This is my first visit to the City University Club and thank you for making my wife and me so welcome. We are both Oxford graduates, Vicki was at St Catherine’s College, and I am a graduate of St Edmund Hall but our paths never crossed during those balmy days â?? not surprising really because, as you can see, my wife is many years younger than me though I claim that my grey hair is definitely a sign of being in the Conservative Party these days rather than age!
It was however at Oxford that my political enthusiasm really started and I was in the Oxford Union while Boris was, well, busy being Boris even then!
Today it gives me great pleasure to address you as the local Member of Parliament. The Cities of London and Westminster constituency is a great and historic seat and it is a privilege to represent such a diverse and international set of residents and such an important range of activities. Here in the City where the boundary of my constituency stops a stone’s throw from Liverpool and Fenchurch Street stations there are just 7,000 residents whom I represent.
For the first time, however, in two centuries, that number is increasing. And you have to go all the way along the Thames to Chelsea Bridge to reach my western border.
The theme of my talk to you today is the important issue of the future of British democracy and identity. Democrats across our land are seeking more clarity and more assertiveness about what it is that we stand for and I believe we need better leadership and vision on this issue. Now that the notion of multi-culturalism has finally been discredited I sense that we need to affirm strongly the core values of British identity because I believe that a distinctive sense of Britishness matters, not just for here in Britain but to the world.
I shall not go into the history of the philosophy and political thinking which has moulded Western European and global civilisation over recent centuries but I sense that we Britons collectively appear recently to have lost the confidence to assert our own sense of identity. Ironically enough, the first wave of post-war immigrants were in no doubt as to what Britain stood for. They were themselves products of British colonial rule, coming to work and settle in the Mother Country.
It is, of course, very un-British for us to codify any of our collective values in law. It is one of the reasons we have never had a written constitution. It is also why instinctively most of us are opposed to signing up to one via the European Union.
I recognise that most of you here will, like me, have understood that the British way has been for slow, piecemeal evolution of legislation and customs. English law has never been formulated as a coherent set of rules by the body of technical experts. In spite of all the centralising pressures from an established church, academia and an ever more powerful and invasive State our form of law – Common Law – has evolved gradually. So too have the core values that make us what we are. These core values have been crucial to our social structure and have helped make this country admired throughout the world. I fear that these values are now under attack and we all need to be part of reasserting the merit in Britain’s democratic evolution.
Unlike other countries we have not sought to oblige our people to speak the national language, make a vow of allegiance or show respect to the flag. This infinite flexibility is in many ways a wonderful strength. Our customs and values are practical, based on an ongoing reality. When circumstances change, so too can the law and those common values with it.
One of the key flaws with a written constitution â?? an idea which seems to be in vogue again – is its lack of flexibility. Inevitably a written constitution, whether domestic or international, needs to be abstract or else it fails to address practical realities. For sure any written constitution is over-influenced by the specific circumstances prevailing at the time of its creation and accordingly is difficult to change without being subject to partisan controversy. Paradoxically, once encapsulated in a strict rules-based form then a determined and powerful State can all too easily scrap or re-write a constitution at will.
My belief is that the time is ripe for comprehensive constitutional change in the United Kingdom. Carried out precisely without partisan political consideration, I know that we are capable of producing a solution which will benefit Britain for decades to come and my immediate proposal is for the creation of a new federal UK parliament.
It is an elegant solution designed to resolve effectively the four main domestic constitutional uncertainties of the United Kingdom, which have plagued the political arena during the last three decades. With a federal UK parliament and four elected national parliaments we would maintain the Monarchy, strengthen the Union, resolve the questions raised by an unreformed House of Lords, and give independent and equal parliaments to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Let me assure you at the outset of one thing:- there would be no extra MPs, no extra costly buildings or staff and British democracy would be strengthened not weakened as a result.
Few can doubt that the British Constitution has been one of the success stories of modern politics. It has kept this country together, united under a common Crown and a common parliament, for over three hundred years. Not for us the coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions that have plagued Europe over that period. So successful has it been that we Britons clearly had stopped thinking about it.
Until ten years ago no one lost any time worrying about constitutional niceties; we knew instinctively that, messy as it was, the British constitution worked well and worked for the whole British Isles. Then the Labour government since 1997 changed everything. They dismantled the House of Lords by removing the independent hereditary element and have created hundreds of new Life Peers. In response to the demand of the people of Scotland and Wales, a demand, I acknowledge, that my own Party, the Conservatives, were too slow in accepting, they have created devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It requires little cynicism to see that many of these changes have been made for partisan political advantage and reform has not been carried through elsewhere. This has created many problems, especially in England, the neglected land of Labour’s changes. Gordon Brown is now proposing regional government at the behest of the EU but England is a nation, proud and undivided and demands equal treatment with the other nations of the UK.
Certainly, there is a deep â?? and increasing â?? disquiet from many in England at the effects of devolution and the most serious problems are the imbalances left by Labour’s partisan settlement. These are easily stated. MPs from Edinburgh and Cardiff can vote on health and education policies affecting Londoners and Mancunians, but not on policies affecting their own constituents. Why? That’s not just. Under the Barnett formula, residents of Edinburgh have 23% more spent on their healthcare and education than do my constituents. Why? It’s palpably not fair. Scotland merits a parliament. Wales and Northern Ireland only merit an Assembly with vestigial powers but England is left with nothing. Why? It cannot be considered equitable.
Since the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers, I have, in principle, favoured the option of a largely-elected House of Lords. However, I recognise that such an outcome is unlikely to be within the realms of practical politics. For a start, the strongest opposition to an elected House of Lords comes from existing life peers from across the political spectrum. Their support for any reform will be essential if we are to avoid constitutional deadlock. In addition, even if the principle of election were established, it begs the question as to the timing and process of such an election â?? would it be first past the post, proportional representation, for fixed or variable terms or on the same day as the general election? The list of practical difficulties is almost endless.
As a result, I now propose the creation of a completely new federal parliament. Four, full, national parliaments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with all the existing powers of the House of Commons and over them a federal United Kingdom parliament, which would debate defence and foreign affairs, make treaties and administer a cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the UK. It would be funded by a per GDP levy on the national parliaments. There would be no need for extra politicians, as the national parliaments would send representatives to the UK parliament and meet together for its debates, which could be held in the old House of Lords chamber, perhaps once a week. Abolishing the House of Lords means that the parliaments would be unicameral but that hasn’t proved a problem in Edinburgh or Cardiff over the last eight years.
This proposal cuts the Gordian knot of House of Lords reform and provides an equitable structure that respects national differences, whilst strengthening the ties that unite us as a nation of equals. It removes the growing sense of disgruntlement in England at the perception that the Scots in particular are able to play the system to benefit financially from Labour’s devolution settlement
I do not think that these matters are for politicians alone which I why I am deeply in favour of a referendum on such issues. They are pertinent and important components of British identity, a phrase that should be as important to us as it is amongst most free-thinking and freedom loving people in the world. But the idea of British identity is difficult to encapsulate.
I was intrigued at just how many respondents to a recent newspaper survey on these matters came up with the phrase “fair play” as their own concise expression of what makes our country special.
I suspect it is difficult for any foreigner to appreciate how pervasive is this uniquely British instinct. The full connotations of “fairness” are not really encapsulated in any other language. The nearest approximation is “just” or “reasonable”, but fairness is a more subtle facet.
Incidentally this is one aspect which defines my political philosophy. At times life is not fair but nor should it be the overriding aim of the political establishment to make it so. By contrast, justice is a good thing which focuses on everyone being treated the same. It is certainly the role of the State to ensure just treatment for all.
British freedom and character spring from our institutions. As I have mentioned, ours is a nation which gives especial importance to the rights of the individual to regulate his own conduct without recourse to coercion. We thrive in times of emergency and have a readiness to get on with the job when necessary.
In spite of decades of being made to feel ashamed of our colonial past, we are an instinctively proud people with a strong sense of national self-esteem. Our successors, whether our children or immigrants who come to these shores from far afield are able to relate to a relatively stable political culture that goes back many centuries but with this culture comes a unique set of rights and obligations. I want this legacy to be maintained. I believe we need to retain a United Kingdom and a democratic structure which encourages all our long-time and new residents to be proud of the institutions which protect the freedom of this country and preserve the Britishness that is at the core of our nation’s belief in itself. This is a tremendous foundation for all our children and grandchildren.