Consent for The Vow?
Of course none of this would have happened had the UK political establishment remotely expecte Scotland to vote for independence or come anywhere close to it. Great Britain paid a heavy price for this naivety. Not for the first time, the desire to do what is unexpected and to confound received wisdom proved remarkably compelling. The referendum itself was a very close run thing.
Forty eight hours before the referendum took place, the leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties made their famous “Vow”. They guaranteed that the Scottish Parliament would be given significant new powers and authority to control some taxes and benefits if the Scottish people voted No. It was a shameless bribe. It worked. Draft legislation was then prepared which would become law after the 2015 general election. Whether this was the correct policy or not is not for debate here, but the democratic principles at stake are. These were as follows:
- How can three party leaders irrevocably commit their parties to constitutional change that has not been considered by their members or been through a democratic process?
- How can party leaders guarantee that their MPs now and in a future Parliament will vote in favour of their preferred policy?
- Which UK party can a voter choose if they are uncomfortable with the constitutional changes proposed in the Vow?
Consent from Manifestos
In the general election campaign of 2015 there was debate as to whether the country wanted a referendum on staying in Europe. Vote Labour and there won’t be; vote Conservative and there would be a referendum before the end of 2017. Which direction did the country wish to go? The people had a choice. Democracy as it should be. The Conservatives won. Of course, voters had many considerations when they placed their mark on the ballot paper, but they could not deny that the Conservatives had a mandate to hold the In/Out referendum and ultimately implament the will of the people who voted by a majority to leave the EU. By the way, there would also have been a referendum if there was a UKIP vote. However, as they were committed to remove UK from the European Union, the question proposed by UKIP implied that they would seek to exit the EU irrespective of how the country interpreted or answered the preferred UKIP question: “Do you wish Britain to be a free, independent, sovereign democracy?”
The flawed process of national parties presenting their proposed policies in manifesto pledges on all manner of issues is as good as it gets; as good as it needs to be. You do not know which pledges, if any, swayed the voters to back the winning party. It doesn’t matter. They presented their case. The people decided. The winning party can claim a mandate for those policies. They can form a government and implement a legislative programme. Those policies become legislation – the law.
Manifestos and the rule of law
We don’t just obey the law because we have to but because we made it. If we don’t like it, we can vote for a party that will change that law. If we are still unsuccessful then we campaign all the harder; we try to persuade more effectively until enough voters agree – the national parties realise votes are at stake and eventually offer to change it. If this is still unsuccessful then you can stand for election yourself. In 2001, Dr Richard Taylor stood as an independent candidate campaigning solely to protect Kidderminster hospital. He won. This is unusual but it can be done. If still you do not succeed then maybe you are wrong.
What you cannot do is resort to violence or dismiss the democratic process because you didn’t get your way. The essence of democracy is accepting the will of the majority. The author was 27 before he had a government that he agreed with. Democracy is frustrating. The alternative is some form of dictatorship usually based on the notion that some party or individual knows better – and they might do – but how do you change them peacefully if you no longer think they do know best?
The rule of law itself is now being questioned. The Unite Union, in the face of concerns that a future Conservative Government would further undermine the right to strike, proposed to remove from its constitution the requirement for all its members to act within the law. The terrorists who would destroy our way of life and those who admire them would agree. If you cannot achieve your ends by legitimate means then what choice do you have? The choice of course is to persuade and convince enough that your cause is right.
Ultimately, in a democracy, a government can claim and demonstrate its authority from the people. That it has several years before it is required to go back to the people for a fresh mandate enables effective government – a sensible balance of executive authority and democratic credentials that has served Britain proud for roughly a century.
The question of whether Scotland should have a referendum on independence is the greatest constitutional question of the last 300 years. Can it be right that this was decided by MPs, and MPs alone, without being presented to those MPs’ constituents?
Perhaps strict legality is all that matters; perhaps the unwritten understanding over two generations that consent is essential to change how Britain governs itself is old hat, but one fundamental part of the Britain we knew cannot so easily be overruled – being polite.
Seeking the consent of the British people for an independence referendum or any other major change in our political system is not a matter of politics but common courtesy. Britain was asked in 1992 and said No; Britain was ignored in 2012 when it would most likely have said Yes. If there is one thing to rouse the average British citizen from his apathy it is being taken for granted!
Parliament’s error was not to decide that independence was a matter for Scotland alone; the error was not to ask.
The Bubble’s stranglehold on debate
The Scottish people were sold a pup. Why were the Scottish voters allowed to enter the polls ignorant of these risks? Anger by Scots voters at the flaw in the referendum should perhaps be directed at the political leaders of all the main parties and the media. It is the role of journalists and the media to question and challenge their politicians. They failed to spot this flaw in the process. And the politicians? Both sides also ignored the problem. The assumption of consent and the apathy of the electorate outside Scotland convinced the political elite North and South of the border and on both sides of the Yes/No divide that the referendum was safe from challenge. All were inside “the Bubble” – the place where only those who are part of the political club are allowed a voice (Twitter and Facebook allow us all to speak, but not be heard); where only the issues that fit within the narrow confines of their political imagination can be discussed.
The increasing popular frustration with the Bubble was beginning to affect the political structures that had ruled the country since the Great War. Only months before the referendum, the Bubble dismissed those, predominantly in England, who were concerned about the levels of immigration and voting for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) as essentially racist. The justified rage that genuine concerns over issues such as housing, jobs and schools could be so arrogantly ignored fuelled UKIP support until eventually the Bubble had to grudgingly engage in debate on immigration. In Scotland, frustrations with a Westminster Establishment perceived as English, private-school educated, Tory and pursing policies beyond Thatcher, fuelled the Yes campaign. Nonetheless, the leaders of both Yes and No campaigns also failed to acknowledge any issue with the validity, if not the strict legality, of the referendum.
Had there been consent for an independence referendum from the whole of the UK, as with devolution, there could have been no argument with the democratic process. The author would have been the first into the trenches to defend the Yes voters if the UK had ignored a Yes vote where the UK had given its consent at the ballot box. The author would give his life for family, democracy and Great Britain, in that order. If Great Britain was to die from the will of the British people then that would have to be respected no matter how heart breaking.
English Votes for English Laws (“EVEL”)
The latest development in this chaos is a committee of English MPs to be formed with the power to veto legislation deemed to be for England alone. Thus would English votes be cast for English laws. This committee would be an embryonic English Parliament. At least the Conservative Party manifesto in 2010 alluded to this:
“A Conservative Government will introduce new laws so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.” (p.84)
So ingrained has this unnoticed new power to make constitutional decisions without seeking the approval of the electorate become that when the proposals were announced, some Conservative MPs called for immediate implementation through parliamentary standing orders.
The greatest tragedy was that there was no public debate. Politicians on all sides of the border and political spectrum and the media must share responsibility.
The democratic choice available to UK voters on i) devolution at every general election from 1974 to 1997, ii) on joining Europe from 1959 to 1974, and iii) on Proportional Representation in Liberal and Liberal Democrat manifestos since the dawn of time (as well as an actual referendum on PR in 2011), was denied on independence.