So, farewell my Westminster ...

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The Independent Online
This week's skirmish between John Major and Tony Blair over Scottish devolution is yet another sign that the constitution is now firmly on the political agenda, even on the election agenda. Yet, while Westminster's politicians talk of reforms and solutions, in truth it is they themselves who are the problem.

Like the Tories, Tony Blair's new Labour Party is a child of Westminster, and has a decided interest in protecting its inheritance. After all, it has been content to inhabit the most centralised political system in the western world. Its devolution proposals - with or without a referendum - are not aimed at creating a modern federal state in Britain, but rather at appeasing the rebellious Scots in order to 'save the union' and continue to locate 'sovereignty' in London.

As well as saving the union, our politicians seem determined to retain the unreconstructed parliamentary system. Major and Blair may tinker around with the rules of the Westminster Club, with Question Time or the hours of sitting, but they have no plans to reduce the outrageously high number of legislators - now nearly 2,000. The House of Commons itself now numbers 650 - and this for a nation of just over 50 million, compared with the US lower house of 435 for a nation over five times the size. Sir Edward Heath's sensible suggestion that the number of MPs be cut by a half is radical talk, very near the knuckle for Westminster's political class.

Nor is much change scheduled for the upper house. Major, with his in- built party majority, wants no change at all; and Labour's much-trumpeted Lords reform - whereby the hereditary peers can no longer note - is essentially cosmetic and marginal. An incoming Blair government would keep all the life peers, indeed make more, thus creating an even more lush system of patronage in the hands of Westminster's party leaders.

Thus, the beloved 'Mother of Parliaments' will remain a tame legislature, hardly worth the name, through which Britain's executive-driven state, neither properly overseen nor investigated, rides like a coach and horses.

The key to unlocking real constitutional change remains electoral reform. But party politicians, despite their flirtatious statements to the contrary, simply cannot deliver it. After all, to introduce proportional representation would mean giving up the possibility of winning the 'great prize': all the ministries and all the patronage (and if you're Mrs Thatcher an economic revolution too) - all on the basis of 42 per cent of the vote!

With "the efficient" part of the constitution essentially unreformed, the so-called "dignified" part - the tourist-trap constitutional flummery - also seems set to remain well into the next century. Although some of their back-benchers are restive, not one leading politician seems to want to tackle the question of monarchy.

So, whether the reigns of power are held by Major or Blair, or Blair and Ashdown together, Ukania - that poignant term invented by Tom Nairn in his classic republican text, The Enchanted Glass, to describe the Westminster UK-state - will remain the essentially unreconstructed and unwritten ancien regime it has always been.

Yet, outside of Westminster the pressures for constitutional change are building. Globalisation, our less deferential society, our insistent need for information, our growing ethnic and regional pluralism, the Irish and Scottish problems - all conspire to demand a serious refashioning of our institutions.

And if the Westminster political class cannot deliver this change, it will happen anyway. The question for reformers is how?

Well, as it happens, help is at hand - although this particular deliverance will not be good news for Europhobes. The fact is that the European Union may provide the modern constitution that our own political class continues to deny us.

It provides a written document - in the form of the Euro treaties and their coming amendments. It will establish a clear separation of powers, not only between the Euro institutions but between Brussels, Strasbourg and London. And through a European framework, we British, for the very first time in our history, will be able to appeal to what amounts to a supreme court, which, over time, like its US counterpart can build up a regime of rights.

Europe may also act as a forcing-house for real federalism at home. The sad fact, for Ukanians, is that the UK (like Germany, France and Italy) is both too small and too big. It is too small an arena for the big decisions (trade, foreign policy and defence are properly Europe's domain). Yet it is too big for democracy; for, clearly, the nations, regions and localities are much nearer than is Westminster to the people.

In the new Europe, health, education and welfare, and perhaps justice, are the only things left for Westminster to do - and these functions could easily be carried out by the nations and regions of Britain.

And here lies the nub of the hostility of our political class both to constitutional change and to Europe. Frankly, it's not really anything as elevated as the ideology of Euroscepticsm. Rather, it's the age-old resistance to change of a vested interest - a question of fending off the redundancy notices. Yet the question 'what exactly do we need Westminster for?' is one which is set to become more and more insistent.

Stephen Haseler's latest book is 'The English Tribe, Nation and Europe', published last month by Macmillan.

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