openDemocracyUK

A power sharing deal between Westminster and the home nations is needed.

The German model shows that another union is possible.

Thomas Götz
15 July 2015
Bundesrat_Chamber.jpg

"Bundesrat Chamber" by The Government of Germany. Original uploader was Aricci526 at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedi

In contrast to Prime Minister Cameron’s grandstanding talk of ‘one nation’ the general election has revealed divisions which are likely to deepen in the coming years. While it remains to be seen what kind of policies the incumbent government will implement pressure from Tory backbenchers and a Eurosceptic cabinet could lead to a potentially gloomy scenario. The desperate aim of meeting immigration targets will rip more families apart and expel people who made tremendous contributions to British society from this country. The prospect of British EU exit will put businesses at risk and may ultimately lead to an exodus from the UK. The destruction of the principle of free movement in Europe, as proposed by the London Mayor Boris Johnson, would stifle scientific, artistic and economic collaboration by forcing Brits and Europeans through the horrors of prohibitively expensive points-based immigration system. Is this really the ‘Great Britain’ people across the country envisage? The landslide victory by the Scottish National Party (SNP) suggests otherwise. The SNP won their seats on a pro-immigration, pro-European and social-democrat manifesto which is diametrically opposed to the Tory government. Similarly, Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Greens won 52% of the Welsh vote. Furthermore, the Tory government has been elected by only 37% of voters which roughly equates 18 % of the population. However, as the result of the voting system and the constitutional make-up of the UK, the government will be able to implement immigration and foreign policies without having to take the opinions of the home nations into account.  
What does this mean for the constitutional make-up of the UK ? There is an urgent need for a mechanism by which the devolved governments can hold the Westminster government to account, veto its decisions, influence legislation and generally make their voice heard in a legally binding manner. Sadly, the ongoing political debate and the proposals put forward by the Smith Commission accept the incorrect assumption that foreign policy cannot be devolved. This is echoed in Cameron’s victory speech when he claims that Scotland will be the strongest devolved legislature anywhere, a statement which entirely incorrect, given that devolution is limited to domestic policies. So how can foreign policy be devolved? Take the example of Germany, where the ‘Bundesrat’, an upper house which consists of the heads of the state governments, has a temporary veto on all major federal legislation including EU treaties and immigration. Voting in this chamber of first ministers is done by majority and each state has a certain number of votes based on its population size and area. If the upper house blocks a law which has been approved by the lower house a negotiation process is initiated which generally ensures that the interests of the states are taken into account. The most radical form of implementing a similar constitutional structure in the UK would be to replace the House of Lords with an assembly of representatives from the governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England. The subject-specific expertise of parts of the House of Lords could still be retained in form of a small advisory body appointed by the first ministers. Since all home nations should be treated equally an English executive would need to be created which should be separate from the Westminster government. The fact that different parties are likely to gain a majority in the upper and lower house means that the Westminster government would have to take a range of viewpoints across the political spectrum into account until a national consensus is reached. This would not only reduce the risk of Westminster ‘imposing’ policies onto the home nations but it would also ensure that the considerable political expertise of the devolved governments is channelled into a productive process.
A less radical plan would be to simply implement a formal consultation process in which the Westminster government would be required to take the opinions of the devolved governments into account when implementing new legislation. In the light of its distinctive identity, Scotland should have a temporary veto, the use of which would lead to negotiations with Westminster with the aim of finding a compromise. Given that the UK government has a long history of vetoing and opting out of EU treaties it would only seem fair that a country like Scotland should have a similar power within the British Union. Fields of policy which should require consent from the devolved governments include those typically considered ‘reserved matter’: immigration, defence, international treaties, social welfare and European politics.
This leaves one particular issue which will take centre-stage in UK politics in the coming years, Britain’s place in Europe. The potential withdrawal of the UK from the EU (‘Brexit’) would have such far-reaching consequences that it would render the results of the past Scottish independence referendum meaningless. Recent polls show that Scottish support for EU membership is higher than support for membership in the British union. The independence referendum in 2014 was a decision on whether to remain in a UK that is firmly placed within the EU, not a country isolated from the rest of Europe. This is also emphasized by the fact that the ‘No’ campaign used ‘EU membership’ as an argument for remaining in the UK. In case of Brexit, the debate on Scottish independence would change fundamentally since the economic arguments would be reversed while the political arguments would remain in place.  Hence, the first minister of Scotland would be right to demand a 2nd referendum. In this case a sensible debate on Scotland’s economic and political aspirations is needed in which the UK should not be looked at as a sacrosanct entity.
Where does this leave a country which is divided on many policy issues?  What is needed are not just ‘more powers’, ‘home rule’ or ‘fiscal autonomy’ for Scotland but a radical new power-sharing deal between the four home nations and Westminster. The democratically elected devolved governments and not the undemocratic body of the House of Lords need to be involved in foreign and domestic policy decisions. The suggestion that a true power-sharing deal between Westminster and the home nations is not practical can be rejected by the fact that it has been successfully implemented in Germany. An interesting side note may be that, in contrast to some reports in the media, the Bavarian independence movement has virtually vanished. The reason may be that the first minister of Bavaria has significant influence on the decisions made by the government in Berlin through his voting power in the ‘upper house’. Due to political and cultural differences the Bavarian example should not be used to argue against the continuing case for Scottish independence. However, Westminster politicians who are serious about bringing the British home countries closer together need to realise that this can only be achieved through a federal system which gives the devolved governments the power to influence foreign policy and constitutional matters. These ideas may sound outlandish but are not that far-fetched when looked at from an external viewpoint. If a nation consists of countries with differing historical experiences and viewpoints then the way to move forward will not be to allow ‘home rule’ but to give them a say on ‘reserved matters’, namely foreign policy, immigration and Europe.
English website of the German upper house (Bundesrat):
http://www.bundesrat.de/EN/funktionen-en/funktion-en/funktion-en-node.html

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


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