A panoramic photograph of Malham Cove in North Yorkshire.

Constitutional vandalism, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and politics in 2021.

Tom Forth,

Jacob Rees-Mogg is like Dennis Skinner. Both politicians say the things that the calmer and more considered members of their party sometimes feel deep down but have learned to think beyond.

“Under Labour, our constitution was vandalised and the whole of the United Kingdom suffered. We must undo their foolish tinkering” Mr. Rees-Mogg wrote as his summary of a speech he gave in late November this year in the UK Parliament. I know that a lot of Conservatives agree. I keep on thinking about it.

Key parts of the constitutional vandalism which I think he is referring to were,

Attempts at devolution within England outside of London were ended when North East England rejected regional devolution in 2004 by 78% to 22% in a referendum.

I suspect that Rees-Mogg is also displeased with the House of Lords reform of 1999 but since I don’t believe anyone in the UK actually understands the House of Lords and its position within our constitution I’ll skip that.

Conservative tinkering

This “constitutional tinkering” by Blair’s Labour government was deeply democratic. All major decisions were confirmed or rejected by referendums, a mechanism that Mr. Rees-Mogg and most Conservatives feel justify our decision to leave the EU. But in many ways the changes were also deeply conservative, returning to institutions of the past that had been thrown away or eroded in haste by previous governments.

In Northern Ireland the new Assembly was a move closer to the past. The Parliament of Northern Ireland had existed from the creation of Northern Ireland in the early 1920s. It lasted until 1973 and its abolition during the troubles under a Conservative government and Prime Minister Ted Heath.

In Greater London the new Authority was a move closer to the past and the Greater London Council and London County Council that had governed London since 1889. It lasted until its abolition under a Conservative government and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In Scotland and Wales the return to old institutions is less clear. Scotland had no Parliament of its own after 1707. Wales as a whole had never had a Parliament before. But if we see devolution as a shifting of power from central government to more local tiers of government then this too was a return to the past.

The centralisation of the UK.

In the 1900s the UK was a decentralised economy with an informally decentralised government and huge powers held locally, especially by its great cities. By 1990, under a Conservative government and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the UK overtook France as the large country with the most centralised government in the world.

Since 2010, under coalition and Conservative governments and Conservative Prime Ministers the UK has deepened its centralisation and moved further away from the institutions of our past. Nearly one million government staff have shifted from being employed by local government to being employed by central government in a decade.

Increasingly the UK government interests itself in such minute decisions as planting flowers in cities and towns. These are the same cities and towns that today are so restricted in what taxes they can raise and retain that while Westminster plants flower, they must cancel their Christmas lights and apply for national grants to install bins. Many thinkers in the Conservative party advocate more of the same in coming years.

Brexit and beyond

I have written before about my attachment to the EU. I felt a deep sense of loss when we voted to leave. But I also accepted the result quickly. All but the luckiest of us have lost more in our lives than part of our identities, and almost all of us bounce back. There are positives in almost everything, including Brexit. One positive I choose to see is that such an enormous constitutional change opens the door to the many more that I think we desperately need.

Politics in 2021 will remain dominated by Covid and Brexit. But there is a good chance that both will fade as issues as the year goes on. My guess and my hope is that the constitution will fill that void.

Of course no-one in England cares much about the constitution. There is no majority in the UK for reforming the House of Lords, no majority in the UK for Scotland or Northern Ireland to leave the Union or have more powers within it, and no majority opposing the significant centralisation of powers within England.

If our constitution were more like I want it to be that would mean that we could worry about it much less. The constitution does not dominate Dutch, French, Irish, or German politics like it does the UK’s, in large part because their constitutions are better tended.

In 2021, strengthened support for Scottish independence will be expressed democratically. The SNP will almost certainly win the Scottish elections. They will then be denied by Westminster a referendum on independence that they would win.

In Northern Ireland the reality of Brexit will become clear. The UK is no longer a whole. What England has gained in sovereignty has come at a price to Unionists across the sea. That people like Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Conservative Prime Minister continue to lie about that will become clear. Support for the Union will continue to fade.

Even in Wales, now the nation most dependent on UK fiscal transfers and the place whose standards of living would decline most with independence, support for independence is growing.

In 2021, three of the UK’s four nations will drift further away from the country. Rees-Mogg and most of his fellow Conservatives will blame past constitutional vandalism on the part of others. I will point to the first half of this post and insist that it is the Conservative Party who are the constitutional vandals, and the Labour Party who are the true conservatives.

But most importantly in 2021, for it is the nation where the large majority of the UK’s population live, England will have to decide what it wants to be. On its current trajectory local government in England will end in 2040. It will employ no-one. Without a change in direction now it will be functionally dead much sooner. In many places it already is.

It is a disappointment to me, and a surprise to many abroad, that most English people will be largely fine with this. It may even lead to decent governance and decent outcomes for England. It will certainly make decisions about what to do with the powers repatriated from Brussels by Brexit much easier, they will continue to be held in London.

But this constitutional settlement is not compatible with a happy Union. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have all rejected in referendums, at least five between them now, complete control from Westminster. And it is clear that while most English people are uninterested in local control over their own affairs they deeply resent the control that other nations have claimed.

As we enter 2021, and after five decades of constitutional vandalism, the default future for the UK is to end. I hope and believe that we can avoid that fate, and that our country can emerge stronger and more united than before. And although Brexit has hurt me deeply, it also brings me hope. Because Brexit is one of the deepest constitutional reforms the UK has ever undertaken, and it opens the door to going even further, even faster, with the goal of preserving our Union.

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