constitutional settlement fit for the purpose.
Britain’s constitution is a mess. The union itself is in peril. The ties with both Scotland and Northern Ireland have been weakened by Brexit. The weaknesses of the devolution settlement have been exposed by the pandemic. England is perhaps the most centralised democracy in western Europe. Yet an incoherent patchwork of regional and local government has robbed many areas of a strong voice at the decision-making table.
Constitutional change has seen major reforms simply placed on top of the existing structure like a game of Jenga. Unsurprisingly, the settlement is highly unstable. Scottish and Welsh parliaments were created by a Labour government which never considered that it would not control those nations.
At Westminster, the House of Lords is an unelected anachronism and, despite the good work it does, it has been undermined by the cronyism of its appointment system. Its composition limits its ability to act as a brake on the Commons. While Boris Johnson talks of restoring power to regions, his actions so far have been to roll back restraints on the executive power and curb the powers of the judiciary.
Many experts advocate a written constitution, though this brings its own problems and might increase the politicisation of judges. Others advocate electoral reform or review of the royal prerogative powers, which allow the executive to bypass parliament. Citizens’ assemblies to tackle tightly focused issues such as funding social care are worth considering.
The most pressing issue is devolution. It is doubtful any further reforms would satisfy the Scottish nationalists but Scots are likely to show their support for another referendum and the UK needs to offer an alternative vision. The most obvious concerns are finance and power. Though the devolved parliaments have substantial income tax freedoms their financial powers, especially borrowing, are severely limited. This needs to be addressed.
In English local government, Westminster talks a good game on devolving power but too often reverts to centralising edict, not least over planning. Promised reforms to streamline the multiple tiers have been postponed. Too many areas lack a directly elected mayor and those mayors must be given more powers, not least over economic development. Local government finance needs an overhaul.
The House of Lords should be replaced with a more democratic chamber. One option would be a chamber comprising elected members of the UK nations and regions, with more power to block decisions affecting the entire nation. If the union is to hold, Westminster must give adequate voice to the other nations. Some form of weighted voting would be uncomfortable for the UK government but it may be the price of the union.
A constitutional convention is easy to recommend but a non-partisan process is necessary. Reform is complex and needs consensus. This is the moment to start. Brexit’s advocates promised national renewal. A modern, fair and better functioning democracy must be at the centre of that pledge.