In defence of piecemeal…

For years Liberal Democrats have made the case for comprehensive reform of our constitution. We seek a fully federal settlement for the United Kingdom; constitutionally guaranteed decentralisation; fair votes; a democratic second chamber; prerogative power curbed other than as expressly given by Parliament; inalienable human rights.

Across the parties, many of us signed up 26 years ago to Charter 88 to realise a full package of these aims. The Charter itself lamented that existing British “constitution…encourages a piecemeal approach to politics”. It called for a comprehensive new settlement.

Yet today we have to consider what advances have been achieved by ‘piecemeal’ reform. The Human Rights Act (vulnerable though it is) is a significant part of British life; freedom of information was established, and then expanded by the Coalition; there are fair votes in all elections save for the House of Commons and for English and Welsh local government; devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has begun the “equitable distribution of power between local, regional and national government”.

In the face of all these reforms, conservative reaction has been to resist and then, with snail-like reluctance, to retreat. Witness the hard fought, last ditch rear-guard actions of the hereditaries to the Blair government’s removal of much of their number in 1998/99. Their watch word was always as little as possible, as slowly as possible.

Yet now there is a new strategy, promoted especially enthusiastically by the ultra-conservatives to be found on the Labour benches in the Lords. Their tactic is to demand a comprehensive, all embracing Constitutional Convention, before ANY more modest individual improvements are to be agreed. For example, their argument goes, there should be no progress at all on the method by which members of the Lords get there until ALL other outstanding constitutional issues have been successfully addressed.

The Labour Leader in the Lords was at it again earlier this week, in responding to the statement on further devolution in England. Her plea for an end to incremental reform is a seductive excuse for ever extending delay.

Whatever consistent advocates of a comprehensive written constitution (and I am one) think, many of these more recent recruits to our cause have a destructive agenda: they simply hope to delay ALL reforms for as long as possible. For that reason, while we Lib Dems must support a Constitutional Convention too (and it is party policy), we must also be adamant in ensuring its remit and timetable are sufficiently tight.

And we should not kid ourselves that ‘piecemeal’ is always bad. For example, the extension of the franchise has always been a matter of successive incremental progress. The 2014 example of this – the inclusion of 16/17 year olds – is especially relevant. This year all the substantial progress towards Votes at 16 would have been vanquished if those who said nothing must be done until everything is done had had their way.

With an Electoral Commission report finding this week that turnout in the Scottish referendum was higher among 16-17 year olds than among the broader 18-34 cohort, the case for moving further has been strengthened immeasurably. So much so that David Cameron has made two concessions on the point just in this last month, first agreeing to our Liberal Democrat amendments to the Wales Bill which will allow Welsh 16 and 17 year olds to vote in a future referendum there, then again in relation to Scottish parliamentary and local elections.

Without our former Scotland Secretary, Michael Moore, having been willing to contemplate an extension just for the Scottish referendum, this progress would not have been made – piecemeal or otherwise. So on that thought, I wish all LDV readers a Happy Christmas and best wishes for an evolutionary New Year!

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