Who Are ‘the People’ in a People’s Constitutional Convention?

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


This post is a contribution to a debate at openDemocracy initiated by Stuart White and followed by Alan Renwick’s discussion of institutional designs for such a convention. David Owen’s contribution focuses on the question of who should be included in the People for these purposes.

There are a lot of questions raised by the idea of a People’s Constitutional Convention for the UK. The most fundamental, however, is ‘who are the People?’ for this purpose.

In Stuart White’s initial post and Alan Renwick’s acute reflections on the form of such a convention, they adopt the intuitive response to this question: the People are the (adult) citizens of the UK, which we might imagine to be those who can vote in General Elections. The rationale for this view is straightforward: a constitution sets the terms of a political association; it specifies the basic legal form of citizens’ political relationships to one another. This is a good start but I think for these purposes we need to construe the People a bit more widely.

Consider first that not all UK citizens can vote in General Elections, for example, citizens who have been resident abroad for more than 15 years or prisoners serving custodial sentences. Should they be able to participate? Well, notice first that a constitution applies to all citizens regardless of whether they are resident in the UK or not. Any changes to the constitution are binding on all citizens and change their relationships – so, for example, the result of a UK referendum on EU membership would be binding on all UK citizens whether or not they are resident in the UK, the EU or the wider world. Because a constitution sets the terms of their relationship, the People must include non-resident, as well as resident, citizens.[1]

If we turn to prisoners serving custodial sentences, we should note that even if we think that there may be both principled and pragmatic reasons for refusing voting rights in General Elections for some classes of those convicted of criminal offences, a constitutional convention is a different kind of event, one that stands in a much more intimate relationship to one’s standing as a citizen. The loss of voting rights in a General Election says that one is not a citizen in good standing; the loss of the right to participate in a constitutional convention says that one has no civic standing. So all citizens need to be included in terms of either having a vote for representatives or being in the population from which citizens selected by lot are chosen.

But a constitution doesn’t just set the terms on which citizens relate to one another, it also lays down the ground rules for:

  • What the public actors (aka the State) can and cannot legitimately do in relation to all those who live under its authority, that is, within its territorial jurisdiction.
  • What private actors (individual or corporate) can and cannot legitimately do to other persons in this territory.

Looked at from this angle, everyone who is a resident of (as opposed to a visitor to) the UK has an equally clear and vital interest in being protected from arbitrary exercises of public and private power. Indeed, given that immigrant non-citizens are typically much more exposed to exercises of arbitrary power by the State (perhaps most especially the kind of discretionary power with respect to immigrants currently lodged in the Home Office) and by private actors (perhaps most obviously unscrupulous employers), the case of the inclusion of non-citizen residents is overwhelming.[2] The People needs to encompass residents more generally, not just citizens.

What about non-resident non-citizens? This is a harder issue. It is fairly straightforward to see that this group should be able to make representations to a People’s Constitutional Convention since, in an increasingly interdependent world, their lives are likely to be shaped in part by our actions, but should they have representatives with the decision-making body? Some authors – Ian Shapiro and Robert Goodin, for example[3] – answer in the affirmative. What counts, on this view, is that your morally relevant interests are or may be affected. I am skeptical of this appeal to ‘the all affected interests principle’ as a criterion of democratic inclusion for the reason nicely put by Christopher McMahon:

The people who have a right, under democratic principles, to participate in a decision are not those who are affected by it but those whose actions are guided by it. That is, if the possession of [political] authority is a matter of having a right to direct the actions of some group, democracy is reflexive authority – the generation of authoritative directives by those who will be subject to them. The say in determining a decision that democracy confers is a say in determining what one will do or allow as a member of a group.

Citizens and residents are subject to the authority of the constitution, non-resident, non-citizens are not. This isn’t to say that there are not good moral and epistemic reasons to consult widely with outsiders, there surely are! It is just to say that they need not be included within the People. So non-resident non-citizens should be represented in some way, but probably should not have voting rights in a People’s Constitutional Convention.

Thus far I have treated the People in terms of existing adults, whether citizen or not, resident or not, but ‘the People’ denotes an intergenerational community that exists through time and the decisions, perhaps particularly constitutional decisions, that we make now will shape the world that future generations of UK inherit. If we think about children first as an existent future generation of adult citizens, it is clear first that they have important interests at stake and second that their lives, values and self-understandings as political agents will be significantly shaped by the constitutional character of the UK. Saying simply that they can change the constitution when they reach adulthood fails to acknowledge the fact that they have interests at stake now and that much of their political identity as citizens will already have been formed by then. For these reasons I think that the People needs to encompass the representation of children.

What of not yet existent future generations whom we can envisage only as an indeterminate abstract collective of the yet to be born? It is clear that they, like non-resident non-citizens, will be affected by our decisions – perhaps vitally in respect of whether we include significant environmental norms in any constitution – but should they be represented? In relevant ways, this case looks like the temporal equivalent of the spatial case of non-resident non-citizens and I am inclined to think that they should be treated in the same way, that is, as having rights to make representations to a People’s convention but not be represented within the decision-making People.

If this is cogent, the People for the purpose of a constitutional convention cannot be restricted simply to resident adult citizens. And this expansion of the People has implications for the design of a constitutional convention as well. In order to ensure that the relevant classes of persons are appropriately ‘present’, it is sensible to adopt a design that includes at least some element of structured random selection so that there are not only resident citizens present but also resident non-citizens and non-resident citizens as well as some element of inclusion of governmental representatives such as a Children’s Ombudsman. I therefore favour – in this respect at least – the approach used in Ireland’s recent convention, as discussed by Alan Renwick, as the best way forward for a People’s convention to accommodate an appropriately expansive understanding of the People.

[1] For a fuller discussion, see David Owen, ‘Transnational Citizenship and the Democratic State’ Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 14: 5, 2011, pages 641-663.

[2] For related observations on access to citizenship for residents, See David Owen (2013) ‘Citizenship and the marginalities of migrants’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16 (3): 26-343 & (2014) ‘Republicanism and the Constitution of Migrant Statuses’

17 (1): 90-110.

[3] Ian Shapiro The Moral Foundations of Politics (New Haven, Yale University Press) pp.219-20 as well as Robert Goodin ‘Enfranchising All Affected Interests, And Its Alternatives’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (1): 40-68.

Why being in government will cost the Tories in 2015. So far UKIP is picking up the spoils

Diptic

By Jane Green and Will Jennings. Jane Green is Professor of Political Science at University of Manchester (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


Cross-posted at the APSA British Politics Group Blog.

It has been described as one of the most important unanswered questions in political science: why governments regularly and predictably lose popular support over their time in office. Such is the regularity of ‘costs of governing’ that it appears that governments are simply ‘passive observers’ of their diminishing support, leading to the suspicion that these trends may be almost wholly independent of the performance of a government in office.[1] The implication of costs of governing is stark: it seems to matter little what a government does in office, its decline in popular support is all but guaranteed. Here we consider the implications of costs of governing for the 2015 British general election and summarise our answer to the question of why governments experience these all-important governing costs.

The Implications of Governing Costs for 2015

The Conservatives began their period of government without a majority. What this means, of course, is that the party has to increase its popular support between 2010 and 2015 (and how that is translated into seats) to have a chance of winning a majority in 2015. David Cameron has to buck the ‘costs of governing’ trend if he is to win back support before 2015.

That isn’t looking likely. Vote intentions towards the Conservatives since June 2010 have followed the predictable pattern of governing costs that we identify in all countries for which regular polling data are available. The following two figures show (a) the decline in vote intention for the Conservatives since June 2010 (the average of all available polls for each month), and (b) the decline and curve that best fits the data for governing party support across 79 government lifecycles in 31 countries. The first figure plots vote intention for the Conservatives over the course of this parliament by month, the second plots vote intention over often much longer time periods by year.

(a) Conservative Party vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_CON

(b) Governing party vote intention (79 governing periods, 31 countries)

COG

The high level of support (or honeymoon) at the start of Conservative-Lib Dem government in 2010, and the loss of support thereafter, is consistent with the trend we find exhibited in the largest collection of cross-national over-time poll data it is currently possible to analyse.

UKIP are the beneficiaries

What is striking to us is that the only pattern in the last four years which doesn’t entirely fit our conventional expectations is the following. Whereas we would usually expect the major party of opposition to be the beneficiary of declining trust and support for the government, it is UKIP rather than Labour that appears to be capitalising on the costs of governing for the Conservatives (the Liberal Democrats’ support collapsed early in the parliament and has been flat lining around 10% or less since). The following figures display (c) vote intentions for Labour between June 2010 and August 2014, and (d) vote intentions to UKIP in the same period (again taking the average of all polls in both cases). We can see that although Labour received a boost to its support in the first 2-3 years of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition – a pattern we would have predicted – it has steadily lost that support since 2013. UKIP, by contrast, has witnessed a significant gain in popular support over the same period.

(c) Labour Party vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_LAB

(d) UKIP vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_UKIP

A reading of recent British public opinion data may be interpreted simply that Conservative voters are moving over to UKIP due to UKIP’s policy and rhetorical appeal, and latterly Labour voters too. But looking at these data in the context of cross-national and over-time trends in costs of governing suggest something more profound may be happening. The Conservative Party should have been expected to lose its support. That support could have gone to the Lib Dems, to Labour, to UKIP or to being undecided. It is a signal of the distrust in mainstream politics that the predictable costs of governing have resulted in rewards to UKIP. Labour would have been the beneficiaries under usual expectations but on the face of public opinion alone, the trends point to UKIP as the classic party of opposition. This is in a context whereby the Liberal Democrats cannot pick up those opposition party spoils. The anti-politics mood in Britain may be fundamentally shifting the winners and losers of some of the most important and conventional trends we are aware of in political science.

The Conservative Party may experience an uptick in support as we near the 2015 election. The tendency of some incumbent parties to experience an uptick can be seen in the modest U-shape curve in Figure (b) above. But any uptick to the Conservatives won’t reverse the fundamental trends that we highlight above.

Explaining Costs of Governing

Costs of governing are surprisingly poorly understood, despite their prevalence and their profound implications. The reason for this has been an absence of data on public perceptions of party and government performance. Our recent paper for the annual conference of the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties specialist group of the Political Studies Association sets out new explanations for the decline in governing party support using a unique data set we have collated on subjective performance evaluations of governing parties by British, American, Canadian, Australian and German voters. This draws on over 10,000 individual survey questions asked over as many as 65 years (a measure we call ‘macro-competence’). For more information see http://www.competence-politics.co.uk.

The first explanation for costs of governing concerns the initial honeymoon period; the high from which governing costs occur. We find that the early period of a new government is characterised by blame to the government’s predecessor; an effect that lasts around one typical election cycle (of 4-5 years). This means that Gordon Brown’s government will have been blamed for the first years of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, with that effect unlikely to persist into and beyond 2015.

The second explanation concerns how blame accumulates to the incumbent government. As a government continues its period in office, blame begins to stick, and the effects of negative information stick more than positive information. As governments are seen as performing badly, we show that this has a significantly greater effect on vote intention than positive changes in perceived government performance or competence. This negative information accumulates over a government’s time in office. Mistakes, policy disasters and scandals remain in the minds of voters long after politicians have moved on. In our paper we reveal that the addition of a new negative change in governing party competence, and another new negative change, each has a unique effect. The final innovative theoretical (and evidence-based) expectation is that there is a saturation point in the effect of competence evaluations. Negative competence effects begin to weaken after ‘shocks’ accumulate above a certain level, as voters make up their mind that a government cannot be trusted – and their attitudes become fixed in stone. In the case of the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, our analysis explains how information about bad performance has been weighed more heavily than information about good, and how this information accumulates until the electorate no longer has trust in the government to deliver on its objectives. This is consistent with the gradual decline in Conservative Party support displayed above between June 2010 and August 2014. It is also notable that the costs of governing have happened for the Conservatives very quickly in relation to the amount of time they have actually served in office. The early ‘omni-shambles’ and the unpopularity of austerity measures may well have contributed to this, as well as their relatively low starting point at from May 2010.

 

[1] Here we paraphrase the observations of Stimson (1976) in his analysis of declines in presidential approval.

How Argentina’s Government Has Drawn New Energy from the Vulture Fund Crisis

By Pia Riggirozzi, Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


Sovereign debt, crises and default have been regular features of the Argentine economy for years – but the latest debt crisis, involving the government and the so-called “vulture funds”, has thrown up new questions about the state’s capacity versus the ethics of capitalism.

Vulture funds are private creditors who deliberately took up cut-price Argentine bonds after the 2002 collapse, then refused to renegotiate their terms in 2005 and 2010 when the country entered a process of debt restructuring – all with the aim of eventually litigating against default and reaping exorbitant profits.

Accordingly, these creditors had been demanding the full value of the debt on which they had originally speculated. At the end of July this year, in the latest twist in its fiscal saga, Argentina was declared to be in default for the second time in 12 years.

Defaults are always economically damaging and politically destabilising, particularly in a context of inflation and growing political and social malaise. But the irony this year is that, unlike December 2001, today’s markets seem relatively untroubled by the event – and that rather than putting the government on the ropes, the current financial crisis is apparently shoring up the dominance of the Kirchnerist project.

imagesThe bad old days

The background to all this is Argentina’s financial crisis of 2001-2002, precipitated by what was then the biggest sovereign debt default in history.

Argentina was at a critical juncture; its public debt as a percentage of GDP reached 166%, the nation was facing abrupt pauperisation, road blocks, and factory takeovers; its leaders were struggling to preserve social cohesion. Two months after Argentina defaulted, the value of the peso dropped by more than a third.

Cross-class demands for more inclusive and responsive democracy screamed “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“Out with all of them”), expressing the enormous gap that had opened up between government and society.

As the country’s whole political economic order collapsed, presidents came and went in quick succession – until a temporary parliament-led government under the Peronist former leader of Congress, Eduardo Duhalde, assumed some degree of institutional command. That administration eventually gave way to the elected government of Nestor Kirchner in May 2003.

Fixing it up

The challenges facing the new government were huge. A judicious devaluation of the peso in January 2002, however, led to a considerable expansion of exports, especially agro/industrial ones, greatly boosting state revenues. Systematic renegotiations of the terms of privatised companies and nationalisations followed suit. Negotiations also began with creditors of 152 different bonds series, issued under several jurisdictions.

In 2005 and 2010, a deal brought the country’s default to a successful close, with 93% of creditors accepting new bonds worth 30 cents on the dollar. The remaining 7% of “hold-out” creditors rejected the offer, demanding payment in full. The government also sought independence from the IMF, cancelling off the debt and creating an image of a sovereign state, with greater room for manoeuvre than was possible in the previous decades.

A more confident and better-resourced government was often accompanied by controversial forms of social and political incorporation. Like Menem in the 1990s, the administrations of Nestor Kirchner, followed by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, concentrated heavily on reinforcing executive authority, took timely yet bold initiatives and advanced controversial forms of government interventionism.

This strategy paid off by doing something to alleviate widespread poverty, inequality and exclusion. But whatever the social gains, the cost has been economic stress, distributional pressures and badly weakened political institutions.

Betting the farm

The political strength of the government has been tested to the extreme by two main forces: farmers and vulture funds.

In 2008, during a state decision to increase agro-export taxes to reflect fluctuating commodity prices, landowners and farm-based groups organised lock-outs, road blocks and the destruction of crops bound for market, until the export tax was settled.

To this day, conservative and reactionary rural factions play a massive and direct role in shaping policy, even while supporting the political opposition. In a flailing economy that has failed to diversify its industrial base and is highly dependent on the primary sector, this is not a minor concern.

Argentina is now stuck with recession, high inflation and, over the past year, the pressure of an unstable peso and the black market for dollars. All this, combined with the gloomy global environment, leaves the country increasingly dependent on foreign capital to maintain growth, employment and price stability.

Under pressure

Factions outside the government have increasingly joined forces in the renewed legal battle being waged on behalf of the vulture funds – and litigation from hold-out creditors, which has persisted for more than a decade, now carries the weight of the US Supreme Court, which in July upheld a decision ruling that Argentina is legally obliged to repay its American hold-out creditors in full.

This took a Kafkaesque turn when the Argentine government deposited the bondholders’ payment into US-based financial intermediaries, only to be blocked by US district judge, Thomas Griesa, alleging that payments could not be processed at all unless settled directly with the vulture funds. As a result, Argentina defaulted.

Legally, Judge Griesa’s sentence is widely believed to be impracticable: agreement with vultures means last-to-come-in creditors get the best deal, which would send Argentina into an economic tailspin based on an contorted interpretation of the legal principle of pari passu.pdf) (equal treatment of creditors).

So, full payment: politically unlikely and economically impossible. The government will need to weigh Argentine laws and citizens versus US laws and investors – a fiendish balancing act for a government that has invested all its political capital in opposing the vultures at all costs.

Paradox

The case against the vulture funds has had a huge impact on the economic agenda not just in Argentina, but also internationally: in early September, the United Nations General Assembly began work to establish a new international convention regulating the restructuring of sovereign debt.

Meanwhile, the political fallout of the crisis at home has paradoxically been largely to the benefit of term-limited president Cristina Kirchner, reasserting her centrality in politics just as she was losing her clout in the run-up to the 2015 elections.

The struggle against the hold-out creditors is being played out electorally through social mobilisation. This is just what happened in the 2008 conflict with the farmers; Cristina Kirchner’s strategy was to appeal to the urban working class. She pointed out farmers’ relative prosperity and stoked fears that popular social programmes would have to be eliminated if they got their way – even publicly calling them “greedy” and “coup-plotters”.

The Kirchner administration is now once again back on its old mettle, appealing to citizens with the slogan “Patria o Buitres” (“homeland or vultures”), a binary definition that suits her barnstorming rhetoric and mocks casino capitalism and those who support it. Her political opposition is back on the defensive – and her government perhaps reinvigorated – even as she grapples with the thorniest crisis of her tenure.

As a New Sanctions Package Hits Russia, Europe Slips Back into Old-Style Geopolitics

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


As a fragile ceasefire just about holds in Ukraine, with shelling reported in the pivotal port city of Mariupol, the EU has announced a new round of sanctions against Russia. Targeted at state-owned firms and Russian officials, the package prompted a predictably spiky Russian rejoinder, with Dmitry Medvedev promising an “asymmetric” response – possibly even extending to the closure of airspace.

Custom Union, Ukraine, EU summit in MinskBut whatever the actual impact of the sanctions, and whatever the fate of the ceasefire, one thing is for certain: thanks to the Ukraine crisis, the landscape of conflict in Europe has been transformed for good.

The story of Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union is always told the same way: after the West triumphed over the East at the end of the Cold War, conventional great-power politics on the continent came to a permanent close. And while conflict has hardly disappeared from Europe, the skirmishes that have popped up since 1990 are no longer major inter-state rivalries.

Instead, the story goes, they result from state collapse, bad governance, transnational crime, or tensions around issues like immigration. We are now more likely to discuss European politics in terms of institutions, integration, transnational actors, norms and values than in terms of the clash of big countries.

In a few short months, Ukraine has changed all that. The debates now raging around Europe’s new geopolitical situation are radically different from the conversation of just a year or so ago.

The West’s fault?

The argument is now not about whether state-versus-state wars will return to Europe, but whether they left in the first place. Some analysts have responded to the Ukrainian fracas by proclaiming that Europe has never really moved on from the drama of the great international face-off.

They point out that, in fact, American and European elites have consistently rolled the EU and NATO eastward towards the Russian border – a process which was always going to lead to a clash of interests.

From this point of view, the West is to blame for the current crisis. The only way out, as some foreign policy “realists” would have it, is to turn Ukraine into a sort of neutral buffer state between NATO and Russia, abandoning all efforts to spread “Western values” and promote democracy in Ukraine.

But over the course of an increasingly fraught summer, this perspective has run up against the mounting evidence of Russia’s very active military engagement in Ukraine, pursued despite protests of innocence.

By the end of August, for instance, evidence had emerged showing that Russian soldiers and various intelligence services have been directly involved in destabilising various parts of Ukraine beyond even the flashpoints in the east.

In fact, recent evidence shows that on August 28, Russian forces invaded and captured the Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk. Ukrainian forces were forced to withdraw, along with Ukrainian border servicemen, who lack any heavy military equipment.

Those developments ended any real debate over whether Russia has been an actor in the war, though the extent and intimacy of its involvement remained subject to heated debate by the time a ceasefire was signed on September 5.

Don’t overestimate the West

But despite all the evidence of Russian involvement, some commentators still hold that all this instability and violence is the fruit of Western policy – what they frame as attempts to “socially engineer” the domestic situation in Ukraine in the years leading up to Euromaidan.

But the fact is that in those years, the West was anything but agreed on Ukraine’s prospects for membership of either NATO or the EU. For example, while Poland had long been strongly advocating EU membership for Ukraine to flatter its own geopolitical ends, the EU as a whole preferred to confine Ukraine to various “cooperation frameworks” rather than hold open, formal membership negotiations.

Meanwhile, the question of the Eurasian Customs Union is still deeply unresolved. Angela Merkel recently stressed that Ukraine is free to join the Union, which also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. In her words, “the European Union would never make a big conflict out of it, but would insist on a voluntary decision.”

A Ukrainian decision to join the Customs Union would, in fact, be favoured in many European political circles, if only for the stability it might conceivably bring. Still, the Customs Union Summit, which took place in Minsk on August 26, was a key display of how farcically messy European geopolitics have become.

That meeting was formally convened to discuss economic cooperation, but the main hope was that the Russian and Ukrainian presidents would make some kind of effort to resolve the conflict, or at least make some diplomatic progress.

But after a two-hour conversation between the presidents, there was no indication that they had reached any sort of agreement. The participation of a high-level EU delegation, including Catherine Ashton herself, apparently didn’t help either.

It was in further talks in Minsk ten days later that a ceasefire deal was finally agreed – while the EU’s foreign ministers and leaders were occupied at the NATO summit in Wales.

Get it together

Europe is now facing in its deepest geopolitical crisis since 1990, and has a fiendish dilemma on its hands: whether to tighten up security cooperation and risk further isolating Russia (following NATO’s decision to reinforce its eastern flank), or to pragmatically acknowledge that Russia has its own strategic interests – hoping that they remain confined to eastern Ukraine.

Both these approaches are wrong. On the one hand, Russia must be shown in no uncertain terms that what it’s been doing in Ukraine is illegal, ceasefire or no ceasefire, and that it will pay for it in the end. Central and eastern European countries need to be reassured that their larger neighbours actually care about their safety, and can do something real to help shore it up.

But at the same time, political and diplomatic efforts outside of sanctions must be accelerated, not sidelined by military posturing and the wrangling over sanctions. Otherwise the EU will only find itself further sidelined in future negotiations over Ukraine, just as it was in Minsk

In short, the EU urgently needs to get its act together. If it doesn’t, it will have to finally stop pretending it has any sort of common foreign policy, and accept the consequences as they come.

[This article is cross-posted at The Conversation. - Ed.]

What can the UK learn from the aftermath of Quebec’s two independence referendums?

Jonathan HavercroftBy Jonathan Havercroft, Senior Lecturer in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.


No does not mean the Scottish Independence movement is dead

Quebec has had two independence referendums. The first was in 1980 when Quebec’s nationalist party, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was the provincial government for the first time. The “no” side won that vote 60% – 40%. Despite losing, the PQ won the next Provincial election, and the nationalist party has held power in Quebec for 15 of the 35 years since. The 1980 referendum consolidated the electoral base of the PQ. The SNP can look on the results of the referendum as evidence that a significant bloc of voters in Scotland support independence. The SNP can now count on this 45% of the electorate to be their political base for the foreseeable future. While we may not see another Scottish independence vote for 15 years, questions about Scottish nationalism will be central to both Scottish and Westminster politics for the foreseeable future. Even without another referendum on the horizon, the threat of a referendum in the future is likely to be a key political lever that the SNP can use to extract more political concessions from Westminster.

No votes result in constitutional changes

In the closing days of the 1980 Quebec referendum, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised to reform the Canadian Constitution should the No side win. This promise, combined with the no vote, led to fifteen years of debate over constitutional reforms that culminated in the second, much closer Quebec referendum in 1995. In the intervening years Canada ratified the 1982 Constitution Act that significantly revamped the constitution. Two other major reform proposals – the 1987 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord – were both defeated in acrimonious political processes. After the 1995 referendum there were further constitutional changes brought about via devolution of powers from the Federal Government to Quebec, a reference question to the Canadian Supreme Court concerning the procedures for Quebec secession in the event of a no vote, and the controversial passage a the Clarity Act, designed to spell out the terms for any future Quebec referendum on independence. Independence referendums won by the “no” side do not mean a return to the status quo ante. In order for a referendum on independence to be held, a plurality of voters will have already elected a party favouring a referendum. This means that there is significant pressure on the central government to accede to some of the demands of the independence movement. The Scottish referendum is not the end of constitutional struggles in the UK. We can expect the referendum to mark the beginning of a period of debate over devolution and constitutional reform. Constitutional reform will be a major issue in the Parliamentary elections next year.

Asymmetrical devolution to Scotland will alienate other UK constituencies

The constitutional debates in Canada led to a series of political crises between the province of Quebec, the Canadian federal government, and the other provinces. Attempts to meet some of Quebec’s constitutional demands were immediately met by complaints from other Canadian provinces and leaders of Canada’s First Nations that these deals were unfairly favouring Quebeckers. Similarly in Britain, David Cameron’s speech after the referendum in which he put the issue of greater devolution to Scotland and the other nations in the UK on the agenda was immediately greeted by complaints from ring-wing politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage that these plans for devolution were fundamentally unfair to the English.

The promises made by the Westminster political party leaders in their pre-referendum “Vow” have immediately revived the “English Question/West Lothian Question” on devolution of powers. Why should the Scottish MPs in Westminster be permitted to vote on bills that do not affect them because the relevant power has already been devolved to Holyrood? This issue will be the trickiest in any future constitutional changes in the UK. At the moment there are three possible answers to the “English Question”: 1) Excluding Westminster MPs from constituencies in Scotland, Ireland and Wales from voting on bills that only concern English constituents. 2) The creation of an English Parliament similar in power and scope to the other national assemblies 3) The creation of nine regional assemblies in England with powers similar in scope to the assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these proposals has significant advantages and disadvantages. Any of them would be politically difficult to implement because of fierce opposition from entrenched interests. Failure to resolve the English Question is likely to provoke an English political backlash against Scotland. Yet using the English Question as an excuse for not devolving further political powers to Scotland will only make a future referendum on Scottish independence more likely.

Devolving Power to Scotland will make independence less likely in the long term

The final, and perhaps most significant lesson that the UK can take from Canada, is that Quebec is still in the confederation. This seemed extremely unlikely to most Canadians in 1995. Paradoxically, by devolving more power to Quebec in response to the demands of the nationalist movement, the Canadian government has made Quebec secession less likely. Why? Like the SNP, in between referendum campaigns, Quebec’s PQ has had to use its provincial powers to govern. By having greater autonomy to implement its preferred social, cultural, and economic policies at the provincial level, the PQ has been able to construct a social democratic polity that it had initially envisioned for its post-independence polity. As such, many Quebec voters feel that they have been able to achieve their vision for a distinct Quebec society without having to bear the risks that would go with independence. In addition, the longer that the PQ has been one of the major political parties in Quebec, the more experience Quebec voters have had with it as a governing party. And the more experience voters have with the PQ as a governing party, the more the electorate views the party as no different from other mainstream parties. This in turn makes it more difficult for PQ leadership to claim that Quebec’s problems would be solved if the PQ could govern a sovereign Quebec. A similar dynamic could play out in Scotland. Having held a referendum, voters in Scotland will now be evaluating the SNP on how well it governs. More devolution of powers to Scotland may appease the demands of many who voted yes for independence. It would also enable the SNP greater freedom to construct its vision of Scotland as a Nordic social democracy. The SNP may see this as a way to persuade voters about how successful an independent Scotland would be. However, many soft Scottish nationalists may decide that a more autonomous Scotland can have all of the benefits of an independent Scotland without taking any of the risks of an actual “yes” vote. Furthermore, the longer that the SNP is a governing party, the less it will be able to appeal to voters as an attractive alternative to politics as usual. The more the SNP appears to voters as just one political party among others, the less the Scottish electorate will see independence as offering an alternative to politics as usual.

Constitutional Wrangling after the Independence Referendum

By Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics at University of Southampton. You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.


(Cross-posted at The Conversation. This post first appeared with minor errors, which have been corrected. – Ed.)

The vote, in the end, was decisive, with the Better Together campaign winning with 55% of ballots cast. As a Glaswegian living in Southampton, I’ve watched from afar, saddened not to be in my home nation at this crucial juncture, while amazed at the remarkable political awakening that has taken place these last months. As the politicians have said repeatedly, the No outcome doesn’t mean a return to business as usual, and there are some key things we can take away from all this in terms of constitutional politics in the UK.

First, although the result was decisive, it was not an overwhelming majority. Consider that when this process began, the average support for Scottish independence typically ran at around 30-35% or thereabouts. The Yes campaign succeeded in drawing a significant number of people to their cause, and that is a massive achievement in such a short space of time, given the magnitude of the issue. In particular, the Yes campaign won the vote in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Dundee City, the first two of which in particular are Labour Party heartlands that have borne the brunt of deindustrialization. Scottish Labour strategists looking ahead to the 2015 UK general election will already be wondering about the work they will have to do to maintain these strongholds, and whether those Labour voters who voted Yes will now be more willing to consider opting for the SNP next year. This is important, given how hard it is for any party to gain a Westminster majority.

Second, the Prime Minister has already committed to begin the process of devolving more power to Holyrood, and to exploring the structure of governance throughout the rest of the country, and has said that devolution across the UK will follow the same quick timetable, with a white paper due early next year. That will be a massive undertaking. If it happens, it will demonstrate the remarkable flexibility of the UK constitution, and its pragmatic malleability in the light of popular pressure for change. However, the unanswered question at the heart of UK constitutional politics is the English Question, and it has remained unanswered ever since devolution was rolled out in 1999 and the then Labour government’s plans for English regional devolution failed. The Conservative Party’s McKay Commission has interesting solutions to this question, but it’s far from clear that David Cameron will be able to convince his party to pursue change, because so much depends on the details of those changes, none of which have thus far been spelled out.

Third, this was an astonishing exercise in democratic participation. Turnout stands at a staggering 85%, and it’s clear that people have been engaged in this process who have not been involved in politics for a very long time, if ever. At a time when politicians are maligned, and traditional forms of political participation are in decline, what this referendum result shows is that people take part when they believe that the process will end in a meaningful outcome for their lives, and they are in control of that outcome. It remains to be seen whether the public will stay engaged throughout the months of political negotiation that lie ahead, now that the decision is back in the hands of the ‘political elite’. Crucially, the participation of 16-17 year olds in this referendum may now fuel demands for their inclusion in elections at other levels.

The months ahead will feature much constitutional wrangling and bargaining. Decisions about our constitutional future now lie, once more, in the hands of the professional political class. Those on both sides of the independence referendum debate must now wait to find out how their collective voices will be interpreted

After Scotland

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


The referendum on independence for Scotland has been celebrated as turning point political event which has engaged millions of voters in careful reflection and considered debate about the future of Scotland. Equally there are many who have seen a limited debate, full of bull and bluster and half-truths that gave an impression being stronger on symbolism than substance.

Most appear to agree that the political dynamic of change started in Scotland is likely to spread throughout the United Kingdom whether the final result is a yes or no. How could we ensure that the continuing debate grapples with real issues that should drive a governance debate for citizens living in a complex, post-industrial society, grappling with an uncertain future in a globalised world? Let me offer five principles to govern future discussion.

Local leadership

The first principle should be that citizens need to lead rather than political elites. The study of political reform reveals one hard lesson and that is if political elites drive the choices they tend to choose options that they calculate serve their interests. Governing arrangements, new voting procedures or even issues put to a referendum are determined primarily by calculations about whether their party or leadership will be the beneficiaries. For that reason reforms designed and delivered by political elites often end up disappointing  citizens as they fail to deliver the positive change wanted by the public.

Interdependence

The second principle is any governance solution in the twenty first century has to be multilevel in character. Interdependence is  a reality that cannot  be wished away and our lives are now more integrated with other citizens of the globe in social, economic and cultural terms. Exercising our democratic rights in that context is a more complex challenge than the democracy imagined by eighteenth and nineteenth thinkers. For a lot of the time the best that can be hoped for is influence rather than control but having influence is vital. We need an opportunity for our representatives to sway European and international decisions. But then we need capacity for decision at national but crucially at the local level. Too many tax-raising, policy and economic decisions are currently in the hands of a Westminster elite and if there is an unequivocal message from the Scottish referendum debate it is that such a situation is no longer acceptable or indeed effective as a form of governing.

Subsidiarity

That thought leads directly to the third principle: subsidiarity. Let’s not ask what we can devolve but rather ask what we need to centralise to either national or supranational levels. The arguments for greater localism are overwhelming. First and most important circumstances and needs are different in different localities and the capacity to make the right decisions to get the right economic, social and environmental policies depends on an ability to decide and act at various sub-national levels. Second if we are to regain trust and engagement in democratic political processes the local provides a more viable terrain than national or European level. There are fewer barriers to access facing citizens at the local level, more opportunities to mix social media and face-to-face discussion and greater prospects of sequencing direct democracy initiatives and deliberative forums alongside more traditional representative decision-making. Third when it comes to decisions about wicked long-term issues the local arena can be one where trade-offs can be delivered. When making decisions at sub-national level there is a greater capacity to give the benefit of the doubt to decision makers, thus providing more leeway to tackle difficult and complex issues.

Institutional variety

The fourth principle should be there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to institutional solutions. So if all we get is one person shouting the only answer is an English parliament and another calling for powerful city regions and another yelling devolution for Cornwall we should not be surprised. The socio-economic geography of the UK is complex and its governance requires units for decision-making to match. City regions may be a good fit in some but not all locations and we should be worried if the governing map that emerges after our national and local discussions is not very neat. A good solution is likely to be messy in institutional terms.

Democratic accountability

The fifth principle should be that all these governing options need to match the demands of democratic accountability. There are only complex answers to that issue that also ensure that minority rights and freedoms are protected but it a question that cannot be ducked.  Proponents of city regions for example appear to make their arguments largely on pragmatic grounds in terms of the economic dynamism or economies of scale that will be achieved. Managerial or technical arguments are not enough and any new governing solution has to answer the leading question of twenty first century citizens: how can we have may say and how can we hold decision-makers to account? That question was in the shadows for much of the Scottish independence debate but it needs to be brought to the fore in the future.