BREXIT has accelerated debate over whether the UK itself should break up. Scotland may soon get a second referendum. Welsh Nationalism has increased. The New York Times predicted that Northern Ireland will re-unify with Eire within a decade. When I was an actuary the statistics suggested “sometime in the 2040s” given higher Catholic birth rates. However, although detailed census data is kept secret for a century, summary statistics are released soon after the census itself. They’re likely to show that Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland – in 2011 they were already close (45% to 48%).
Is “Unionism” at the UK level something we on the left should fight for?
My (southern) Irish surname might suggest I want rid of Northern Ireland. I actually have family links to both sides of the debate but I hold no strong view except that of self-determination. Yet self-determination, with younger NI protestants being less enamoured with Unionism and more bothered about the basics – getting sausages, milk, a passport that gives them opportunities across the EU – may well lead to Irish re-unification soon, as the NYT suggests.
What I’m proposing here can accommodate NI but for simplicity I’ll assume “just Great Britain – England, Scotland and Wales”. Starmer’s “Buy British” is noble but insufficient in the face of English, Welsh and Scottish Nationalism. The left-wing cause is best served if we promote a two-pronged approach which emphasises Britishness but builds on growing regional loyalties – regions which might build upon the 12 (11 if NI is excluded) “counting regions” used in referenda.
Strengthening a “left-wing/progressive” Britain
The Conservatives cannot command 50+% of the vote in a large number of Westminster Parliamentary constituencies. Yet the opposition is too fragmented and loses huge numbers of seats courtesy of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting. What process might cause “all progressives” to unify behind one candidate per constituency to get a Westminster majority whose sole purpose is to replace FPTP with something if not “fair”, then “fairer”?
The Citizens’ Jury
The “Citizens’ Jury/Citizens Parliament” has attracted interest and its ideas are simple:
· 30ish random people from the population should vote on “key topics” like “public funding”, “health”, “climate change” etc.
· They should get to debate the competing issues raised by the facts presented to them after global experts present the facts
· They should come to some sort of conclusion or compromise.
· A resulting policy agenda is voted on in a referendum or via an electoral pact putting only one party candidate against the Conservatives in every seat – a “pseudo-referendum”.
CJs can have huge advantages.
· Random group
· They get to listen to experts without the interference of “media outlets” who may have an agenda in misrepresenting things.
· They should come to a conclusion that the wider public can be confident in, knowing that “people like me have been represented in the CJ”.
How they might be problematic if not designed well.
· Choose 30 random Brits. There’s a (surprisingly high) chance you’ll get few women, no gays, nobody BAME – nobody who is quite young or old, etc.
· You can get a bad randomisation, just due to chance.
How SHOULD a CJ be run?
· LIMITED randomisation – you use quotas and randomise within quotas. Thus if female adults are 55% of adults then 55% of the 30(ish) participants should be randomly selected females. If gays are 5% of the adult population then 5% of the 30(ish) should be randomly selected gays…..etc
· This way, the final CJ should approximately represent the wider population on all key sociodemographic variables (gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity etc). However, within all “key demographic groups” people were still selected randomly.
THEN you can present to them. If a key subgroup has a problem, it is clear. Debate will ensue. It cannot be ignored by virtue of “there being nobody from a BAME or only one elderly person…..”
Has a CJ ever showed a change in people’s minds after experts presented?
Yes, actually. It concerns smoking. A CJ was run asking the following question “Since smokers have SELF-INFLICTED injuries (in terms of lung cancer etc) should they be “sent to the back of the queue” when it comes to treatment?
Pre-CJ a lot of people said “Yes”. After the CJ, which involved experts showing that smoking was often a “logical short-term choice” made in response to systemic problems of poverty and stress, the CJ changed its mind. Smokers were to be treated no differently from anyone else. It is a National Health Service after all.
So how might a CJ lead to change in the UK?
There are various topics that a “proper” cross-section of Brits might decide need reform.
- Should first-past-the-post (FPTP) be used as the voting system for our primary chamber (the House of Commons) given that often the “winner” is rejected by 60% of the constituents?
- Should we have a second chamber that reflects “regional identities”? People are increasingly feeling loyalty to a region. The Northern Independence Party is all over Twitter. For the highlands of Scotland Holyrood is “just as distant as Westminster”. In Wales Welsh is much more a “way of life” in the north than in the south.
So maybe Britain needs to be more like the USA’s Senate – reflecting distinct areas that don’t have equal population but need protection to ensure a varied country that preserves regional identities.
Final thoughts: Aren’t we just promoting ANOTHER layer of government?
No. The remit of the CJ would be:
· Replace FPTP with a fairer system for the House of Commons;
· Replace the House of Lords with a Senate. It would have 12+ regions with each elected by proportional representation. Laws can only pass if no region in England, Scotland or Wales vetoes it (so no more “English dominance”). The Senate would replace regional assemblies.
· A senate of 150 members would have 100 elected, plus 50 automatic members who are experts in fields crucial to the existence of Britain. Thus members of SAGE, the chiefs of various technical societies and other experts are automatic members. Totally democratic? No. But do you want the best plumber or the one who gets the most stars on some stupid website?
This “power to the regions” – to be delegated via a written constitution that forbade Westminster from “taking the powers back except via votes akin to American Amendments to the Constitution” would be intended to replace, not augment regional assemblies.
Clearly, this would be presented by the media as a “power grab” intended to weaken Wales and Scotland. Yet if the Senate had veto power over key issues (national finance, environment etc) then never again could England impose its will upon Wales and Scotland (and NI if it sticks around) if even one region in any of the three (four) said no. That is real local power. Plus, unlike the current devolved institutions, if part of a constitution drafted by a CJ is voted through via constitution, Westminster can’t simply take back the powers. I’ll bet people start voting more often.
I’m British and Mercian. Maybe that’s the kind of thinking everyone should adopt.