Martin Whitfield is the Labour MP for East Lothian.
With so much of our parliamentary time taken up with the Brexit debate, it is very clear to me and fellow MPs that the stakes could not be higher. The message of Brexit that we needed to ‘take back control’ resonated with so many voters. The challenge to us as politicians is to interpret what this means and offer solutions which empower voters and answer the discontent voiced in the EU referendum. As powers are repatriated from Brussels to Westminster, we must revisit where power lies across the UK and plot new constitutional arrangements which work for the 21st century. If we get it wrong, it could foster chaos and disintegration of the United Kingdom in the long term. But if we get it right we could look to breathe life into that old and very thorny issue of the British constitution and constitutional reform.
Gordon Brown’s words to the Fabians in 2016 seem particularly pertinent today. “If we are to meet and master the global challenges ahead we need to get the balance right between the autonomy people desire and the cooperation we need,” he said. “We should begin with a constitution that empowers the UK’s nations and regions. Instead of frustrating their potential, we should help the nations and regions realise it and give them the power to do so. The alternative is a Britain that looks in on itself without the means to bridge its divisions and to bring people together”
Nowhere is this more crucial than in Scotland. Independence, devolution and the possibility of a federal solution are never far from the surface in any political discussion. However, Scotland’s future shouldn’t be a playground fight, with the UK gathered around watching and sometimes ‘encouraging’ the strife. When it comes to the challenges of Brexit and its impact, the question of how the United Kingdom is ruled should be front and centre of all of our discussions in all corners of the UK.
Staying as we are, with devolved powers to the home nations and mayoral devolution of some powers to some regions will not be enough. The discussion of where power is best placed is one that has to continue if we are to address the challenges of Brexit and beyond. A number of areas across the UK have already been looking at increased local powers. The northern powerhouse, city deals and a number of other ideas have been floated. Take, for example, Yorkshire where 17 out of 20 local authorities formed a ’coalition of the willing’ seeking further devolution powers.
But as we consider the options, I am reminded of one of my predecessors, John P Mackintosh, MP for East Lothian and Berwickshire, who advocated before many others did that constitutional reform should put democratic control and the empowerment of the people, at its core. His arguments were not based on nationalism or even the glorification of the nation state. His vision for constitutional reform was based on good government, an equitable democracy and opportunity for the citizen. As he so succinctly put it: “People in Scotland want a degree of government for themselves. It is not beyond the wit of man to devise institutions to meet these demands.”
This is where we are now. There is a demand from people in communities for a degree of control for themselves. However, flexibility is needed to establish a degree of government, the right level of government, for people right across the United Kingdom. And we must also ensure legitimacy: people must give their democratic backing to any new settlement. Otherwise just as in the north east of England in 2004, change will be rejected.
Any new settlement should be predicated on power being at the lowest level, closest to the people that can successfully implement it. This will require Westminster government and devolved governments relinquishing power, in what will be a big move away from the centralising models we see at the moment.
The model does not need to be the same for Cornwall as for Manchester or for Scotland, but each must have a stake in its own community and a way of discussing with other models the nature of their interdependence. Each must have the ability to raise funds to meet the costs of its obligations whilst retaining the power to redistribute wealth around the UK. Each must be accountable to those it seeks to speak for.
Is this federalisation? Is this a compound system of governance within a single political union?
Those questions remain to be answered – and we must set up a constitutional convention to do so. However the most important question that convention can answer is not what the new arrangement will be called but what it looks like. We need to find practical, workable models which empower the north east of England, Wales, Scotland, Glasgow, Cornwall and every community. They must command support, rekindling a belief in being part of the governance you agree to abide by. The convention’s search for solutions must be driven by faith in good government and equitable democracy. If it embeds that in our new constitutional settlement, then real opportunity for the citizen will follow.