The Union of 1707 and the art of the deal

For Scotland, Britain was built upon a bargain. Renewing that bargain needs England to engage

Scottish exemplification of the Treaty of Union. Public domain: sourced from Wikimedia Commons

One way or another, devolution as an idea and a reality has a long history in the United Kingdom. The issue of Irish Home Rule pushed the UK’s constitutional norms to its limit (and far beyond in Ireland). Devolution had an unhappy 50-year history in Northern Ireland until 1972. Calls for a Scottish legislature surfaced many times before one was finally created.

Nonetheless, Scottish (and Welsh) devolution in 1999 was a radical act with radical implications. Some who wish to keep the UK together regret it, at least within Great Britain. The devo-sceptics often paint it as an ahistorical rupture. But the historical backdrop to devolution is far from the most important sense in which it reflects a unionist tradition. And their objections miss both the need for a democratic expression of Scottish distinctiveness and two of the hardest challenges the Union faces now.

A new variation on an old theme

Britain was built upon a bargain. Scottish politicians secured Scotland’s distinctiveness in religion, law and administration, along with free trade throughout the new kingdom and its colonies. It was an incorporating union, with one parliament at Westminster. But it was altogether unlike the Tudor Laws in Wales Acts. The legislation of 1536 and 1543 incorporated Wales into the Kingdom of England. The Union of 1707 created a composite state, with a composite nation grafted on over time. Britain in its modern sense was forged in an Anglo-Scottish crucible.

That fact has expressed itself in different ways at different times. In the eighteenth century, the Church of Scotland, the Convention of Royal Burghs and local elites played their parts. The old Scottish Office was set up as far back as 1885 and expanded as the years went by. The Church of Scotland Act 1921 effected a compromise between an anti-Erastian Kirk and a sovereign Parliament. The UK never really had one National Health Service. The Tories stood as Unionists in Scotland until 1965. (They fought elections in the 1950s pledging to protect Scottish distinctiveness against socialist centralisation.)

Legislative devolution is different, because it creates an autonomous centre of political power. But it’s still in a long line of accommodations between the British state and the Scottish nation. It’s also a balance to English preponderance within the Union. It isn’t different because British politicians made a terrible mistake. It’s different because it’s a response for a democratic rather than an oligarchic age.

I doubt Britain could ever have avoided giving Scottish distinctiveness democratic expression. (And I don’t think it should. Devolution made good democratic sense.) But two consequences are, in my view, particularly underappreciated.

Shrinking, but not improving, the British state

First, unlike previous measures, devolution does nothing to make how the British state itself operates more appealing to Scots. It only reduces the scope of its activities. But despite the role of Scottish MPs, British politics became less Scottish over time. Devolving more powers often made sense in policy terms. But it also took up all the political space marked ‘reducing Scottish discontent’.

UK governments show little interest in recognising a devolved role at the centre. The Welsh Government’s call for a UK Council of Ministers falls on deaf ears. They show no sign of, say, thinking creatively about our second chamber. (Why, unlike almost any other state with a territorial challenge, don’t we even discuss some extra seats for the smaller nations in a reformed Lords?) And the current UK Government seems determined to undermine the conventions on which devolution rests.

Pushing the Union’s balancing act into the limelight

Second, as a new political system within the UK, devolution means politicians — and political noise. It has made the balancing act on which the Union of 1707 relies conspicuous outwith Scotland. That hasn’t been the case most of the time. But whether devolution is ‘fair to England’ is now a live question, with major consequences.

A century before the Union of the Parliaments, James VI’s Scottish courtiers attracted the ire of some English MPs. The spasm of Scotophobia surrounding Britain’s first Scottish Prime Minister is well-known. ‘Into our places, states, and beds they creep/They’ve sense to get, what we want sense to keep’ was only its most famous expectoration. But that kind of thing declined as the Union bedded in. And England mostly paid little attention to how Westminster acknowledged Scotland’s distinctiveness. That has clearly changed.

Symmetry versus balance

Anyway, reforming a democratic UK so the devolved nations feel they have more of a stake needs proper consent in England. As a result, tackling the first problem means facing the second head-on. And the view that fairness lies in symmetry — embodied in ‘English votes for English laws’ — will crash headlong into the view that the UK needs to balance England’s size.

Neither view is objectively wrong. But taken to their logical conclusion, the two are incompatible. Many in Scotland take too little account of the fact that the rest of the UK is not a mere backdrop for Scotland’s debate. But most people in England — understandably, as almost no one has suggested otherwise — don’t grasp that the debate involves them too.

One way to look at the American Revolution is to say the British and their colonists were each confronted by the other’s real view of their relationship. The British idea of parliamentary sovereignty over the Empire and the colonial view of their legislatures’ rights within it had diverged. And pitted against each other, they proved incompatible.

There is a risk of something similar nearer home. But I don’t believe the gap between English and Scottish understandings of the state we share can hold forever, unarticulated and unaddressed, in a democratic era. Any modern Union bargain for Scotland will have to combine a high degree of self-rule with a fair degree of shared rule. Those are core features of federalism, whether the UK can ever be remade into a federation or not.

I don’t know whether the people of England would agree to anything like that or what they might want in return. But in the long run, the survival of the Anglo-Scottish bargain may depend upon their answer.

This post was originally published on on 21 February 2021.

Politics and the peerage

You’ll never get politics out of the Lords, and nor should you. The problem isn’t including politics — it’s excluding voters

The House of Lords: not all that much more democratic than it looks. UK Parliament, CC BY 3.0.

Lords appointments have been something of a (slow-burning and highly secondary) theme over the past few months. A number of Boris Johnson’s appointments have raised eyebrows. Notably, the Lords will now include Claire Fox — a former supporter of the IRA’s terror campaign who remains unrepentant, and whose inclusion remains unexplained and suspect. A number of Jeremy Corbyn’s final nominations were rejected. And today, Keir Starmer’s choice of peers has also attracted controversy.

Using peerages as patronage is nothing new

The appointment of Claire Fox is unusually egregious. Consistent commitment to our democratic process seems a pretty minimal requirement for life membership of our Parliament. (Even a show of repentance would be something.) But there’s nothing new about prime ministers appointing legislators-for-life for unedifying reasons. 58% of Margaret Thatcher’s appointments to the Lords were Conservatives, even in a chamber still hereditary-dominated and Tory-skewed. Controversy periodically dogged Blair’s Lords appointments. The speed at which the Coalition expanded the House made experts tear their hair out.

None of this is surprising. The House of Lords ultimately plays second fiddle to the Commons. But it’s still a lawmaking body, and governments often make concessions to it. Lords appointments are a huge source of power — but peers don’t get anything like the same scrutiny as MPs. Voters tend, in the main, to forget or at least deprioritise the Lords. As a result, there’s every incentive to put your people in, even if the appointments do the House no credit, and little downside to doing so.

The Lords became more influential in the New Labour years. It continued to be more assertive under the Coalition. And since 2015, the Conservatives have had their first experience of single-party government with no particular advantage in the second chamber. Their tendency to menace it whenever it gets a bit uppity shows they don’t like it one little bit. But on the whole, the surprise isn’t that unedifying appointments get made: the surprise is that prime ministers show any restraint at all.

Nominations mean patronage, and mitigation is hard

We could do a bit to reduce the problem. We could agree a formula for sharing out Lords appointments, taking the partisan makeup of the House out of prime ministers’ hands. We could beef up vetting by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Wakeham Commission on Lords reform even envisaged the Commission appointing party-political, not just independent, members of the Lords (except for a few elected members). Labour rejected this at first: it came round in 2007, before moving (in theory) to an elected second chamber.

It should be a no-brainer that prime ministers shouldn’t be able to skew the makeup of the second chamber. And few would object to tougher vetting of peers, if we take it as read that we the people get no say in their appointment. The first would be a real step forward; the second might at least help address some of the most egregious appointments.

But how far can vetting go? What is our working definition of ‘improper’ beyond the most egregious cases? If we want it to tackle the wider issue of political patronage, then how? Is the Appointments Commission meant to assess if Johnson, or indeed Starmer, is giving too many peerages to his factional allies? If we exclude politicians and their advisers, how many members with no political history and capacity to serve can parties rustle up? And do we actually want that anyway? Post-Brexit Britain will need to get better at lobbying EU institutions now it’s given up its voice in them. Do we really want to ban former MEPs from the Lords?

Going further and letting the Appointments Commission choose party as well as Crossbench peers may or may not prove tenable. I very much doubt a less deferential age would take its bona fides on trust. The experience of the ‘people’s peers’ hardly inspires confidence in the public credibility of any such model. Britain’s parties have enough difficulty respecting the independence of the judiciary. I doubt they’ll defer to a quango telling them who will represent them in the Lords with no recourse.

A House of Experts: tricky in practice, dubious in principle

Of course, you might try and remove parties altogether. In Canada, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are trying to do just that. Their aim is a non-partisan Senate, with an independent Board to advise (though not bind) prime ministers on appointments. The idea is to restore the Senate’s role as a chamber of ‘sober second thought’, with a less partisan and more independent-minded approach than the Commons.

Some accounts do suggest this has partly happened. Individual Independent Senators are often distinguished. But fairly or unfairly, their independence from the Liberals remains disputed. (Some Senators left the Independent Senators Group over this question.) The Government had to create a caucus of of three to handle its Bills. Ex-Liberal Senators formed their own Progressive Senators Group, which some Independents have joined. The Conservatives continue to oppose the principle. Whether it’ll bed down I don’t know. I think we can already say it won’t quell (admittedly ill-fated) calls for wider Senate reform.

In any case, I’d argue the whole concept is dubious in democratic principle. This is especially true if all members are non-partisan, denying voters any say over the makeup of the Lords. On what basis should a politically unaccountable body have such power over policymaking in the round? How should it decide how much weight to accord diplomacy, defence, development, law, economics, business, trade unions and welfare?

Weighing these things up is exactly what we have politics for. It’s not just that the Lords never will be a dispassionate chamber of experts: it actually shouldn’t be. Parliaments need politics, lawmaking isn’t an academic seminar — and frankly, the whole notion reeks of anti-politics to me. Independent appointments seem manageable for 20–25% of peers, whether or not you approve. It’s quite different if a quango decides which policy priorities we get to hear in half the legislature.

Patronage with or without a public say: take your pick

The House of Lords plays far too big a role in our legislative process to be removed from the political arena, even if such a thing were desirable. More radical Lords reformers are often charged with a lack of realism. But those who believe the Commons will up its game enough to remove the need for an active second chamber any time soon must be more utopian still.

In practice, that means there’s a fairly clear-cut choice. Parties will seek to get their people into both chambers of Parliament. The way they do that can involve the voters, or it can exclude them. If you opt for the latter, then yes, you may get some experts you wouldn’t get if they had to go on the campaign stump. You’ll also get MPs who’ve lost their seats, party leaders’ favoured sons and daughters and others who offend your sensibilities. And you will be able to do nothing about it.

I admit it: for me, no one should sit in Parliament unless the voters put them there, as a matter of principle. I want the second chamber to provide a stronger check on government and a balance for the smaller nations in our (imperilled) union state. So I was never attracted to some sub-Platonic chamber of experts anyway. But I also think it’s a pipe dream. If you reject letting the voters decide, then in the main, party leaders will decide for you.

This post was originally published on on 16 August 2020.

Crowning complexities

I used to be a convinced republican. I’ve concluded it’s more trouble than it’s worth

The Crown of Scotland on display as the Queen opens Holyrood. Scottish Parliament, CC BY 2.0.

I’ve had republican instincts for a long time. A hereditary monarchy is inherently questionable if you’re on the left. The symbolism of choosing a head of state by inheritance challenges egalitarian values. As a constitutional reformer, the Crown seemed to be the apex of a system in need of reform from root to branch.

As I got older, I became an ever-lazier republican. And without quite noticing when it happened, I’ve accepted I’ve become a pragmatic monarchist. I’ll never be an enthusiastic royalist. But I’ve come to accept that the constitutional, diplomatic and national consequences of abolishing the Crown are too tricky.

The Crown is a constitutional conduit: replacing it is a big deal

Most people think of the Queen as a ceremonial figurehead — a symbol without any power. Some republicans (and other reformers) see her as holding enormous and unaccountable power. The better view, I think, is something else again. The Crown is a conduit of authority: a human valve through which much of the business of the state flows.

When and on what grounds the flow can be blocked — rarely, but not never — exercises lawyers and scholars. British monarchs have never actually refused formal advice in modern history. Sometimes the Brexit process raised the question of where the line might be. Governors-General in other countries have exercised reserve powers. The most (in)famous is Australia’s Dismissal of 1975.

The system would change if its office-holders’ views of their legitimacy changed. The Queen knows her limits. Inserting someone with a democratic mandate into the same system could turn it into something quite different. But if the Prime Minister hired and fired our head of state, that would neuter our ultimate constitutional longstop.

Having a monarch as our constitutional longstop rather than proper safeguards is not ideal. But I have given up on hoping British politicians will ever tackle our constitution in the round. And if they won’t, I don’t want to create a semi-presidential system by mistake. Nor do I wish to remove the only hard check, in extremis, upon a Prime Minister with a majority.

Other Commonwealth Realms would face a constitutional quagmire

She lives in the UK, but the Queen is head of state in 15 other countries. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, one Crown became several over time. The newer Realms started with separate monarchies. The last one to become a republic was Mauritius, in 1992; since then, three have voted against doing the same.

It’s not surprising that the Crown is a more contentious institution outside of the UK. Elizabeth II and Emmanuel Macron are the only heads of state of more than one independent country. Heads of state are national symbols: most countries have their own for a reason. Still, whether due to inertia, divisions over the alternatives or affection for the Queen, we’re likely to share our head of state for years to come.

If we became a republic, Australia and New Zealand would stay monarchies unless they chose otherwise. Most Realms would face a paradox: a head of state with a succession set by UK law which no longer provided for it. (Canada occupies an intermediate and contentious position.) Resolving the issues would usually be tricky. In Canada, all provinces would have to agree to abolish the office of the Queen and/or Governor General. Australia requires a referendum with a majority of people and states (which would have to move to republican models too). Papua New Guinea needs a two-thirds majority of its National Assembly. And so on.

These are all Westminster systems and their Crowns are a conduit of authority like our own. Deciding how and whether to preserve a similar balance raises the same sorts of questions as it would in the UK. (It can raise others. The balance of power between the Australian Commonwealth and states is one example.) In the end, we have the right to decide how we choose our head of state. But I don’t relish creating 15 constitutional nightmares for others to deal with.

What’s in a name? If you’re pro-Union, you’d be surprised

When Charles III accedes, I suspect we’ll be startled by how long it takes us to get used to the shift in everyday speech. ‘God Save the Queen’, Her Majesty’s Government, Queen’s Counsel, the Queen’s Speech, the Queen’s English, ‘By appointment to Her Majesty’, ‘Boris lied to the Queen’: our form of government courses through our language.

The problem runs deeper still. Forty-four independent states have monarchies, but only the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s sole undisputed name depends on keeping one. ‘Great Britain’ is clearly incorrect. We argue about whether ‘Britain’ denotes the British state, Great Britain or either. And as for replacing ‘United Kingdom’, ‘United Republic’ (deeply clunky), ‘Commonwealth’ (repellent to Irish nationalists) and ‘Union’ (oddly syndicalist) all feel wrong. Cutting it to ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ makes us sound like a longer (and just as temporary) version of the old Serbia and Montenegro.

This matters, because our fuzziness is a function of our formation. Britain stems from a quirk of inheritance: James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, and when the Union of the Parliaments took place in 1707 Scotland was in a position to negotiate. The Anglo-Scottish bargain produced a British rather than a greater English polity. There’s no way to know how a greater English polity would have related to Ireland, in particular. But our Britishness relied on a Scottish dynasty acceding to an English throne.

As a result, our monarchy provided vital scaffolding for state-building. The potential rows over why non-English heads of state win so (in)frequently display the upside of a monarch in our multinational nation. It’s not a coincidence that we’re the last European country to continue with coronations. It’s also striking that over half the world’s monarchies had some link with the British.

Not all absurdities are worth unpicking

The UK and Japan are the developed constitutional monarchies for whom the shock of republicanism would prove most profound. There was a time when I’d have seen that as the point. For me, the appeal of republicanism remains the egalitarian principle and looking at our constitution in the round.

I remain, generally, a reformer. I want a proportional House of Commons and a democratic second chamber. I want an end to local councils where one party wins every seat. I’d like to see more checks and balances in our constitution. I’d still like core aspects entrenched to protect them against an overweening executive.

Perhaps I’ve got older, or the past few years have made me more aware of what you can lose as well as gain. But I’ve concluded that, for better or worse, the monarchy underpins too much of our basic structure for fundamental tampering to be worth the risk. If someone can avoid either creating a powerful head of state or abolishing a constitutional check, forestall a 16-fold diplomatic quagmire and prevent picking at the bonds between the home nations, I’ll listen. Until then, I’ll leave the Crown alone.

This post was originally published on on 23 February 2020.

Trashing the BBC comes at a price

Progressives should defend public service broadcasting. Flirting with the anti-BBC lobby has helped imperil it

Hatgate: one of the more ludicrous pieces of anti-BBC hysteria.

For a certain sort of Brit, the NHS and the BBC have long been at or near the top of their list of things to be proud of about their country. They’re both big public institutions which everyone in the UK knows. Their existence speaks to some of the core values of the left. They show that not everything should be left to the market, shared institutions matter and public provision can be popular.

The BBC produces a huge amount of high-quality content of all kinds — news, drama and TV. It makes lots of stuff I’d never want to hear or watch, and quite right too: it’s not supposed to just appeal to me or people like me. But because it’s not driven by market imperatives, it produces things I doubt I’d ever get to see or hear without it. It provides common coverage across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — a pan-UK public arena. It supports local journalists around the country. It’s an enormous soft power asset for the country and a news source people in dictatorships have listened to in secret. I’d be horrified to see it go.

Governments always have an uneasy relationship with the BBC. That’s natural enough: journalists are meant to be a thorn in governments’ side. One of the licence fee’s plus points is that it’s not general taxation, so the tension’s reduced a bit: it’s not a direct case of biting the hand that feeds you. But rows about what the BBC does, how it does it, whether it reports fairly and so on are nothing new.

What is new is a government as determinedly hostile to the BBC as Boris Johnson’s. Their hostility extends to public service broadcasting more generally and fits a wider pattern. Today’s Conservatives seem hostile to scrutiny and independent institutions in a way which goes beyond the norm. Threatening Channel 4’s licence in retaliation for empty-chairing the Prime Minister and the ongoing boycott of the Today programme both set an unnerving tone. Proposing to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee has far more to do with an anti-BBC agenda than its (dubious, in my view) policy merits.

Faced with the possibility — hinted at before the election, floated by the former Culture Secretary and trailed in this week’s Sunday Times — of actually moving towards a subscription model and slashing the BBC to the bone, the Opposition should be rallying to its defence. Frankly, if Labour can’t even defend the world’s best broadcaster and one of our great public institutions, I’m not sure what the point of it is.

Sadly, most of its would-be deputy leaders haven’t got the memo. Ian Murray was an honourable exception. But Angela Rayner said she was ‘no big fan of the BBC’. Richard Burgon referred to the BBC ‘misreporting’ the news. And reaching the real nadir, Dawn Butler said ‘in a way, I thought “OK, that will teach you”’. They all went on to support the principle of a public broadcaster. But it’s more than a little reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘seven, seven and a half out of ten’ response on how strongly he felt about not leaving the EU.

You don’t have to claim the thing you’re backing is perfect. But in politics, you can’t sound lukewarm about which side you’re on when the chips are down. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s comments on a ‘People’s BBC’ this weekend were equally unhelpful. For a start, electing BBC ‘top brass’ is an atrocious idea. It’s a recipe for a hideous battle of obsessives and special interest groups in an inevitably low-turnout election. It’s also a road to politicising the BBC — the exact opposite of what it needs and the public wants.

It used to be mainly the right which trashed the BBC — their self-interest is clear, given a print media far more congenial to its views. Many Scottish nationalists joined in with vim after 2011 — and as the BBC’s very existence embodies the British public space they want to abolish, that’s not too surprising either. But Long-Bailey’s wheeze (not without precedent: a number of Corbynite politicians mutter about ‘democratising the BBC’) and would-be deputy leaders’ curmudgeonliness fit a pattern.

Triggered by the hard left but abetted by much of the soft left, Labour and many of its members have sounded increasingly hostile to free media per se. It’s gone far beyond reasonable discussion of concentrated ownership — booing journalists, the harrying of Laura Kuenssberg, bringing up media reform as a reaction to unfavourable coverage. And with a characteristic blend of zest for public control and suspicion of the actually-existing public realm, the BBC has become a bête noire. The self-parodying row over whether the BBC doctored the appearance of Jeremy Corbyn’s hat to make it look ‘more communist’ was a case in point.

Faced with a pincer movement like this, you’d think the centre and centre-left would be loud in defence of a core public institution. They should fear what wrecking one of the last bulwarks against a retreat to rival echo chambers might mean. And in fairness, the Liberal Democrats have been clear where they stand in recent weeks. But far too many self-defining centrists have not, usually as a result of Brexit. Dawn Butler’s ‘that’ll teach you’ has its counterparts. Andrew Adonis advocating a subscription model and even calling for the BBC to be in court for giving Brexiteers a platform) is a case in point. AC Grayling offers a daily exemplar.

Together with a stonking Tory majority, the result is a better climate for an assault on public service broadcasting than ever before. Britain is not Twitter, of course: plenty of Conservative voters value the BBC. Unease is spreading on the Tory benches. It’s not a foregone conclusion at all. But Opposition parties — and campaigners — need to stop making the Government’s job easier.

Yes, the BBC can merit criticism. I think it’s too inclined to juxtapose factual claims rather than evaluate their truth. I think it struggles to deal with a level of political dishonesty and bad faith we mostly haven’t had to deal with until fairly recently. I sometimes roll my eyes at solecisms in policy areas I know about. At the last election, I think it was too quick to frame an initially much more multiparty contest as a battle between the big two. Its reaction to Samira Ahmed’s totally justified complaint was dire. Some of its journalists should probably just tweet less.

But there’s a difference between constructive criticism and wholesale trashing. Criticise the BBC’s calls on election coverage: don’t say it ‘decided not to be impartial’. Argue for it to be bolder in challenging factual untruths: don’t call it the Brexit Biased Corporation. And recognise that a public service broadcaster’s job involves giving space to views you don’t like, not just playing your worldview back to you.

Because if the BBC becomes a British PBS for lack of champions, Britain will be far poorer for it. The scrutiny of government will weaken. And if you’re on the left or in the liberal centre, you really won’t like the media world you’ll get once the BBC’s brought low.

This post was originally published on on 17 February 2020.

Revisiting representation

It is hard to overstate how large a challenge to the parliamentary system the EU referendum result represents. Around three quarters of MPs judged that the UK was better off in the EU. But despite their judgment, our economic and geopolitical compass is being reset.

Our current predicament is a perfect demonstration of the problems of plebiscitary democracy grafted onto parliamentary systems. Using a referendum to validate a permanent, crucial step a government wishes to take is one thing. Sometimes the people should authorise a change in the rules of the political game as well as Parliament.

But here, a government offered a dramatic change it deemed profoundly unwise, with no plan for how to do it. It didn’t have a plan for Brexit, because it didn’t want Brexit. It couldn’t offer a prospectus, because any Brexit deal depends on the views of our EU partners as much as our own. That’s not its fault. But there wasn’t even a negotiating pitch to scrutinise. The Scottish referendum in 2014 abounded with dubious assertions. The Scottish Government’s White Paper was full of holes. But at least the holes were there to be picked.

In 2016, we were offered a promised land without any Moses tasked with getting us there. The unreality, the wilful dishonesty about what can and cannot be done, continues to this day. And in the name of democracy — in the name of the people — attempts to expose that are being delegitimised by government. The public were promised the chance to take back control from Brussels. Instead, the Government has taken yet more control from a cowed Parliament.

Defending parliamentarism

So as many have said, we need to stand up for parliamentary democracy. We elect people rather than choosing policies directly for good reason. Government is not a series of on-off and one-off decisions: policies need to be pursued over time and there are many variations. Further, policies intersect with each other. Deciding everything separately and giving priority to everything ultimately decides and prioritises nothing. (Electing people to run one particular service is a bad idea for similar reasons.) Representative democracy requires policy to be discussed: as we’ve seen, referendums can serve to prevent that.

Parliament needs to reassert itself, and we all need to reassert some of the basic principles of a parliamentary system. Parliament has every right to be forceful in shaping how the EU referendum result is implemented. The referendum answered one question. It didn’t give our new Prime Minister some unchallengeable, quasi-telepathic insight into ‘the will of the people’. And MPs have a perfect right to make a judgment their voters don’t like and judged in their turn at an election.

A parliament of representatives?

But if we want parliamentarians to do that, we need to make representative democracy work better and broaden its reach. We need to look at how our parliament works. The public rejected the (non-proportional) Alternative Vote in 2011. We’re unlikely to get another shot at voting reform soon. But our current Parliament’s make-up makes it harder for the public mood to be reflected through representatives rather than referendums.

By that, I don’t mean first past the post isn’t proportional and that’s a bad thing, though it isn’t and, in my view, that is. I mean that major changes in voting behaviour are stifled and points of view go unheard in the national debate for too long. Sometimes that means we ignore grievances for too long. Other times it means we respond to them too uncritically, because we didn’t argue with them openly.

Take the rise of UKIP. The obvious point, from a reformer’s point of view, is that for a party to win an eighth of the votes and one solitary MP is simply unjust. I agree. Others would counter that UKIP’s rise has nonetheless had a profound effect on the behaviour of Labour and the Conservatives. Well, yes. But how transparent has that effect been? On one level it sounds admirably democratic: rather than producing a mishmash, listen to UKIP voters and address why they’re voting that way. But while a political party can often be wrong, the saying goes that voters never can be. So how do UKIP’s policies and beliefs get tested and held accountable on a daily basis, like mainstream parties’?

That should be happening in Parliament. There should be a UKIP Shadow Cabinet, UKIP Select Committee members, UKIP voices at Prime Minister’s Questions. Yes, that gives them a platform. So be it: when an eighth of voters speak, they have earned a platform for their chosen party. But it also incentivises — forces — the other parties to actually argue with UKIP, not just ignore it and then try to flatter its voters. Every so often it’d get its way, but then it seems quite capable of doing so without MPs.

Its presence in Parliament, if earned, could have been an early warning for Parliament. In 2004, I was all for allowing free movement from the new EU member states from day one. Strategically and economically, I stand by it: we kept and cultivated friends in eastern Europe and we were richer for it. But politically I was utterly, catastrophically wrong.

Now, it’s quite likely that the House of Commons elected in 2001 would have had a few UKIP (or Referendum Party, or whatever) MPs, probably not all in Conservative areas, to raise the alarm about enlargement. Perhaps we’d have responded by imposing transitional controls after all. Perhaps we wouldn’t have. But the early warning mechanism would have been there. We might not be leaving the European Union now.

What kind of reform?

Reform doesn’t have to mean some remote national list system where parties with 1% of the vote hold all business up. Quite the contrary: British traditions of constituency representation and keeping party HQs from having too much control over who ends up in Parliament matter. But the idea that these preclude anything but one system, with no nod to proportionality at all, is quite some straw man. It is quite possible, building on systems we’ve already used in the UK, to design a system which fits into our parliamentary culture.

The obvious choice would be an additional member system designed to fit British political culture. Most MPs would be elected as they are now. The other list MPs could be chosen through an open list, representing local areas — not huge regions. A system where an area the size of, say, Surrey has 6–7 constituency MPs and 4–5 county MPs really won’t fling us all into Israeli-style chaos. The electoral areas wouldn’t be big enough — though you could add a 4–5% threshold to make sure. And the number of county MPs per area would be small enough for voters to meaningfully choose individuals, not just parties.

This would mean an end to the days when 10% or 15% of voters were denied proper reflection of their views in Parliament. That includes people whose voting choices I don’t like, and quite right too. Parliament should be the cockpit of UK national debate. Robin Cook argued that if you wanted that to be the case, you should want Parliament’s hours to fit the print media news cycle. I’d argue you should also want Parliament to represent the major strands of political opinion in rough proportion to their size.

Our current system fails to deliver that basic requirement. It also makes it harder for the two largest parties to hear from voters outside their strongest areas. Not insurmountable, of course — Labour and the Conservatives have both managed it in their time — but harder. That matters because Labour voters in Surrey and Tory voters in Tyne and Wear should have some political representation they choose. But a fairer system would also give Surrey a voice in the Labour Party, and Tyne and Wear a voice in the Conservative Party.

Co-operative government

Of course, a sensible proportional system would probably require a party to win around 44–45% of the vote to get a majority on its own. With current voting patterns, parties would have to work together to govern. Quite right too. I can see how a party with 45% of the vote — even 40% — might claim, on a moderate platform, to represent the popular will. I cannot see 35%, which my own party won in 2005, as much of a mandate to govern alone.

There is no reason co-operative government must end voter control. Parties in coalition-prone countries are generally good at signalling their priorities in dealing with others. In fact, such evidence as we have suggests our parties aren’t much (or any) better at delivering their manifestos than the continentals! Junior partners in coalition get about the share of ministries their share of seats suggests, and the broad political complexion of the legislature is generally reflected in policies passed.

At the moment, UK parties second-guess which broad electoral coalitions 35%-40% of voters might prefer. In other countries, voters themselves send a broader range of political forces to Parliament and meaningfully control their relative strengths. So in Sweden, voters know the four parties which will work together on the centre-right. But they can alter the influence each party has within that bloc — a larger say for the Centre Party, say, or the Liberals.

To my mind, that compares rather well to the UK, where mainstream social democrats and liberal-minded conservatives are (for now) wholly unrepresented by party leaderships. No doubt uncompromising leftists and traditional conservatives felt the same a few years ago. Why not let the people themselves decide how much weight they wish to give both?

Mediating mandates

There’s a tension here between two principles many constitutional conservatives cherish. The first is the doctrine of the mandate itself. In UK mandate theory, a party goes to the country with a manifesto, wins a majority in the Commons and then enacts said manifesto. The argument runs: a majority single-party government is clearly in power, clearly responsible and clearly accountable.

The second is the idea of ‘government by discussion’. This is surely key if we want Parliament, not just government, to stand up for its right to make its own judgments. Decisions should be debated and considered in Parliament, and will be so more fully than most people wish to do themselves. MPs can then be held accountable for their judgment.

It’s pretty clear why these clash. The first implies policies will be pushed through smoothly and easily; the second implies they’ll be tested and scrutinised. Obviously, no one actually treats both as absolutes. But contrasts between a pure plurality mandate and muddled coalitions are therefore unhelpful. Yes, the ‘mandate’ is more diffuse in a proportional parliament. But it’s broader, and a culture of negotiation fits better with ‘government by discussion’.

More than that, it’s government by discussion, not unchallengeable mandates, we need to bolster now. It makes sense for governments which only reflect a minority of voters and parliaments where new views find it hard to get a seat at the table to use referendums, precisely to make a mandate unchallengeable. An over-obsession with the mandate, narrowly defined, is part of the disease, not the cure.

Just now, reasserting parliamentarism means reasserting the value of deliberation, discussion and debate. To do that, we need to make sure the main strands of opinion are properly represented in Parliament. I know constitutional conservatives won’t like this argument. But they of all people should remember the old quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

This post was originally published on on 13 March 2017.

Physician, heal thyself: Britain, democracy and the EU

The European Union is always slated as undemocratic (or anti-democratic). And its democratic credentials aren’t perfect: far from it. But the vast majority of EU legislation is passed by a directly elected Parliament and a Council representing 28 EU governments; the Commission President in 2014 was chosen on the back of the Parliament’s election results; and every Member State can appoint its own Commissioner. Further, if we have a problem with how democratic our relationship with the EU is or isn’t, shouldn’t we think about what we can do about it, rather than just moaning about Brussels?

You might think that improvements would all require Treaty change or unanimous consent from governments. But precisely because the EU actually isn’t an ultra-centralist state, there is actually quite a lot the UK could do on its own to make its MEPs and its government more accountable in Brussels.

European Parliament

The UK has 72 MEPs in the European Parliament: more than any other country except Germany and France. The British media loves to portray the Parliament as toothless and useless, but it actually has power and uses it. In 1999, it forced the resignation of the whole European Commission; in 2004-05, it radically watered down the Services Directive; in 2010, it rejected the SWIFT accord with the US until data protection changes were made. In 2014, it succeeded in ensuring that the leading candidate put forward in the European elections for Commission President got the job.

So the Parliament isn’t just a cypher. It’s not perfect: leaving the famous ‘single seat‘ issue aside, it’s hard to argue that most voters pick their MEPs on European issues. We don’t have a ‘European electorate’ voting on the issues the Parliament can affect, which inevitably affects its legitimacy. It’s probably also true that, especially with longer-serving MEPs, many tend towards a much more integrationist or federalist position than their voters at home (and, indeed, that of their national parties). The UK’s position in the European Parliament also suffers from the behaviour of many of its political parties.

The UK and its parties could and should do more, though, to both fix this and to re-engage with the Parliament. First, its political parties need to do more with the seats they’ve got in Brussels. In particular, one of David Cameron’s most stupid mistakes was to take his MEPs out of the main centre-right grouping in the Parliament (the EPP-ED at the time) and create a smaller, more right-wing and less influential group instead. Cameron said this needed to be done because the EPP was far more federalist than the British Conservatives, which indeed it is, but the Tories could already take a separate line on those issues, and the Parliament doesn’t get to decide on what powers the EU should have anyway. The result is that the UK has no direct influence on what the single largest bloc of MEPs does.

The fact that the UK now uses PR to elect its MEPs is a good thing and means that most voters have an MEP from a party they voted for. We have, however, managed to choose one of the worst possible forms of PR, meaning voters have no way to choose a particular candidate – so there’s no reward for constituency work, or raising issues voters care about in Brussels. If we don’t want to move towards the single transferable vote, we could at least have an open list system, so people can choose particular MEPs.

Finally, if we’re worried about MEPs ‘going native’, we might ask whether it’s really a good thing to have MEPs who can potentially spend 20 years in post (especially under a list system). I normally oppose term limits: re-election (or not) helps accountability. But if we’re worried about the gap between MEPs and their voters, and we know the public don’t tend to vote on European issues, then we might think about whether making sure they don’t spend too long in the Parliament might keep them more in touch with their constituents. I think this could be done within EU law – and even if we don’t want to put it in statute, political parties could try it out themselves, perhaps banning any candidate who has served in the last two terms from being selected again.

Council of Ministers

The Council is made up of ministers from each EU government. Like everyone else, the UK’s government is represented in all decisions which include the UK. Legislative sessions are held in public, though of course they very rarely hit the headlines. Of course, plenty of negotiating isn’t done in public – but that’s the nature of any deal-making anywhere, from the UN to the Good Friday Agreement.

Britain usually gets a compromise it’ll vote for – the share has fallen a bit in recent years, due partly to the relative lack of interest the UK Government has shown in building alliances since 2010, but the UK is still on the ‘winning side’ the vast majority of the time. In fact, governments agree unanimously most of the time – and the more a government cares, the less willing others are to override it. It’s true that in order to get what you want in the EU, you need friends and allies: it’s also true that Cameron’s Government has been notably inept on this front until very recently.

The most obvious solution is for the Government to re-engage, and to do it properly – not just in a crisis. The EU renegotiation shows that Cameron can do shuttle diplomacy: but it’s not good enough to do it at the last minute for one short-term objective. Blair’s government played its hand far better – promoting enlargement, generally taking much greater care to cultivate new EU members, working closely with France on security and defence and building stronger relations with Germany too. You might even argue it was too successful: by 2004-05, the French public and commentariat were fretting about l’Europe libérale or l’Europe anglo-saxone, with dramatic consequences.

If British governments need to play the game better, so do British parliamentarians. The House of Lords’ European Scrutiny Committee gets lots of credit for providing learned reports – but in terms of actual power, our MPs exercise relatively little control over their ministers’ actions in Brussels. That isn’t the EU’s fault: DenmarkFinland and others have EU Committees which can mandate their representatives, setting out negotiating remits and key priorities and involving Parliament in the decisions. We can debate how far to take it, but why can’t we do something similar? We have statements after meetings of the European Council: why can’t we have a ‘State of the EU’ debate every year, where the Government sets out its priorities at EU level – not permanently obsessing about where powers lie, but talking about what to do with them? If Eurosceptics feel power is moving away from Westminster, they need to make it better at watching what’s done in its name.

European Commission

The Commission, home of the famous ‘unelected bureaucrats’, probably takes more flak than any other institution. It’s worth just pointing out that governments nominate a Commissioner each: Jonathan Hill, the Commissioner with responsibility for financial services, was ours this time round. Further, the European Parliament actually managed a major coup in 2014, linking the choice of Commission President to the election results to the Parliament. The British parties failed to engage with the whole process, but Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment is more closely linked to (and, in fact, dependent on) an election result than any previous one.

Given that the President of the Commission is a major role, and since direct election clearly isn’t on the cards, British parties should engage more with the process of choosing Commission candidates. Last time, the Conservatives’ self-imposed isolation meant they had no role at all in the choice of a candidate; Labour scrabbled to try and find any alternative to Martin Schulz, without success. (Taking the process more seriously is important for all EU governments and national parties, not just the British: apart from anything else, more engagement might produce less uninspiring candidates.)

In the meantime, why can’t we do more to open up our choice of Commissioner to scrutiny? Could British MPs hold public hearings for candidates for the UK post? Could the House of Commons nominate or elect the British candidate? Again, the UK Government acts in this area with very little input from parliamentarians: and again, the issue is less to do with Brussels and more to do with MPs keeping their own ministers on a tighter leash.

Court of Justice

Finally, the European Court of Justice is often attacked by anti-Europeans. First, the principle: EU law needs a final court to arbitrate on its meaning. It is fundamental to the single market that, once we agree on rules, they apply throughout that market. Most cases aren’t referred to the ECJ, but EU-wide interpretation of the rules must be available if we don’t want the single market to become ever more nominal as different countries read the rules differently (and as one of the more conscientious rule-followers in the EU, we don’t). You can argue about its decisions, as with any court: but the principle remains.

The much-attacked primacy of EU law is part of the same principle. If you want rules to operate throughout the EU, they can’t be overruled by all conflicting national legislation: that way lies a self-destructing single market. In the UK, the primacy of EU law operates through the European Communities Act 1972, so the principle of parliamentary sovereignty remains intact: the courts disapply UK legislation where it conflicts with EU law, but by virtue of UK statute. Further, the primacy of EU law doesn’t mean the EU can legislate in all areas: it applies to EU law, which must be passed in areas where the EU actually has competence.

Ultimately, the role of the ECJ needs to be better understood. But if we want to talk about a more robust dialogue between UK courts and the ECJ, that may well be possible, perhaps through UK courts including a provisional opinion on cases referred to the ECJ more frequently, in addition to giving reasons for the reference. In a different (though often conflated) area, we’re already seeing a more robust dialogue between the UK Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. On further appeal, the Strasbourg court has often revised its view in line with our domestic courts.

Physician, heal thyself

The EU is and probably always will be, as long as it lasts, a mix of the supranational and the intergovernmental: directly-elected MEPs, EU courts and the Commission will rub along against governments in the Council of Ministers and the European Council. That means we have to consider democracy in two ways: yes, we need to question how democratic the EU institutions themselves are in themselves, but we also need to do much more to hold our own Government to account for what it does in our name.

There are, in fact, plenty of things we can do in the UK to make our relationship with the EU more democratic. The EU’s opponents cannot have it both ways: they talk about closed rooms and secret negotiations, but deals between sovereign governments always involve negotiation. It’s because the EU isn’t a superstate that we get this: intergovernmentalism requires wheeling, dealing and fudge. And if that’s your problem, you can look at the more ‘federal’ bits of the EU as an alternative, or you can do more to keep tabs on what your own government is doing in negotiations, or you can do a bit of both.

What you can’t do is just rail against the whole thing, with no alternative but disengagement. Any relationship with any other country will pose problems of transparency to a greater or lesser extent. It’s not just the EU: what about NATO, or the G8, or the WTO? In many ways, in or out of the EU, sovereignty is the right to a seat at the table: shouldn’t we be asking our Government more about what it does when it sits in the chair?

Lords in limbo: apply the Salisbury Convention in spirit as well as letter, please

Lords reform has been fairly heavily trailed for some time now, and we’ve had a bit more confirmation that the White Paper is on the way in the past couple of days. I’ll be glad to see the Government make headway on this: despite the outcome of the AV referendum, Lords reform has been a longstanding commitment from politicians of all parties and the evidence has always been pretty clear that a majority of the public believe our second chamber should be (at least predominantly) elected.

Personally, I think this really should be a fairly cut-and-dried issue. Members of the House of Lords are not primarily independent experts, sources of warnings or nods to tradition. These are all understandable things to want, and we ought to think much harder about how we integrate expertise into our legislative process, but they are not the primary role of the people who vote in the second chamber. They are, first and foremost, legislators – and legislators whose record of changing Bills and therefore policy is significant and growing. If we want expertise, we should make sure we have it in the right committees and the right debates for the right issues. (Could some experts even sit on Select Committees, in the Commons and in a new second chamber, as non-voting, co-opted members?)

The people who actually do make our laws should be democratically accountable. In an ideal world, therefore, we should finish up with nothing less than a 100% elected second chamber. I’m relatively relaxed about the finer points of STV versus open lists (lists where you can choose a candidate within a party list rather than just opting for a party): so long as it’s a proportional system where voters don’t just have to tick a party box, I’ll settle for it.

With regard to the likely plans to come from the Government: I’m not ecstatic about the idea of 15-year terms and I have fairly serious reservations about single terms – I think it’s an important principle that legislators should have to at least consider the possibility that they might want to face the electorate again, and if we’re serious about democracy then we have to accept that that requires accountability. Electing by thirds (or halves, or quarters) is sensible, though: our new Senate should be a more continuous body than the House of Commons, and a combination of PR and staggered elections would help to make sure it fits the bill. In terms of dealing with the current members of the Lords, I think an arrangement along the lines of the Cranborne deal might make sense – which would mean that we’d have 200 left in 2015, 100 left in 2020 and none by 2025 (when the full complement of Senators would have been elected).

But I’m enough of a pragmatist to understand that, if you want Lords reform at all, you can’t let the best be the enemy of the good. The fact that people haven’t recognised that is exactly why Lords reform hasn’t happened, even with a Labour government who said they wanted it in charge for 13 years. So if Nick Clegg can even secure an 80% elected second chamber, even with twelve voting bishops (though the latter will cause me real pain …) and even with all the other peers staying until 2025, then I’ll see that as a major step forwards and a real achievement. Of course, that depends on his Coalition partners voting it through. Whether the Conservatives will choose to live up to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Coalition Agreement remains to be seen: if they choose not to, no doubt Liberal Democrats will feel even more betrayed than many of them do already.

The other question is how fiercely the House of Lords will resist being reformed. Everyone seems to agree that they will fight tooth and nail against reform. I do appreciate that, when people find themselves on the red benches, they have an uncanny knack of seeing the wisdom of allowing the nation to carry on benefiting from their wisdom. The Cross Benches’ reluctance is understandable, given that there would undoubtedly be pretty few (if any) of them in a 100% elected second chamber and that their role would inevitably be questioned in an 80% elected one. In any case, the difficulties the Lords could cause for reform, and for large areas of Government business, are very substantial indeed.

It’ll eventually be a question of whether the Coalition has the political will to push change through, whether peers like it or not. But one thing I really don’t understand is: on what basis do the Lords think they have any right to derail this legislation at all?  All three main party manifestos called for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber. All parties have been reasonably clear, with some wobbling from the Conservatives in the past, that the second chamber would need to be elected by some sort of proportional system. In 2005, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also called for a wholly or majority elected second chamber too.

It seems to me that, if a pledge won the support of both parties in the Coalition when they went to the country (as well as the Opposition and a number of the smaller parties), we have a pretty clear case of the Salisbury Convention in action. I can see why the Lords might query some Coalition compromises in that regard: no one got to vote for the Coalition Agreement. But on this one, I just can’t see where the ambiguity lies. It was proposed: it was in the manifestos: it’s now in the process of being turned into a White Paper, and hopefully a Bill. If there’s any defence, it’s surely of the most technical kind. Where exactly did the Salisbury Convention include a bit saying the Lords didn’t have to apply it to their own seats?

Why I’m voting ‘Yes’ to AV

The AV referendum is probably going to be our last chance to express a view on how to choose our MPs for quite some time. I can’t see the issue coming back for about 20 years. So if you’re concerned about our democracy (or, indeed, if you’re delighted with it the way it is), the vote on 5 May is a crucial one.

Whichever side wins, one MP will still continue to represent each local area; whichever side wins, the voting system will be almost equally likely to deliver majority governments. We’re being asked, instead, which of two options is the fairer way of choosing our (single) local MP.

On that basis, in the full knowledge that the question here is AV versus FPTP and independently of the chances of any further reform, I’m hoping for a ‘Yes’ vote – and for what they’re worth, here are my main reasons:

1. With AV, a local MP will better reflect local people’s views

AV will make sure your MP’s views are nearer the real centre of gravity in your local area – and prevent a cohesive minority, who don’t really reflect most people’s views, from taking over instead.

For instance, imagine a seat where the Conservatives win 35% of the vote, Labour win 30%, the Greens win 25% and the Liberal Democrats and Socialists both win 5%. Leave aside the fact that the Tories only got 35% of the vote: as a matter of pure common sense, looking at the political consensus in this area, would a Tory victory really be a fair reflection of how most people voted?  It would be the same if Labour won 35%, the Tories won 30%, UKIP won 25% and the Lib Dems and English Democrats both won 5%. In both cases, FPTP delivers the seat to a party who is strongly opposed by most voters: AV would fix that.

2. With AV, no citizen will have to fear voting for their real first choice and getting their last instead

A general election should be your chance to weigh up what different parties offer, look at local candidates and make an honest statement of preference. It’s the only chance you get to express your opinion on what kind of Britain you want and who you want in charge and, hopefully, have some bearing on the outcome.

But for too many people, elections have stopped being an expression of belief and become a glorified game of chess. Keeping the enemy out becomes the only aim: voting ceases to function as an expressive act, a positive endorsement, and starts to be a defensive (often grudging) manoeuvre. And people who might have voted Green, Liberal Democrat or UKIP (or Labour or Conservative, for that matter) end up hiding their true colours and walking away from the polling booth feeling cheated. This is no way to run a democracy.

3. AV will make our political system a little more open

For better or worse, British voters have been gradually drifting away from the two largest parties. Labour and the Conservatives barely won 65% of the total vote in 2010; in 1951, they won nearly 97%. This has happened under a system which actively discourages voting for new parties. At the last European election, Tory and Labour support fell as low as 43.4%. Although I doubt we’d see figures quite that low in a general election, I do believe the current voting system is suppressing the real range of British public opinion.

There is an argument that the voting system should guard against a mass of tiny parties making the Commons unworkable: there’s not much of a democratic argument that it should try and stop any new political force from being given expression by the people. But FPTP preserves our party system in aspic: and if we ever saw a real surge in popular opinion, the voting system would crush it.

We’ve got the proof from the 1980s. The Liberal-SDP Alliance failed, but not because it couldn’t command mass support (25.4% of voters endorsed them even under FPTP) or because it had no credibility (the Gang of Four had all been Cabinet ministers). Ultimately, people didn’t believe they could win and didn’t take the risk. They might or might not have actually done so under AV: but if they had, an Alliance government’s economic policy would almost certainly have been a much better reflection of public opinion than Thatcher’s. It is very hard to believe that democracy was well served by the actual outcome, whatever your politics.

4. AV will produce governments with a stronger democratic mandate

Even if you want majority governments, their declining electoral mandate ought to worry you – and AV can help there. AV would, for instance, still have given Labour a majority in 2005. But Liberal Democrat voters were pretty repelled by Michael Howard’s campaign: most of them would have ranked Labour above the Conservatives. SNP and Plaid Cymru voters aren’t known for preferring Tory governments. 65% of people voted against Labour in 2005, but it’s almost certain that a majority of people preferred a Labour government to a Tory one: with AV, we’d have known that they did, and that broader (though, yes, less committed) support would have been expressed at the ballot box.

When we do get hung parliaments, we’ll also have a much better idea of what voters want their preferred party to do. If Liberal Democrat voters in 2010 preferred a Labour-Lib Dem deal, we’d have known about it from their second (third, etc.) preferences: equally, we’d have a better idea of whether the country preferred a Cameron-led government from preference data. With FPTP, we have no real way of knowing what voters want when no one wins outright: with AV, we do – and so politicians have fewer places to hide.

Finally …

Unless trends change radically, we can expect a number of things to happen under FPTP in the coming years. MPs will be elected with ever lower levels of public support. Governments will win majorities with smaller and smaller mandates from the voters – Labour’s 35.2% of the vote in 2005 could just be the start of things to come. Whether we get a government in line, even roughly, with the people’s wishes will become more and more a matter of luck, electoral geography and how many parties split the vote on which part of the political spectrum. And by the way, we’ll probably get a few more hung parliaments, whatever the voting system.

AV isn’t perfect and it won’t fix every problem. But it’s a better and a fairer way of choosing our representatives than the one we’ve got. MPs will have stronger mandates from their constituents – not a perfect mandate, not the whole-hearted support of everyone in their area, but a reasonably broad base of support in a multi-party system where voters can cast an honest preference. Governments will rely on broader support than they do now – and because they’ll need to maintain (qualified) support from other parties’ voters, they’ll be wise to govern in a way which reflects that broader support. And our political system will be better able to give big shifts in public opinion some form of expression, rather than just bottling them up.

If you want to be able to vote with your heart and your head at the same time; if you want governments to listen to a broad swathe of the people; if you want a politics which lets new people and new ideas into the debate: vote ‘Yes’ on Thursday.

Symbols matter: the case for a republic

I hadn’t really planned to write about anything relating to the Royal Wedding: as a republican who recognises he’s probably doomed to be disappointed it leaves me cold, but I’ve been spending more time campaigning for fairer votes and hoping for a democratic second chamber than thinking about abolishing the monarchy. I have Camden Borough Council’s decision to effectively ban the only republican street party in Britain to thank for spurring me to post at all.

Clearly, the monarchy isn’t the number one issue on my priority list. In terms of democratic reform, the top two have to be changing the voting system for the Commons and creating an elected second chamber. I fully understand, furthermore, that republicans are in a very clear minority – not an insignificant one (15-30% of the population isn’t a small group), but not likely to be a majority any time soon.

The formal powers of the monarchy are more important in the here and now: only one citizen gets a guaranteed, weekly audience with every British Prime Minister. They have all, to date, tended to praise the Queen’s experience and insight. This should actively worry any democrat. Civil servants are appointed competitively, MPs are elected, special advisers are appointed (indirectly, at least) by politicians – but there’s no line of accountability between us and the Crown. Add the prime ministerial power accrued through the Royal Prerogative, the absurd position of ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’ and the arcane succession laws, and you have an awful lot of anachronistic nonsense even as monarchies go.

So is that it? Tidy up the succession laws, remove a power or two and then leave the Windsors alone? Well, it would be a start: but modernising the monarchy is a bit like modernising the Boy Scouts. Either you accept anachronism or you really have to question the thing itself. Monarchy represents hierarchy, continuity and the past: it is anachronistic – in the sense of not being in line with our own time – by its very design.

I suppose that’s fine for a lot of things – like graduation ceremonies (or the Boy Scouts, for that matter). But the Head of State is supposed to represent the nation. She (or he) is meant to embody Britain – to stand for its values and reflect something about its character to the world. At this moment, and despite the dedication of Elizabeth II herself, we have an unelected hereditary multimillionaire as that representative. Our supreme public office is the embodiment of hierarchy; of inequality; of closed and unaccountable power, subject to no one. It states, as a defining value of the British state, that we owe allegiance to someone who gained her position through no intrinsic merit of her own.

Yes, traditionalists will argue that our monarchy represents a constitutional tradition of limited government: but that is to confuse the fetters on monarchy with the monarchy itself. Closing the door in Black Rod’s face at the State Opening of Parliament represents the House of Commons asserting itself against the monarch: Black Rod himself represents the old attempt at royal fiat. Neither his office nor a recounting of the misfortunes of Charles I can substitute for a democratic public culture.

I want our Head of State to represent the values I want to see enshrined in Britain – not the values I want to see abolished. Our Head of State should simply be our first citizen, accountable to all of us and representing all of us in the only way a democracy should recognise: through the ballot box. We don’t need an executive, US-style President: the Republic of Ireland is our nearest neighbour and an admirable example of how to run a ceremonial presidency. Mary McAleese, and Mary Robinson before her, were fine examples of elected presidents who could interpret Ireland to herself and unify their nation. But they represent a principle at the heart of their country’s constitution, one which should be at the heart of our own: the sovereignty of the people.

And if that means we end up with someone called ‘the President of the United Kingdom’, that’s one anachronism I can live with.

If we get fairer votes, we need some better stats too

If AV is passed by referendum in a month’s time – which I hope it is – voters will be able to give much more information about their real preferences than they currently can. That is, of course, the point: by giving second (and third, and so on) preferences, voters will no longer have to choose between heart and head. They can choose both, all on one ballot paper.

Against that, ‘No’ campaigners pit the fear of more coalition governments. I don’t accept the premise that these are a bad thing; better a compromise government, reflecting a plural electorate, than winner takes all on 35% of the vote. But that’s an argument for another post; AV is perfectly capable of delivering majority governments, and in Australia it generally does. In a British context, majority governments would be more legitimate, too: by allowing the expression of subsequent preferences, most governments would be shown to have a base of (partial) support extending well beyond their total share of first preferences. The fact that most Liberal Democrat (and SNP and Plaid Cymru) voters preferred a Labour government to a Conservative one in 2005 would have been made explicit and measurable in second and third preferences: and Labour’s mandate would have looked much stronger as a result.

But even where AV produces hung parliaments, it will produce hung parliaments where the will of the electorate is made a little clearer. Looking at the spread of their voters’ preferences, the party or parties which held the balance would have a much clearer idea of which partner their voters would prefer; and if the second-placed party had a much wider support base among the electorate as a whole than the first-, we’d be much more likely to know about it. So an AV hung parliament would be more democratic than the FPTP version: it would be that bit clearer if a party defied the popular will and chose the ‘wrong’ coalition partner, and that bit easier to punish them later.

The Australian election of 2010 provided a good example of how AV can help clarify an unclear result. A strong Green vote cut the Australian Labor Party’s voteshare down to 37%, well behind the Liberal/National Coalition’s 44%. But when the full preferences were tallied and allocated to one of the two major groupings, the ALP had 50.12% of the vote: a very small lead, but clear. When given a choice between the two options, the Australians’ voting system allowed the politicians to see which option they preferred. FPTP would have given no such clarity.

The slight snag is that, under British counting procedures, we might well not be given the information which AV creates and makes available. The Australians record the full preference data for their elections, allowing much more information to be gleaned from them – even if you vote for a leading party in your constituency and your other preferences never need to be used, they’re still kept on record. In Britain, by contrast, we tend to perform the minimum checks on our ballot papers compatible with making sure we get the right winner – which means that a lot of that preference data would probably be lost in our version of an AV count. We wouldn’t necessarily get an equivalent of two-party-preferred voting data (in 2010 this would presumably involve a Labour-Conservative, Labour-Liberal Democrat and Liberal Democrat-Conservative analysis) here.

Technocratic though it sounds, the time could come when that information matters. It matters because, when no one party has won power and politicians therefore have to strike bargains, this information leaves them with fewer places to hide. A party whose voters split 70% in one direction but then went the other way in its choice of coalition partner would live to regret it: and they’d have been warned in advance, too. But equally, if the people expressed a clear preference for one leading party or another overall, they’d still stand warned: and if they ignored it, again, they would be likely to pay for it. The democratic basis of a coalition would be much better spelled out for all parties: and that would help to make sure that coalition did reflect the broad wishes of the electorate.

So hung parliaments and coalitions shouldn’t necessarily be feared; AV doesn’t necessarily create more hung parliaments; and when it does produce hung parliaments, it provides more information than FPTP about the outcome voters would prefer. But if we want to have that information to hand, we need to make sure it’s recorded. So if there’s a ‘Yes’ vote, a word in the ear of the Electoral Commission might be no bad thing.