The trend toward reform of western governing systems through federalism may be catching on.
In view of the oh-so-close decision by Scotland in 2014 to remain in the United Kingdom (UK), and last month’s decision by England to exit the European Union, a constitutional reform movement in England hopes to head off possible dissolution of the UK! The Constitution Reform Group (CRG) is a committee initiated by academics and politicians whose immediate purpose is to blunt continuing efforts by the Scottish National Party (SNP) to exit the UK, and to ultimately pass a new “settlement” that preserves the union. Like the Convention of States Project, CRG recognizes the centrifugal forces at work in the UK must be dealt with head-on if the union is to be saved.
In a position paper published in July of 2015, the CRG asserted: “. . . the United Kingdom as a united and effective union is under threat, (that it) is worth saving, and can be saved.” Aren’t those words worthy of American patriots dedicated to free government?
The UK doesn’t have a constitution in the American sense. Beginning some three hundred years ago, England, Wales, Scotland, and eventually Northern Ireland agreed to, or “settled” upon a common governing framework in which the English parliament served as a central legislative authority for all. All, of course, have representation in the English Parliament. In general terms, the domestic powers left to each of the four federal entities are those doled out by the English parliament in which all have a voice.
Notice the exact opposite relationship between members of the UK and the US Constitutional relationship between fifty member states and the government of their creation. Powers not granted to the pre-1913 federal government were reserved to the states. On paper, they still are, but as a practical matter our masters in Washington DC do as they wish.
In broad terms, the CRG proposes the establishment of a new federal framework that philosophically shares some commonality with our de jure, written US Constitution. Their proposals say the existing union should be replaced with fully devolved government in each part of the UK, with each given full sovereignty over its own affairs.
The proposals say they “start from the position that each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is a unit that both can and should determine its own affairs to the extent that it considers it should; but that each unit should also be free to choose to share, through an efficient and effective United Kingdom, functions which are more effectively exercised on a shared basis.”
The new construction suggests a complete reversal of the UK’s current constitutional arrangement, in which all sovereignty formally rests in the center and is then devolved to regions on a piecemeal basis.
Like many voices in the US, the CRG warns that dancing around the edges of the inherent problems with the existing frame of government serves to invite more internal conflict, if not dissolution of the union. Readers of my three recent blog posts regarding the distinction between the electoral and sovereign capacities of the people will recognize the mixture of these two functions in the British system, when the CRG expresses hope that it can “persuade the Government to establish a mechanism for further refining our ideas and implementing them through legislation.” Simply put, the process for amending the British constitutional system is statutory, and unlike the establishment of conventions of the sovereign people’s delegates in the US.
Understand that I am not critical of the British system. There is no single form of republicanism for all peoples. On the contrary, I admire the simple fact that by threatening to leave the union, Scotland can compel the UK to work out satisfactory reforms. Since 1913, if not 1865, the fifty component members of the American union have lacked any similar, effective pressure to force their just demands on the supposed government of their creation.
Unlike membership the United States, membership in the United Kingdom is voluntary.
One of the advantages for the UK of having no codified written constitution is that parliament has a built-in flexibility that allows it to readily adapt the constitution to meet the needs of changing times. In the US, the joke is that congress is limited by a written Constitution.
Perhaps the flexibility of the UK constitution may secure its salvation. Parliament may call for a convention of its members or perhaps a Royal Commission before making major constitutional change, but it is not required to, and in the past 15 years or so governments have chosen to make enormously significant constitutional changes without any systematic form of accountable and transparent analysis beforehand.
But whatever form it takes it must be designed to build consensus around as many as possible of the CRG proposals, and to give all citizens of the United Kingdom a feeling that they have been involved and represented in a fundamental reshaping of the Union. And finally, it must happen – and conclude – soon. There is no time to waste.
Conversations about the progress and future of devolution tend for obvious reasons to be cast in terms of what powers parliament and government are prepared to “give away”, or what functions and responsibilities national and regional institutions want to “take” for themselves.
These issues should be approached partly from the opposite direction, by asking the citizens of each part of the UK to consider what governance functions they would like to be exercised at a central level, so as to ensure that the UK remains a strong country of which they want to be part and from which each citizen – and each nation and region – benefits. Is this approach not that of the US federal convention of 1787, i.e. what powers are to be granted to the new government?
The conversation which the CRG paper initiates asks civil society to identify what functions are most efficiently and effectively performed at a central level, and how those functions enhance the nature of a strong central union. CRG therefore suggests that the design of a new constitutional settlement should begin by considering the legitimate functions of central government. What a great idea!
The proposed framework of UK union suggests a complete reversal of its current constitutional arrangement, in which all sovereignty formally rests in the center and is then devolved to regions on a piecemeal basis. Isn’t that, more or less, the de facto ruling system of the US? The proposed UK reform framework has much in common with the vertical separation of powers structure of the 1787 US Constitution.
In identifying central governance functions that should be exercised by and for the union as a whole, there will of course be wide scope for debate and disagreement, and in this sense, the tasks facing the people of the UK are enormously more complicated than those facing the sovereign people of the US.
The US and UK share similar afflictions: too much power centralized in too few hands, and the solutions are also similar. Much power must be devolved to member states.
We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Be proactive. Be a Re-Founder. Join Convention of States.