Bruce Ackerman takes the kind of fresh, wider‐angled approach to constitutional change which is increasingly needed as debates about the UK’s territorial constitution become more salient and fraught in the context of Brexit.
The case he makes for constitutional reform sees in the British tradition a worthy example of a pluralised civic culture which allows citizens to identify strongly with different national communities and cultural traditions, while also subscribing to the idea of a shared citizenship with their fellows across the UK.
However, I query the remedies that he advances and, in particular, the attempt to address the problem of asymmetry through a system of regional government in England.
Is regionalism the answer?
Ackerman observes, astutely, that the current political predicament at Westminster – where no party holds a majority of seats in the Commons, and the governing party has to rely on the support of one of the ‘regional’ parties operating outside England – may well become the ‘new normal’.There is a danger in such circumstances of ‘long periods of indecisiveness, punctuated by moments of angry protest from alienated English voters who, disgusted by ad hoc bargains with the regionalists, are tempted to vote for a demagogic leader who promises them “strong and decisive government”’, he suggests. In these conditions there is every chance that an increasingly divisive form of national competitiveness could pull the UK apart.
His suggestion to divide England into a number of distinct and self‐governing regions ‘standard regionalism’ he calls it – returns us to an age‐old remedy which has lost a good deal of credibility. While it may make sense in administrative terms to divide England up in this way, the boundaries used to demarcate these regions, however drawn, lack any basis in popular sentiment, history or identity. Parishes, counties and cities are all more firmly endowed in the English psyche.
Moreover, as regional devolution has waned in appeal, a different argument for symmetry –this time on national lines – has become more powerful. On this view the English nation deserves an equivalent model of devolution to that offered to other parts of the UK.
A good deal of polling – including that most recently conducted by YouGov for the BBC –finds a strong correlation between those who are more likely to identify as ‘English’, as opposed to ‘British’, and support for Brexit. And a body of research in recent years highlights the growing sense for many that England is becoming a political community in its own right.
But this national model of symmetry also faces considerable difficulties. Most obviously, England’s preponderance, in both population and wealth, within the UK makes an English parliament, or new tier of government an enterprise that might end up capsizing the domestic union.
It may well turn out that neither of these versions of a symmetrical UK can be made to work within the cramped confines of its territorial constitution. It may also be that symmetry as a goal is over‐played or is at least better seen as a symptom, not a cause of current discontents.
The UK’s pattern of statecraft has, in broad, terms rested upon two key elements. One has been an astute awareness of the need to govern in such a way that neither the far‐flung territories beyond England’s borders, nor the English ‘provinces’, ever came to feel unduly dominated or neglected by the centre. Another was the development of a party system that served to bind together the peoples of these countries, aggregating territorial and regional demands into a state‐wide political system. The problem now is that neither of these elements is securely in place. Brexit itself is merely adding to the strains which the erosion of the foundations of British statecraft has brought to the fore.
An important, overlooked issue concerns the disparity which exists across the UK in terms of what might broadly be called ‘constitutional literacy’. In Scotland and Wales, and for different reasons Northern Ireland, questions of statehood, constitution, rights and national culture are endemic to political life, even if they are sometimes the source of considerable political dispute. In England, these issues are more marginal in character.
A constitutional convention should not be seen as an alternative to the dauntingly hard work of engaging parties and politicians in these issues. The danger is that any such convention is presented as a way of avoiding politics. Its findings would in fact have to be channelled into the political system, as with the Citizens’ Assembly in the Republic of Ireland in 2017. This was set up to prepare the way for the abortion referendum. Only when such a vehicle is plugged into the force‐fields of politics and governing institutions is it likely to gain meaning and credibility.