Thursday 16 November 2017

Martin Shipton’s preface to the booklet: ‘Towards Federalism and Beyond...’

Martin Shipton is a political author and the Chief Reporter for Media Wales. This guest post is taken from his preface to the series of essays included in the publication.

There are those who would have us believe that the discussion of constitutional questions represents little more than a diversion for those who shy away from confronting the real concerns of ordinary people. Politicians in that camp will tell you that when they canvass voters, hardly anyone mentions the constitution. Instead, they want to talk about ‘bread and butter’ issues like jobs, the cost of living, the health service and their children's education – as well as more parochial concerns like parking and street-cleaning.

To a degree this is correct, of course. It's natural for people to be preoccupied by fundamental issues like having enough money for a decent life, and the expectation that public services will be of a certain standard. Yet it's disingenuous to suggest that ordinary people are neither affected by nor interested in constitutional issues. Last year a higher proportion of voters participated in the UK's EU referendum than in any General Election since 1992. What question could be more constitutionally focussed than whether the UK should be in or out of the European Union?

Throughout British history, constitutional questions have been closely linked to putting right material injustices. The Chartists, for example, had no doubt that improving the lot of ordinary people could not be split off from constitutional aims like extending the ballot. ‘Sovereignty’ may not in itself put food on the table, but the referendum Leave campaign was able to garner support by making the concept resonate with many who wouldn't, if asked, define it as a constitutional concern.

It was a sense of injustice that drove people to campaign for devolution in Scotland and Wales. And now, concerns over the EU (Withdrawal) Bill focus on what would be another injustice: a power-grab by the UK Government at the point of Brexit. Despite the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, there is a sense felt by many that the UK is not functioning well. Current arrangements are showing the strain, and the voices for change are getting louder.

Action to deliver reform will not take place automatically, however. The propensity for inertia must not be underestimated. We like to think of ourselves as living in a well-developed democracy, yet one of the UK Parliament's two Houses remains wholly unelected by the people and is composed entirely of individuals who are the beneficiaries of past or present patronage. This is hardly a good advertisement for British democracy, yet attempts to get rid of such a constitutional travesty have been a complete failure.

We can either bury our heads in the sand and pretend that things can carry on as they are – the approach largely adopted by the current UK Government. Or we can listen to those who put forward reasoned proposals for change. The suggestions to be found in this series of essays by a new, self-styled ‘Gang of Four’ are motivated by the desire to see greater fairness in the way we are governed. In this respect, they form part of a long and honourable tradition, and deserve to be taken seriously.

While the present UK Government will be reluctant to take any of the proposals forward, there are indications that a future Labour-led government would be open to examining the case for constitutional change.

These essays are helping to prepare the ground…