Conflict Decisions and Constitutional Reform
19th June 2014 1.30 pm
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. Thank you for opening our proceedings. There could barely be two more fundamental issues for our country than thinking about or actually being at war, and the state of the Union. Where the Union goes is probably more relevant now than at any other time in my lifetime in politics, and we will watch anxiously and with great interest for the result of the referendum in Scotland. We are trying to pre-empt that. If people want to be taken seriously in their views on the Union, they cannot wait for circumstance; they must build their position on principle. The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform was keen to put into the field the concept of a constitutional convention in order to give people that opportunity.
These two issues are important, but before I go into them, I should say that I am willing to take interventions throughout my speech, as I know that several colleagues have to get away and might choose to intervene rather than make a speech.
Mr Allen: First, I want to pay tribute to my Select Committee and its members. For the last four years, we have worked diligently on these issues, and I hope that we have a reputation for working sensibly, crafting answers and working in partnership with Government. Although we are occasionally disappointed by the fruits of that partnership, we are none the less ever hopeful of making progress on numerous issues by working with Parliament and Government constructively, rather than grandstanding and getting nowhere. I pay tribute to the members of my Select Committee, a couple of whom—very distinguished Members—are with us here.
Dr Coffey: On a point of clarity, given what the hon. Gentleman has said in his opening statement, are we combining the two debates, or are we having a debate on conflict and a separate debate on the constitution?
Mr Allen: For the convenience of Members, I asked the powers that be whether it would be possible to take the two together, which will allow people such as the hon. Lady to catch their trains back to their constituencies if they intervene early, rather than having to wait for the second debate. I thank the Chair for assistance in that.
If I may, I will introduce the first of the two topics: Parliament’s role when the country goes to war. It is an onerous responsibility, and in many ways we have been relieved of it over the years, because the Executive, exercising their control over the legislature, have often not bothered to involve Parliament. In a modern democracy, that is no longer a tenable way to run our affairs and govern ourselves. For me, the most obvious abuse of the system—one that demonstrated that a new, clear, honest and open relationship between Government and Parliament was necessary—came with the events around the Iraq war.
As our troops were gathering in the desert, it was pretty evident—every news channel was certainly briefed—that something was going to happen and that serious engagement was going to take place, but Parliament had gone into recess. I and numerous others were keen for Parliament to return and have a debate and discussion. Our Prime Minister was popping off to Camp David for regular discussions with President George W. Bush, who was keen to go into Iraq, yet our own Parliament had not been convened. Members of this House from all political perspectives and with all views on Iraq were not allowed to vocalise those views in the forum of the people.
It got to such a point that I and others organised petitions to the then Speaker to reconvene the House. They fell on deaf ears, and it became evident that in fact it was not within the power of the Speaker to recall Parliament; he could only do so at the behest of the Government. Perhaps my Committee needs to have another look at how Parliament is recalled. The power vested in Government was obviously not being used to request that the Speaker recall the House. I remember that it got to the point where I asked whether it would be possible for a Member or many Members to get together and hire, rent or be given permission to use a place to have our own debate, without having to recall the full panoply of the House. Of course, that was dismissed without a thought. We were getting ever closer to war—to a decision that some of us felt would make millions of terrorists, rather than reduce the chances of global terrorism. It was a very important question—not a little bush fire war, but a regional war that would have consequences for decades, possibly centuries—but no, the House could not come back.
I started to organise a way for my colleagues in all parts of the House to create their own parliament, to give Members of Parliament a chance to get together and voice the concerns that were clearly out there among the British people. We hired Church House over the road. I asked Members if they wanted to come to our parliament—a Members’ parliament, rather than an official Parliament—and we got to critical mass when a majority of the non-payroll vote replied “Yes” to the invitation to Church House. The former Speaker, Jack Weatherill, agreed to put down his name as speaker, with the proviso, which he and I discussed, that every Member who attended had at least 10 minutes on their hind legs to say what they felt about the impending war, even if that meant—this is the first time you will hear me say this, Mr Weir—an all-night sitting, something I opposed when we, thankfully, won the battle on that issue many years ago. Everybody would stay there, and Lord Weatherill would sit there, until everybody had had their say.
Even that did not get Government to reconvene Parliament. What did was that I communicated with the BBC, which agreed to cover the parliament in Church House gavel to gavel, as the BBC called it—from the opening moments until the close. Within a matter of hours, I received a phone call from the then Leader of the House, Robin Cook, who told me that the Government were going to reconvene Parliament.
We should not have to do that. Members of Parliament should not need to organise their own parliament to consider such issues. It is an abuse of our democracy that that takes place. Although in the end there was a vote, despite the biggest rebellion in a governing party in British political history, people on the payroll vote sided with the Prime Minister of the day, and people were threatened, intimidated and cajoled into supporting the Prime Minister. Sadly, my soon-to-be good friend, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who was then the leader of the Conservative party, led most of his troops through the Prime Minister’s Lobby, although the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and many others, including Liberal Democrat Members, sided with the incredibly large number of Members of Parliament who said that now was not the time, and that the case, importantly, was not proven.
Mr Allen: I will in a second. What that underlines to me is the need for process. In a democracy, in which a Parliament and a Government need to work together, there must be an accommodation, a form of words that both Executive and legislature can agree on that allows sensible debate. I will define “sensible debate” in a moment, when I have given way.
Mr Gray: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is making an extremely interesting speech. He has spoken on these matters extremely interestingly for 10 or 15 years, to my knowledge. However, I am slightly puzzled by his line of argument. First, he is of course right about the recall of Parliament, but that is entirely separate from the matter that we are discussing. Of course Parliament should be recalled when something important has to be discussed, but that has no relevance whatever to what we are discussing now. Secondly, he may not like the outcome of the vote on Iraq, and he may say that people were cajoled and persuaded by the Whips to vote in a particular way and all those things, but that is precisely what happens for every single vote in this place, and quite rightly, too; that is the nature of democracy.
The interesting thing about the Iraq vote is that for the first time in 250 years this Parliament voted to go to war. Incidentally, the hon. Gentlemen is wrong in saying that there was simply that last vote on 13 February—I think that was the date. There was also a vote in November and another in December. The House of Commons voted three times to go to war in Iraq, and that was the first time in recent parliamentary history, going back to the 18th century, that Parliament had in fact voted to go to war.
Mr Allen: I do not disagree with any of the facts that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. In fact, we are in the middle of an interesting discussion in The House magazine. It is one of those debates in which one person writes a paragraph, then their opponent writes a paragraph and then the first person comes back. It is very interesting stuff, and I am having great fun with the hon. Gentleman; I hope that he is, too.
This is not about the facts. It is about the interpretation; it is about the judgment. Above all, for me, it is about process; that is the point that I am trying to make. It is about having the right process. To be told what to do and “This is the way we’re doing it” is not my definition of process. Process seems to involve more than one party, and in this case the Government of the country and the Parliament of the country, I think, can work out a sensible way to go forward.
The process is very, very important, and I believe that my Select Committee, with its members from all parties producing unanimous reports, could not have done more in attempting to craft words that would satisfy all parties. It may just be a rumour, but I understand that most of the Departments in Whitehall and most of the Ministers involved are content with the words that we have all come up with, apart from one Department—I understand that it may be the Ministry of Defence; I do not know—which still feels that any legitimate process would be inhibiting, so let me just address one remark to the Ministry of Defence, if indeed it is the MOD or its Minister who is doing this.
It is a great strength, when people go or have been to war, if they have legitimacy in what they are doing. In a modern democracy, if people choose to push and cajole elected Members of Parliament, members of the public and others into a particular view without making their case—not without voting for or against; I am not even suggesting that—they lose the moral high ground. They look as though their case is weak. We need to develop a process and a procedure whereby we strengthen our democracy, particularly when we are fighting against people who care nothing for moral or ethical values and will, at the drop of a hat, ride roughshod over democratic process. We above all should not do that.
Mr Allen: I will not give way any more to the hon. Gentleman. The final point that I will make on this part of the argument is that no one, to my knowledge, and certainly not my Committee or me, has ever said that there has to be a vote before we go to war, because there may be occasions when the Executive have to be free to respond. If bombs were falling on London as we were speaking, Mr Weir, I would not want Parliament to be convened and to have a debate in a couple of days’ time. I need to be able speedily to execute—that is where the word “Executive” comes from—action in defence of our nation. However, at an appropriate moment, the House should be reconvened, should look at the reasons why we took military action and should, we hope, endorse that. If it does not—if the decision does not go my way—I have to accept that due process has taken place. I accept that the vote did not ultimately go my way on Iraq, but I do not think that due process, on that occasion, did take place.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): This is a matter of the gravest importance, in that the decision that we took in March 2003 resulted in the deaths of 179 British soldiers. Even now, 11 years later, we do not know the full truth of how Parliament was bribed, bullied, and bamboozled into voting—
Dr Coffey: On a point of order, Mr Weir. I am surprised that it is parliamentary to suggest that Parliament has been bribed, because that implies corruption. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not want to make that suggestion—that people took bribes to vote a particular way.
Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): I think that the hon. Gentleman was making a debating point. I do not think that he was suggesting that Parliament as a whole was bribed in any way, and I do not think that that is a point of order.
Paul Flynn: I mean bribed by political favours. The full story of this is available. Is it not astonishing that on this matter—these are the most important decisions that Parliament takes—we are still to be denied the full truth of what happened? The Chilcot report will be published in expurgated form, and many of the reasons why we went to war, many of the influences, will not be included. Will not the impression left behind, if that happens, be that the Chilcot report is a cover-up by civil servants and politicians to protect their own reputations?
Mr Allen: I am probably less interested in the history of this, although we need to learn from the history and the ins and outs of what happened—all the dossiers, the weapons of mass destruction and so on. What I am interested in as a parliamentarian is that we all learn the lesson of how we can do this better. That is the main thing that my Select Committee is pursuing. There are people on my Select Committee who voted one way, people who voted the other, and people who were not even in the House at the time, but we have an interest in saying, “In the future, let there be clarity, to the degree that we can obtain it, on how we take the most important decision that any of us will ever face.” My Select Committee—
Mr Allen: This is a rather important issue, Mr Weir, and I know that the hon. Gentleman is agitated about it. If he wishes, I can make a case even on the back of what has happened in Iraq this week, with thousands of people dying and with individuals being executed on television for the benefit of people with particular views. These are really serious issues, so I would like to explain how this Parliament and this Government can work together to ensure that on similar, very serious occasions, we get this right in a way that perhaps we have not before. Again, we have made no outrageous demand that not a soldier should be deployed anywhere at all without the wise words of this House—of course not. We have made five reports to Government and the House, trying to get a clear resolution of this issue.
We have had three or four wars during the time we have been trying to get Government to come to the table and make an agreement that will take us all forward together, united as a nation in the most difficult circumstances we are ever likely to face. Have we been tolerant? One could argue that we have been far too tolerant.
“bring forward a draft parliamentary resolution for consultation with us among others, and for debate and decision by the end of 2011.”
“we hope to make progress on this matter in a timely and appropriate manner.”
“The Government needs to honour the Foreign Secretary’s undertaking to the House to ‘enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action’”.
That was not me or my Committee, but the Foreign Secretary. He still is the Foreign Secretary, and one hopes that his words will come to pass. Our report continued by saying that the Government should
“do so before the end of the current Parliament. In the absence of any other timetable, this is the one to which we will hold them.”
Let us move on to the fourth report on this issue by a Select Committee of this House—my Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. In September 2013, after the House had debated the Iraq question, we called for the Government to
“provide a comprehensive, updated statement of its position on the role of Parliament in conflict decisions.”
“We also recommend that it precisely details the specific steps which will now be taken to fulfil the strong public commitment to enshrine in law the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action.”
Finally, in March this year we published the fifth report, on which the Minister may like to comment in his speech. We drafted a resolution—a draft resolution means that the House and the Government can discuss it, change it and make it more workable if we have failed to make it as workable as possible. We produced a resolution that set out the process we could follow in order to get approval from the House of Commons on future conflict decisions. We called on the Government to consider the resolution and come forward with a revised draft by—we were getting a little frustrated, so specified the time—June 2014, with a view to having the House agree a resolution by November 2014.
We are now in June 2014. So far, we have received no Government response, but I hope that we get one this month. Knowing the Minister as I do, I hope very much that it will be a positive, creative and constructive response. I hope it will be in a form of words that can take us forward for perhaps 50 or 100 years, and will agree with us on a sensible way in which the House, its Members having been duly elected by the public, can be involved with the Executive, who have a vital and necessary interest in sometimes being able to move swiftly and expeditiously on conflicts that we would hope to avoid in other circumstances. I hope that the Minister has had the chance to prepare, and will give us some good news today on how we can go forward together on such a vital issue.
Mr Gray: All I did was to seek to intervene at a crucial point in his speech. The hon. Gentleman’s entire thesis seems to be based on the fact that he did not approve of or agree with the Iraq war. My question to him is simple: if indeed he is basing his entire report and thesis on that fact, how could it be that, of all wars in the past 250 years, the Iraq war was the only one in which there was not one but three substantive votes in this place before the deployment of troops? If his answer is that he does not like the way in which his party whipped its Members, and all the cajolery, bribery and other things he mentioned, I am afraid to say that that has absolutely nothing to do with going to war; it is to do with processes in this place.
Dr Thérèse Coffey: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and other Members: I mistakenly thought that a meeting with the Serjeant at Arms and the superintendant at 2 o’clock had been cancelled, so came to the debate. Before I go, I wanted to check on a point of correction. Page 6 of the report refers to the vote rejecting the motion by 332 to 220. My recollection—and I have just checked Hansard—is that that was the vote on the manuscript amendment tabled by the Leader of the Opposition, and that the main motion was defeated by 285 votes to 272. I remember that so vividly because it was probably the most extraordinary moment I have experienced in the Chamber in my four years as a Member of Parliament.
Mr Allen: I am happy to accept that as a statement of fact. It certainly was an interesting moment. The Prime Minister gave an incredibly statesmanlike response. In a short statement, he gave those of us who believe in democracy a great boost, because although some may say that there was technically a little confusion or muddle, the House had very clearly spoken, and he dealt with that excellently. Of course, that had repercussions, which thankfully mean that now, as the leader of Syria is undergoing a steady rehabilitation in the eyes of many people—it is all relative, of course—we are not enmeshed in a situation with great difficulties on all sides. Instead, we are adopting a position that is not going to replicate the awful consequences we see in Iraq on a daily basis.
There are no easy decisions in this field. Any people who pretend that everything would have been wonderful had we gone to war are people whose judgment is not of great value. Such decisions are incredibly difficult, but through the Syria vote the House indicated a way forward that the Prime Minister accepted. He made absolutely the right decision.
Paul Flynn: As the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said, the vote on 29 August was one of immense significance. It was the first time for centuries that, a Prime Minister having come to the House of Commons to suggest that we go to war, Parliament rejected that suggestion. It is extraordinary; had that decision gone the other way, and had we found ourselves opposing Assad in Syria—although there are three sides there—we would now be on almost the same side as the ISIS rebels. Is it not crucial that we learn that if we are to go to war, we should rely not on a Prime Minister writing his page in history, full of hubris and vanity as he takes the decision, but on the good sense of 650 Members of Parliament?
Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. Before we proceed, I must say that interventions are becoming very long. I appreciate that these are complex matters, but will Members please keep their interventions short? There will be chances for you to make speeches later on.
Mr Gray: On a point of order, Mr Weir. As you will have guessed from my interventions, I had intended to contribute to this debate, but I have just had a message from outside that my stepdaughter has collapsed and is in difficulty. I had intended to express my view, but if the House will forgive me, I will push off and sort her out.
Mr Allen: Our debate is lesser for the absence of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. I am sorry that we will not have more chance to debate these issues today, but as we are in the middle of an exchange that will appear in The House magazine, I am sure that Members will be able to read his views. Best wishes for his stepdaughter’s speedy recovery, too.
I will avoid the lure of the clear views of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on Syria other than to say that, in a democracy, decision making always benefits if we allow the voices of elected representatives to be heard. Whether we wish to take advantage of that advice, which comes in many different forms and from many different directions—a synthesis takes place—is a matter for the Executive and for the Government. Let us hear those views, and let us define a process that allows that to happen sensibly and appropriately. I look to my party colleagues, who may or may not soon be in government, to ensure that the issue will not go away. Sadly, armed conflicts will not go away, and it is much better to be prepared and to have a position ahead of time so that we can try to resolve what might be a problem in the future, rather than wait until a calamity happens and have to react in a crisis. Although it is hard to say so when we see awful pictures, particularly from Iraq and Syria at the moment, believe it or not this is a moment of relative quietude for the involvement of our country in which we can make sensible, sober and careful judgments about how to involve Parliament and Government in this most horrendous and responsible of decisions.
I will now move on to my Select Committee’s other report before the Chamber today. The report is on the need for a constitutional convention. The report was timely when it was agreed by the members of the Committee who are present, and it has become even more pertinent as time has gone by. With every moment that passes, as we come closer to the referendum in Scotland, and as other issues related to the whole concept of the Union and devolution start to appear on our agenda, the need to work that out becomes ever more pressing. How difficult it must be for Ministers living the day to day, the red boxes and everything else, to take a pace back and try to anticipate problems, but we need to do that in government and in Parliament. At the moment, there is a sense of, “Well, let’s just wait and see what happens in the Scottish referendum, and then we’ll react and respond.” That diminishes our position because it will be seen as a reaction to events, rather than a decision based on a principle on which we can all agree.
I believe that we can all agree on certain key principles. I take great strength from the fact that all the Union parties in Scotland—the Labour party, the Conservative party and the Lib Dems—have signed up, not to every dot and comma of a common position but to a sense that there should be greater devolution. They all have their different views. My party is lagging behind a little at the moment. Believe it or not, zooming by on the right-hand side of the debate has been the Conservative party, which is putting many of us to shame with its proposals on devolution for Scotland. The Lib Dems are there with their strong traditional views on serious devolution, too. A debate is going on, but all three parties are pointing in the right direction and share a common platform of greater devolution, which gives them great strength ahead of the referendum. Had they adopted such a platform after the referendum, people would have laughed, depending on whether the vote was yes or no.
Such a demonstration needs to be echoed in the United Kingdom. I believe that the leader of the Conservative party, the leader of the Labour party and the leader of the Lib Dems should similarly get together and make a simple one-line statement to the effect that, as principles governing our United Kingdom, we believe in Union and in devolution. That should not be after the event but now, and I think it would underpin much of the debate between now and the referendum. It would make the position believable for all of us. Rather than being an expedient because someone is shouting or has won a vote, we would be talking about devolution because we believe in it as a principle.
The Union and devolution are two key principles for our governance, and I would love to see that position put into the public domain. If the parties agree on nothing else, even if they do not agree on the detail, agreeing on those two principles would be immensely strengthening. Why? Because we would then separate the visceral separatists—those who are driven by hatred and dislike—from the rational devolvers, such as me and perhaps most people in this room. I am glad you cannot participate from the Chair, Mr Weir.
To be serious, though, many of us—even people sitting in Nottingham, as I do—feel that Whitehall telling us what to do and when to empty our bins, and not allowing us to get on and run our affairs, is an unacceptable imposition in a democracy. Many of us work away in our own way to make the case for rational devolution, wherever we are. If we do not have rational devolution, where do the rational devolvers go? Some of them become attracted to nationalism and see it as the way forward. It is ludicrous that we do not say to such people, and to people such as me in the east midlands, or in whatever nation or English region we may live, that we can run our own affairs.
How do we do that? I have some views of my own, but why do we not have a constitutional convention? Why do we not say that there has been a very serious schism? I hope that that schism starts to heal, but it will heal only if we take serious heed of how we can devolve power not just to Scotland, not because it is a reflex and not because it is a response but because we believe in it. The way to demonstrate that belief is seriously to consider devolution in England. That is one of the things that could come through in a constitutional convention.
There is no one in the House of Commons to whom the Minister takes second place on devolution. If there is one person in the House who has done more for devolution than any other, it is him. Long may he continue. Those Trojan, individual efforts of will and drive need a process. I hope he will be with us for many years, but just in case he is not, we need a structure that allows devolution to take place because, regardless of party, there is a means for it to do so.
Fundamentally, if the English get devolution, it then becomes believable not as an expedient for every other nation but because it is seen to be a principle and something that cannot be taken away. I wish that were not the case, but to prove that devolution is a principle we need to be clear and honest about English devolution. Creating a convention does not have to be a formal thing after an election; it could be an informal thing before an election and it could start to outline where we can go and how we take this process forward.
My Select Committee has been looking seriously at what that means for England and how it might shape things. We have not always come to complete unanimity on it; there are many different views and many different parties. However, we managed to get a sense of direction, if nothing else, and recently we produced our report on the codification of the relationship between local government and central Government. I hope that, as an individual Back Bencher, I can produce a Bill on that matter shortly, which will go a bit further and define independent local government of the sort that is commonplace in every other democracy. People are not like us. We are the weird one in the democratic family, in not having independent local government; in being unable to raise revenues locally to meet our budgets; and in being told what to do by a massively over-centralised Whitehall, in this case. That does not happen in many of our neighbours in north America, Europe and elsewhere in the democratic family.
We can get up to standard—up to modern democratic standards—by doing those things. If we do that; if it is written down and cannot just be thrown away on a whim by the next Government, or the one after that, or the one after that; and if it is part of what we are and what we believe in, which is union and devolution, it will be something that will see us through for a long, long time. That was the heart of what we were trying to say as a Select Committee—working together—when we put forward the paper on our proposal for a constitutional convention for the United Kingdom.
One of the key things that we opened up in our other report on codification of local government was how we finance things. We can have all the nice codes written in Brussels, which get shipped over here every so often and go straight into the waste bin in Whitehall, but if we are really to do this thing we need, of course, to have powers—they are relatively easy to define—but we also need to have finance.
At the moment, local government is financed. Where does that money come from? It comes largely from the income tax payments of every individual in this country. Maybe it is not possible to devise a system whereby we can link income tax to local government. Oh, yes—let us look up the road, and we see that they are doing it. Again, Scotland has led the way, winning over even the Treasury to the concept of assigned local income tax. Right now, it is only 10p of the income tax, but the foot is in the door; it is possible to go further and indeed the Scottish Conservatives have demonstrated how that can be done.
Such an offer—the current offer—has been made to our good friends in the Welsh Assembly. I hope that they will bank that, I hope that they will pick it up and I hope that they will be greedy and come back for more, because all they would be asking for would be to retain some of the income tax in their own nation and put it to work. It would not be income tax on a different rate; it would not be without equalisation; it would not be collected in a different way; and it would not involve setting up a local income tax bureaucracy. It would just be income tax the way that we do it now, but using the equalisation mechanism. If we wanted to use one in England, it would be the Department for Communities and Local Government, which would take that allocation—the amount of money currently spent on local government, paid for by income tax—and equalise it there, before distributing it to the local authorities.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present yesterday at the Margaret Thatcher conference on liberty, but if he had been he would have heard Dr Art Laffer explaining to those present that in the United States the nine states without local income taxes have grown faster and provide better public services than any of the states that have local income taxes.
Mr Allen: That is a very good argument to ensure that, under this new arrangement, we will make sure that there is an opt-out for Christchurch, so that it can carry on without any of the income tax that its residents pay going to its local government, but I suspect that most people would want to continue a system of equalised funding.
The beauty of tax assignment is that it changes nothing in terms of the money values and the collection, but it brings transparency and accountability to the line of account from someone’s pocket to their local government. One of the suggestions in our report is that everyone’s personal wage slip or salary slip should show not only national income tax as x pounds and national insurance as y pounds but local income tax—the element that goes to support their council—as c pounds.
People would look at that and soon start to become interested, once again, in their locality, in their issues, in a bond issue, in joining their local parties and in getting involved with the constituencies, councils and boroughs throughout the land, because they would own and pay for their own local government. That is happening in Scotland, it is soon to happen in Wales, so let it happen in England soon, and then we will be going back again to those two key principles of union and devolution, and of doing what is appropriate at the most appropriate level: at the Westminster level, or the federal level of central Government; at the national level in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and for us in England, that level or vehicle could be local government.
That issue just happens to be something I care about and feel I have thought through, but there may be dozens and dozens of other issues out there. Again, rather like being convened to discuss a major issue—such as whether the nation should go to war—let us convene on other issues. Perhaps our Parliament could be the convention, but let us convene what we may call a convention to hear the voices, and not pretend that something will go away if a vote goes our way in Scotland, or if Wales or England adopts a particular set of legislative expedients.
Let us hear the voices, and that is all my Committee has been doing. It is a thread right the way through four—nearly five—years of work. To have a fixed-term Parliament in which a Select Committee can set its stall out and start to do some thinking has been useful for us. Not everybody does it that way—that is okay, because people have different ways of running Select Committees—but we have taken advantage of that fixed term to craft some of those answers and some of those debates.
I will say why that is important, and then I will start to wind up. It is not just about whether our Select Committee comes up with a particular answer on a particularly nifty bit of procedure. Our politics has changed. I would say that it had not changed much for most of my life in the House of Commons, but it has changed in the last five or six years—big time. There are lots of reasons for that. But what we now have, and we are in the middle of a big inquiry into voter engagement, is serious voter disengagement. It may be that people are taught this cynicism about our politics, or perhaps they pick it up, or it may be that people in this House have a large share of responsibility for it, but whatever caused it, we are where we are. And we are, as conventional parties, disparaged and disrespected—often with good cause. However, the answer is not to go forward and build a new politics; the answer is currently seen as anti-politics, anti-democracy and anti-the parties in this place. That is the choice that the nation as a whole is considering at the moment and we need to supersede it, because it could be quite dangerous unless we come up with something that goes beyond it.
Looking at the big picture again, looking at the principles again, getting away from tomorrow’s headlines and looking at how we build that future is very important. It may be just about process in how we go to war; it may be about pulling together a constitutional convention; it may be about looking in the year that we commemorate Magna Carta at what the last 800 years have meant in terms of the conflicts that led to Magna Carta; and it may be time for a new Magna Carta. I do not think we should be telling people that. People should be deciding that for themselves. There should be a debate, which all parties should be encouraging, because some of those big principles need to be revisited.
I am worried that, unless we revisit those principles quickly, if we just continue to respond to events, not only will a Scottish referendum dictate our futures reactively but possibly even the next general election will do so. If a quarter of the population votes for a party that does not get any seats, what legitimacy will there be for a party that just manages to cobble together a coalition or manages even to get an outright majority in Parliament? Will that be a strong pillar of democracy?
We have to look at these issues before they happen. My Committee has made a serious contribution to the future of that debate on those issues, on the ones I have spoken about today and on many others. I hope that this House and the Government listen seriously and take us forward, so that we build a stronger democracy and put reactiveness and expediency behind us, because if we do not we may be threatening the very democracy that we say we love.
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