By Iain Martin
10 January 2019
While the Commons rips itself apart a significant plan for constitutional reform is about to be debated by the Lords
A rare example of a welcome parliamentary innovation has been the decision to hire several skilled photographers to take pictures of the dramatic goings-on inside the Commons chamber. The Times carried one such image yesterday. It showed the preening Speaker, John Bercow, at the centre and MPs clustered around in the half-light during the latest Brexit dust-up. So striking was the image that it attracted considerable comment, comparing it to paintings from the Renaissance.
The artist it immediately put me in mind of, though, was William Hogarth, the 18th-century English satirist whose prints chronicled the greed, incompetence and decay of the politics of his period in popular caricatures. The spectacle at disintegrating Westminster right now is horribly Hogarthian. Consider the antediluvian, orotund warblings of the Speaker, his self-satisfied tone suggesting a bullying headmaster from a bygone age. The party leaders are hopeless, perhaps the most hopeless in a century. Cabinet government and collective responsibility have disintegrated. The main parties are broken and appear to be on the verge of splitting up.
Meanwhile, knighthoods and peerages are dispensed like sweeties. In the overcrowded House of Lords sit several peers who would be regarded as too vulgar for inclusion in a downmarket reality television series.
It is not just that at a difficult moment this is a terrible parliament, containing some MPs who would be lucky to gain alternative employment and a historically substandard cabinet that is two thirds filled with duffers. The situation is even worse than that.
Surveying the parliamentary carnage, after months of MPs and ministers faffing about with Brexit and too many peers pottering around on £300 each a day just for clocking in, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the entire constitutional settlement has been revealed to be woefully inadequate and out of date.
We need national renewal and a fresh constitutional dispensation that can rebuild an element of trust in governance across all parts of Britain. Happily, next week there is a hopeful glimmer of light in the shape of a cross-party effort to reform the constitution.
Lord Lisvane, the respected former clerk of the Commons to Bercow, has helped to devise a fascinating plan which has support among various parties. A private member’s bill was lodged in October and Lisvane has been granted a debate on reshaping the British constitution after Brexit.
He is a member of the Constitution Reform Group, an organisation headed by Lord Salisbury, whose members include Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and non-party figures.
The Act of Union Bill is the first attempt to devise a coherent plan for what should happen after many powers return from the European Union. More devolution is recommended to deal with another festering tension. The Union only narrowly avoided extinction in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 and will be tested again.
The bill contains options for a slimmed-down Commons, providing an opportunity for a proper discussion about how its membership and governance can be improved. The Lords could be replaced with a senate, drawn from the four constituent parts of the kingdom. The option of English devolution, subject to a referendum, is on the table too.
The bill’s authors seek to codify the chaotic and asymmetric progress of devolution that began with the creation of a Scottish parliament in 1999 and to create a settlement that is sustainable.
All powers other than those expressly restricted to central government, such as defence and foreign affairs, would be devolved. On defence, foreign affairs and home affairs, committees would be established by statute to give England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland an equal voice and seats at the table.
The board of the Bank of England would be reformed to include representation from all parts of the country and renamed the Bank of the United Kingdom. A similar public borrowing board to monitor the Treasury would be established.
None of these proposed changes could prevent a part of the United Kingdom choosing to leave after a referendum. But it is a constructive effort to curtail the bickering and provide new structures for co-operation.
To all of this I would add the need for much more devolution within England to aid the revival of the north and the southwest, and to balance London’s excessive dominance. The bill provides for reforms in that area too.
Turning Lisvane’s private member’s bill into law is all but impossible, of course. For it to happen a future government will have to commit to reform. Theresa May isn’t going to do any of this. But she is not going to be in position for all that much longer, whether the denouement comes in three days or three months. Whenever it is, there will be life after May.
When that happens, there, sitting on the table, is a plan that offers a chance to overhaul the country if it ever gets a prime minister with grip and imagination. The farce at falling-down Westminster shows that a change of personnel is overdue. After this unhappy experience, our political system and constitution need rebuilding and rewiring too.
See the full article here.