Friday, 19 September 2014

Time for a new start


Those of us who were desperately hoping that the Union would remain united are surely entitled to a sigh of relief. But there's already another battle looming: who's going to take control of what happens next?

David Cameron, in his early morning, post-referendum statement, suggested that a neat little Cabinet committee is all that's needed to chart the way forward. But even he acknowledged the need for what he called "wider civic engagement" in the debates to come. So let's consider how this could -- should -- be done.

The people of Scotland have taught the rest of us an invaluable lesson. They have shown us that people do still care about the country they live in, its future, and how it is governed, and that they can become engaged, enthusiastic and passionate if they believe their views will make a real difference.

So surely we can learn that lesson and build on it.  Now it's time for the rest of us to demand that we too are given the same opportunity to make our voices heard, so that we too can have a say in what kind of country we and our children will live in.

It's up to us. The Westminster establishment would like nothing more than to be left once again to their own devices, to keep the Scots happy and the rest of us quiescent. There is another way. No more oh-so-British, let's-just-muddle-through. This time, let's do it properly.

I propose the establishment of a Reform Commission, to draw up, after proper public discussion, a new government framework for all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. I envisage a four-stage process lasting no more than two years -- and I have some fairly radical ideas about how it should go about its business.

First, the back-of-an-envelope "vow" scrabbled together in the closing days of the referendum campaign by Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to promise the people of Scotland heaven on earth should immediately be consigned to the bin. (We won't mind them breaking their promise -- we're used to it by now.)

Second, the Cabinet secretary should be instructed to nominate no more than 50 of Whitehall's best and brightest officials to constitute a Reform Secretariat.  There must be equal numbers of men and women, a proportionate representation of ethnic and other minorities -- and no member shall be over the age of 35.

Why the age limit? Because we need to break free of the hide-bound attitudes that have held back reform for decades. We need fresh thinking from fresh brains -- and we need people with the imagination and intellectual courage to cast the net wide.

These young, energetic secretariat officials will have two tasks: first, to nominate the members of the Reform Commission, to be made up of representatives of all sections of UK society -- again, maximum number 50, equal numbers of women and men, minorities properly represented -- and again, no one over the age of 35. Community leaders, youth workers, academics, think-tank policy-wonks, teachers, counsellors, religious leaders from churches, mosques, temples and synagogues -- anyone with first-hand knowledge of how this country works, or doesn't work.

The secretariat's second task will be to prepare a series of option papers on all aspects of political life: voting reform; House of Lords reform; the monarchy; relations between towns, cities, counties and regions; housing and planning regulations; local taxes. (They will, of course, take a close look at how other countries manage this kind of thing: Germany, Italy, Spain, for example -- oh yes, and the grand-daddy of federal set-ups, the US of A.)

These documents will be published and distributed, engaging a wide variety of organisations not usually involved in these kinds of discussions. I'm thinking of groups with lots of members (ie not political parties): the RSPB, RSPCA, National Trust, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, trades unions, as well as online reform groups like 38 degrees and All of them with members who care about the future.

The whole point of the exercise is to get people thinking and talking. We know people care, we know they want to make this country a better place -- and we know they don't trust the politicians to do it for them. That, surely, is one of the reasons why so many Scots voted Yes to independence: just like UKIP voters south of the border, they have lost confidence in the traditional political elite.

So stage one: the setting up of the reform secretariat and reform commission. Stage two: the preparation and publication of the option papers. Stage three: the commissioners travel round the country for six months, speaking at public meetings in town halls, village halls, pubs, libraries and schools. Most importantly, though, they will listen.

What's important is that the priorities for reform must be set by voters, not by politicians. That's why the referendum "vow" was such an insult -- it implied that any old promise, cobbled together by panic-stricken party leaders, will be enough to satisfy the voters. It won't.

Stage four: the reform commissioners produce a report based on their country-wide soundings. They submit it to the secretariat, who in turn produce a set of proposals to be submitted to parliament. We remain a parliamentary democracy, so it is crucial that parliament makes the final decisions, but I somehow doubt that after a genuine public consultation, MPs will dare to ignore the popular will.

Could it work? Of course it could. Let's steal a slogan from the Yes campaign (who stole it from Barack Obama): Yes, we can.

The Scots have shown us how. Let's do it.

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