Four federal parliaments, one ancient force for good

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times, 1 March 2015 –

The near secession of Scotland showed that the days of a unified Great Britain are over. We need a system based on regional Houses, argues the scion of a venerable English bloodline

Robert Salisbury
Published: 1 March 2015

I have been a unionist all my life. During an intermittent and pretty obscure life in politics, I have been haunted by the sense that I was living through the end of an era: the end of the certainties of British dominance and power, the resulting collapse in the self-confidence of this country’s establishment and the erosion in public trust in our national institutions.

However, in the past three or four years this deep sense of foreboding has been tempered by another, rather more cheerful sensation: this country, after a century of world war and recovering from world war, is doing really rather well. Unlike many developed countries, we have a rising population, world-class research, thriving creative industries and the unquestioned rule of law.

But there is a fly in this national ointment. If the country is now doing reasonably well, it certainly needs to do a great deal better. The reason it isn’t is not that we are idle or stupid as a people; it is that there is a crisis of government in our country.Our institutions are worn out and are no longer able to fulfil their purpose. Like the early 20th-century Austro-Hungarian empire, we boast some of the most intelligent people, but our polity is no longer up to the job of providing the administrative and political framework necessary to command the automatic loyalty and approval of the majority of its population.

As the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the Scottish referendum vote showed, that loyalty does still exist. However, unless we tackle this crisis, the Scottish vote will prove to have been no more than a delay in the process of our melting into a 21st-century version of Anglo-Saxon England. In Scotland we unionists may have won a battle, but we are losing the war.

I fear that as a result, like the Romans, the British as a nation will disappear and only their immense legacy will remain. The world will be the poorer for it and the peoples of these islands will be less safe and less prosperous. The Scots, instead of effectively running one of the great nations, will relapse into small-minded and bankrupt obscurity.

The British recognise that there is a crisis of government in their country. Low turnouts at elections and the extraordinary events in Scotland are evidence enough. However, the Scots have now given our political class a chance to redeem themselves by seizing the opportunity of the “no” vote to unleash a programme of constitutional and administrative reform.

For such a programme to have any chance to be introduced, let alone to work, the reform process must have two characteristics. It must encourage a nationwide debate in the run-up to the formulation of proposals and those proposals will need national consent from all parts of the kingdom before they can be implemented. The past few months have shown that there is now an appetite for such a debate. It would be criminal if Westminster allowed this opportunity to degenerate into squabbles about party-political advantage.

In practical terms, there are at least two immediate difficulties to be addressed before we can proceed to formulating and implementing a new settlement.

First, the three main party leaders are in a hole of their own digging, now that they have in their panic promised to devolve more powers to Scotland on a timetable that is ludicrously overambitious. However, they have had to stick to that timetable, and they now risk irritating the other nations of the kingdom, particularly the English (now more than 80% of the population), who will no longer tolerate the lack of an answer to the West Lothian question or to underfunding of poor non-Scottish regions. Equally, if they had delayed redeeming their promise to the Scots, they would have unleashed a backlash in Scotland that would not have been pretty.

It seems that Westminster had little option but to do a deal with the Scots and hope that it could cobble together a compromise on the English question. It would have been better to have given enough guarantees to Edinburgh for the Scots to accept a delay until the kingdom as a whole could agree a new constitutional settlement. There would have been an obvious risk that that agreement would take an unconscionable time to reach, but perhaps all parties could have agreed a date by which a referendum on any agreement would need to have taken place.

As it is, the government has been obliged to implement Lord Smith’s report on more powers for Scotland without satisfying English and Welsh apprehensions. William Hague’s compromise for measures affecting only England to pass through a grand committee of English MPs does nothing to resolve the dilemma, for the new parliament will continue to allow Scottish MPs to vote on non-Scottish matters. There will undoubtedly be an English backlash. However, if either Labour wins the election or there is a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and in either case the new government depends on Scottish votes to get its business through parliament, the sense of outrage among the English could really lead to serious embarrassment. After all, they would not have voted for such a government. The UK is sleepwalking into an existential crisis.

There seems to be no satisfactory solution to this problem. Perhaps the notpossibility is for whoever wins the election to form a caretaker government. Its principal tasks would be to establish a constitutional convention and to hold the fort while the new constitutional arrangements are being agreed. It would then supervise the referendum to approve them.

This government would observe a moratorium on all new legislation except for those measures deemed essential.

Now, what about the new constitutional arrangements themselves? I have said that I thought any constitutional reform would have to be far-reaching. The reason is simple. Any modest change to the status quo will always spawn rules that are complicated and whose interpretation will both create a new industry of experts and encourage back-room deals between politicians. Arrangements that are clear and whose principles are easy to understand should be a prerequisite, thereby engaging the public’s trust in the new arrangements.

For example, any arrangement that creates two classes of MP should be avoided. It is a bad idea in principle for any assembly to have members with different rights. That is why I resisted in the 1990s any attempt to introduce members of the House of Lords with different rights, although I did not mind if they became members by different routes. What mattered is that they were all equal once they got there.

Hague’s compromise, therefore, will turn out to be fool’s gold and almost immediately the English will feel the need for an English executive that proposes and administers English laws without interference from the Scots at any stage. Whether we like it or not we are therefore heading for a federal system and it is no good being half-hearted about it.

There is a model that offers clarity and whose principles can be explained in a few sentences — always an advantage. It also would use existing buildings, reduce the number of politicians and preserve existing ceremonial.

Under this proposal there would be a directly elected federal parliament. It would sit in the chamber of the House of Lords. The House of Lords would be abolished. Ministers responsible for non-devolved matters would sit in this parliament and be held to account there.

The Scottish members of this parliament would as necessary resolve themselves into a committee sitting in Edinburgh with the same powers as the present House of Lords to act as the revising chamber for the Scottish parliament. Similar committees would sit in the respective capitals of the other nations for the same purpose and with the same powers.

The chamber of the Commons would become the seat of the English parliament. It would decide on which of its devolved powers it would in turn devolve to English cities and regions, subject to scrutiny and approval by its second chamber committee of the federal parliament. The powers devolved to each of the parliaments of the four nations would be the same.

On the key question of money, the federal parliament would raise, preferably by indirect taxation, enough to meet the cost of defence, foreign affairs and Home Office matters not devolved, such as immigration, overseas aid and intelligence and security. It would also raise enough money to pay subsidies to those regions thought to require them based on a formula of need, probably calculated on a per capita basis.

There would probably also need to be federal funding for national infrastructure projects. If so, there would be a federal minister for such expenditure. It would be helpful, too, if the nations could agree to leave capital taxes and corporate taxes to the federal government. Social security, education and the health service would be devolved, as would local government finance.

The main objection to such an approach is that it produces an unbalanced polity in view of the disproportionate size of England. That is true, but it does reflect the reality. The advantages of clarity outweigh the objection. This approach would also reduce the deadening effect of Whitehall on energy and initiative and might produce healthy competition between the nations of the union.

The next weeks, months and years will ring with the cries of experts and non-experts advocating their pet schemes. I am not up to resisting the temptation to join the fray. I do so as a Tory who believes with Montesquieu that the inhabitants of old nations are made by their institutions.

I also believe that the purpose of the Tory party is to stand for the nation state and its institutions. Normally, this means that we Tories believe only in necessary evolutionary change. However, once in several centuries, the true Tory must accept that the nation demands more radical solutions if it is to survive. This is one of those times.

The Gascoyne-Cecil family is a British political dynasty without equal. The family rose from obscurity under William Cecil, the first Baron Burghley, and has been spawning statesmen ever since.

Though derided by England’s ancient nobility for being a nouveau riche, Cecil became the indispensable chief adviser to Elizabeth I and brought his family wealth and power.

1563-1612 — ROBERT CECIL
His son Robert, Earl of Salisbury, served both Elizabeth and James I as secretary of state and built the family pile: Hatfield House.

The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was the family’s greatest statesman since Burghley himself and was prime minister of Britain three times, bitterly opposing the Reform Bill of 1867.

1848-1930 — ARTHUR BALFOUR
Balfour was appointed to the job of chief secretary for Ireland by his uncle Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, which many believe is the origin of the phrase “Bob’s your uncle”. He went on to succeed his uncle as prime minister and also served as foreign secretary during the First World War.

The current marquess’s grandfather and great-grandfather were leaders of the House of Lords and he served in that role under John Major until 1997, but left the Lords in 2001 claiming that it had become a “feeble shadow of itself”.