Martin Whitfield MP writes for The Fabian Review
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.
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.