Thursday, 18 September 2014

What could a federal UK look like?

Assuming that the “no” vote prevails in the Scottish independence referendum, the next question for the United Kingdom is to consider constitutional reform to implement a quasi-federal system and resolve the West Lothian question once and for all. In some ways, it may also provide an opportunity to resolve the stalled reform of the upper house as well. Here’s the rough outline of a proposal that might work.

  • Devolve identical powers to England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, with the proviso that local self-rule can be suspended if necessary by the federal legislature (by a supermajority).

  • The existing House of Commons becomes the House of Commons for England, which (along with the Sovereign) shall comprise the English Parliament. This parliament would function much as the existing devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales; the consociational structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly (requiring double majorities) would not be replicated.

  • The House of Lords is abolished, and replaced with a directly-elected Senate of the United Kingdom. The Senate will have authority to legislate on the non-devolved powers (in American parlance, “delegated” powers) such as foreign and European Union affairs, trade and commerce, national defense, and on matters involving Crown dependencies and territories, the authority to legislate on devolved matters in the event self-government is suspended in a constituent country, and dilatory powers including a qualified veto (requiring a supermajority) over the legislation proposed by a constituent country’s parliament. The latter power would effectively replace the review powers of the existing House of Lords; it would function much as the Council of Revision in Madison’s original plan for the U.S. Constitution.

    As the Senate will have relatively limited powers, it need not be as large as the existing Lords or Commons. To ensure the countries other than England have a meaningful voice, given that nearly 85% of the UK’s population is in England, two-thirds of the seats would be allocated proportionally based on population and one-third allocated equally to the four constituent countries. This would still result in a chamber with a large English majority (around 64.4%) but nonetheless would ensure the other three countries would have meaningful representation as well.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Being Nick Clegg

The Liberal Democrats’ two choices:

Door #1 (aka Nick-and-Dave, kissing-in-a-tree): at least two years in government, at worst a referendum on the alternative vote, most of your fiscal agenda (where you and the Tories agree) enacted into law, and probably some of the blame for the next year or so, followed by some of the credit for the recovery after that.

Door #2 (aka life with Ed Balls): a government that surely won’t last out the year, a referendum on STV (that probably won’t actually go into effect even if it passes until after the next election, since the government won’t last out the year—heck, the government may not even last long enough to pass an STV bill), some of the blame for the next year or so (but none of the credit for the recovery, because your government won’t last that long), and you get to have a big ugly fight on all the fiscal policy stuff with Labour, who campaigned on essentially the opposite platform from the LDP.

If only there weren’t that sticky issue called “ideology” in the way this one would be a no-brainer. But if the LibDems are serious about PR, they’re going to have to recognize that as kingmaker under a more proportional system they can’t be seen as simply the more respectable version of one of the two major parties—and that eventually they’ll have to work with both of them. Better for the rank-and-file who wistfully recall singing the Internationale in their youth before they sobered up to learn this lesson now than later, methinks.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

STV is high-threshold PR

Contra Simon Jackman, the single transferable vote is a form of proportional representation, albeit one with a very high effective electoral threshold (the share of the vote a party needs to gain representation)—in the worst case, something on the order of (but not quite) 100 percent divided by the average district magnitude + 1 (number of seats per STV constituency).

Of course, the motivation for this discussion is the British election and the Liberal Democrats’ demand for a more proportional electoral system, specifically STV. Labour seem rather more enthused about electoral reform than the Tories at present, but one suspects Labour’s newfound sponsorship of the idea had more to do with pre-election positioning than a genuine interest in reform—Labour certainly didn’t complain with the 2005 election awarded them a healthy Commons majority on essentially the same share of the vote the Tories got this week.

Labour’s pre-election offer was the alternative vote, better known in the United States as instant runoff voting, or IRV. IRV effectively is a simplified form of STV in single-member districts, e.g. STV with a district magnitude of 1. I doubt the LibDems would be willing to settle for IRV, as it probably wouldn’t net them many additional seats, even if their supporters would have fewer wasted votes under IRV (as their second preferences would be allocated rather than discarded). IRV and other similar SMD systems (like the French two-round arrangement) are generally regarded as majoritarian rather than proportional.

In the British context at least, STV makes a lot of sense as a preferred electoral reform. Any proportional system will somewhat disadvantage the two leading parties (the Conservatives and Labour) compared to plurality (first-past-the-post/winner takes all) voting, but STV is less proportional at sane district magnitudes (3–6 seats per district) than virtually all PR systems, so the damage to leading parties is smaller. The major beneficiaries are the regional parties, regionally-weak parties (such as the Scottish Tories), and of course the Liberal Democrats; it should also have the salutary effect of somewhat depoliticizing the constituency boundary-drawing process in Northern Ireland in particular.

Fringe parties and those whose platforms can easily be co-opted by larger parties don’t come out ahead under STV, but that would seem to be a feature, rather than a bug—Parliament doesn’t need the BNP around, UKIP is a party without a purpose in a world with the Tories still in it, and the Greens are effectively Liberal Democrats who just don’t want to call themselves LibDems. Denying these groups 25 or so seats in the Commons between them doesn’t seem like any great loss for British democracy.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Your guide to today's UK election

This morning I unleash my inner comparativist and take to the pages of OTB to discuss today’s British elections in excruciating detail for an American audience.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Tweet-length thoughts (or thereabouts)

I’m not particularly inclined to do any long-form blogging at the moment (here or at OTB), but here are a few random thoughts on issues of the day:

  • I can’t think of any good reason to object to a merger between United and Continental; it’s probably a long shot, but maybe the combined airline will see fit to introduce a flight from here that’s further afield than Houston.

  • I don’t have any better tea leaves than anyone else when it comes to the British election. I watched all three debates (which is three more than I watched during the 2008 U.S. presidential contest) and generally think that LibDem leader Nick Clegg simultaneously came off as the best presence and the most politically naïve, which is just as well since Clegg (unlike, say, David Cameron) will never be a British prime minister. Putting the LibDems in charge of the Home Office would probably be a good idea though. Realistically it seems there’s no way Gordon Brown comes out of this as a real (as opposed to caretaker) PM. Your current Nate Silver guesstimate is here.

  • Predicted constitutional crisis of the week: the Conservatives take a majority of the seats in England but few in Scotland and Wales, and try to muddle through with an overall minority, on the (not unreasonable assertion) that on devolved matters at least the party that won the vote in England should govern, at least on matters of domestic policy where Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can go their own way. See also: the West Lothian question. As discussed before, this problem is an icky mess to solve.

  • I probably could extend the discussion above into a lengthy post on electoral reform in Britain and the prospects thereof, but… nah. Complicating matters: each plausible reform is essentially rigged in favor of the party proposing it (IRV/AV favors Labour, STV or “top-up” PR favors the LibDems [and UKIP and the Greens and probably the BNP, Pliad Cymru, and the SNP too, although the latter three are radioactive as potential coalition partners for anyone, and UKIP is borderline], and the current plurality arrangement favors the Tories [and whichever unionist and nationalist faction is on top at the given moment in Northern Ireland, similarly radioactive]), making consensus unlikely.

  • On the one hand, Arizona’s tough new immigration law (as amended) probably still treats illegal immigrants better than they would be in most other countries in the world, including Mexico itself and most Western European societies. On the other hand, I think we probably ought to aspire to higher standards than those countries, even putting aside my crazily-anarcho-libertarian-open-bordernik principles.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Lords reform back on the agenda

Fresh on the heels of promises to adopt changes to elections to the Commons, Labour is now promising to finish its reforms to the House of Lords with some concrete proposals coming “shortly.” The outline of Labour’s proposal suggest:

  • A third of the members would be elected at each general election for the Commons; since a general election must be called every five years, this pattern would give members of the upper chamber a potential term of up to 15 years.
  • The chamber would have 300 members elected via some form of proportional representation; what exact form is left unspecified, although it is likely to be a “pure” PR system (possibly using the same constituencies used for European Parliament elections) instead of the alternative member system used in the Scottish and Welsh devolved assemblies.
  • Members would be subject to some sort of “recall” process and would have to pay taxes in the U.K., excluding nonresident citizens.

All three of the major parties in Britain are now on-record as favoring a mostly- or fully-elected upper chamber, so presumably an “elected Lords” in some form is coming sooner rather than later. The Liberal Democrats in particular have suggested in the past that parliamentary reforms are a condition of their participation in any coalition, and given the growing chances of a hung parliament after the next election, they may finally be in a position to insist on reform in both chambers.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Your daily coup d'état roundup

While Evo Morales attempts to hold onto power in Bolivia by defining genocide down, in Australia both the Labor prime minister and the new leader of the Liberal-National (right-wing) opposition support ending the monarchy and in Britain the slow-motion coup against Gordon Brown continues apace.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Resolving the West Lothian question

I think I have to agree with the critics that fixing the anomalous situation of England in Britain’s almost-but-not-quite-federalist arrangements, thanks to the reintroduction of home rule in Northern Ireland and Scotland and the establishment of a Welsh legislature over the last decade, by only allowing English (or, in some cases, English and Welsh) MPs to vote on some things only affecting England (or England and Wales) is probably not really going to work very well in practice, since the whole notion of cabinet government in the UK relies on there effectively being one government supported by a majority of Parliament that can muster majority votes on all issues that come before it. When the “England” majority and the “UK” majority differ, as could easily be the case due to the regional variations in party support in Britain, it seems likely the whole business will become a mess.

Not that many of the alternatives are much better. Labour’s plan for regional devolution was pretty dumb, since few of the “regions” have any historical standing and governing different parts of England under different laws runs counter to the rationale for devolution elsewhere in the UK. A separate, single English parliament seems like overkill, given that most Britons live in England, but in the end it may be the only workable arrangement in a parliamentary framework.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Essay error of the day, adjectives sometimes matter edition

I was slightly bemused to read in one of my American government essays that one of the distinctions between federal systems and the unitary system used in the United Kingdom is that the U.K. parliament can alter or abolish the Irish legislature at will. (In fairness, I think they tried that, but it never really stuck.)

In the future, I may have to reiterate the Northern part of Northern Ireland when I talk about the concepts of sovereignty and federalism.

Monday, 13 November 2006

A good distraction from grading exams

I have to say this is clever: a map of the motorway system of Great Britain in the style of a London Underground map (a map that, incidentally, the good folks at Metrolink might learn a few things from).

þ: TransportBlog.

Saturday, 18 March 2006

Delusions of the U.S. pro-IRA lobby

I think we may have a winner for dumbest statement by a politician in 2006 already, and it’s only mid-March:

“Gerry Adams should not have been on a terror watch list,” said [U.S. Rep. Brian] Higgins [(D-NY)].

Just because the guy and his best pals in the IRA don’t advocate blowing up Americans (well, at least not Catholic Americans, or Americans who don’t make the mistake of going to London) doesn’t make him à priori not a terrorist and therefore exempt from the Full Osama treatment.

Apparently, American politicians of both major parties get a free pass when they’re running political cover for the IRA's cheering section—even when they’re the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Just in case you were still wondering if Washington was actually serious about the War on Terror in All Its Forms…

Friday, 23 December 2005

Big brother and your number plates

The UK has decided to keep records of virtually all vehicle movements in the country and retain the data for at least two years.

Steven Taylor, who pointed out the story, notes a transatlantic difference in attitudes:

Certainly, this underscores a key difference between European and American sensibilities: we are currently having a major debate over whether the NSA should ever listen in on the domestic end of an international phone call with a suspected al Qaeda operative, and the British are to keep records of where everyone is driving.

Of course, the NSA surveillance (which, admittedly, I have serious qualms about—indeed, even the FISA warrant process seems suspect, even though there is serious selection bias that plagues simplistic analysis of its statistics) is almost certainly considered by Europeans, including Britons, as yet more evidence of Bushitlerism.

Sunday, 11 December 2005

UK support = no discernible benefit

I realize I’m not making the tenured-law-school-faculty big bucks these days, but some of Glenn Reynolds’ analysis deserves a second look:

More importantly, the persistence of the whole [uranium in Niger] issue demonstrates the colossal folly of the Bush Administration’s effort to take the United Nations seriously in 2002, something that—like Bush’s failure to fire a lot of people at the CIA following 9/11—has led to considerable grief and no discernible benefit.

I guess the certitude that the U.S. wouldn’t have had the support of Britain, Spain, and Italy in launching the war in Iraq without the “effort to take the United Nations seriously” isn’t a “discernible benefit” in Glenn’s book. How soon he forgets the unbearably cheesy “Click Here to Thank Tony” ad that used to run on his sidebar!

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

Britons, watch your wallets

New British Tory leader David Cameron is calling for “compassionate conservatism” in the United Kingdom. If the American example is anything to judge by, that will include useless pandering to segments of the electorate who won’t support the political right anyway and a Nixonian commitment to reviving the New Deal’s economic policies.

Friday, 13 May 2005

MI-6 reports the obvious, news at 11

You know, I’d be stunned by this lead graf—at least, if it were written about the CIA:

Seven months before the invasion of Iraq, the head of British foreign intelligence reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that President Bush wanted to topple Saddam Hussein by military action and warned that in Washington intelligence was “being fixed around the policy,” according to notes of a July 23, 2002, meeting with Blair at No. 10 Downing Street.

Accurate intelligence about something everyone in the whole world already knew at the time delivered by a Western intelligence service? Who’d have thunk it? Give them a cookie. (þ: memeorandum)

Tuesday, 10 May 2005

Confidence tricksters

When is a vote of no confidence not a vote of no confidence? When it takes place in Canada, apparently. As Mustafa Hirji of Points of Information explains, Westminster parliamentary rules don’t obligate the executive to resign when they lose a confidence vote, but nonetheless the traditional response of resignation is key to parliamentary sovereignty:

[R]esponsible government’s preservation requires that the Executive honour votes of no confidence. Otherwise, the Executive ceases to be responsible to the legislature and is, instead, responsible only to the unelected monarch or representative thereof.

Responsibility to Parliament is absolutely key in our system of government. Unlike the United States, we lack checks and blances to constrain the power of the Executive. Parliament is the only meaningful constraint on the Executive and their widespread powers. When this constraint ceases to exist, the Governor-General, effectively chosen by the Prime Minister and likely therefore beholden to him/her, becomes the only check on the Prime Minister. That check is neither realistic nor desireable, let alone democratic or accountable.

Of course, if the role of the governor-general (or, in the case of Britain, the monarch) was taken by an official responsible to the electorate or parliament—most other parliamentary regimes use the largely ceremonial president in this role—the conflict of interest would be greatly diminished. Either way, it seems to me that if parliament does vote in favor of a no confidence motion, and the executive refuses to resign, the governor-general has an obligation to dismiss the executive.

Update: More via InstaPundit: perspectives from Ed Morrissey and “ferret” of Conservative Life, as well as liveblogging from Stephen Taylor (not the PoliBlog guy). Kate also has a post at Outside the Beltway, with a link to another news story on today’s events.

Saturday, 7 May 2005

Northern Ireland short on future sons of God these days

One of the more disturbing results of Thursday’s general election in Britain was the heavy support for hardline Nationalist and Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, where hardliners captured 14 of the 18 parliamentary seats up for grabs. Among those losing his position in Parliament was David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist party leader who negotiated the Good Friday peace agreement with retiring SDLP leader John Hume.

Then again, perhaps the hardliners can have an “only Nixon can go to China” moment… but I’m not holding my breath.

Thursday, 5 May 2005


Apropos of the U.K. election, Stephen Bainbridge plays ‘predict the election’ and notes Labour’s massive (predicted) lead in seats isn’t matched by its lead in vote share:

It’s an interesting example, by the way, of just how skewed the British electoral system is against the Tories. If I’m right, a 3 point difference in the national polls leaves them almost 200 seats behind Labour.

The British electoral system isn’t skewed against the Tories—at least, not any more, as Scotland’s overrepresentation in Parliament has finally been done away with; it’s skewed in favor of whoever wins the plurality of the national vote. It’s almost (but not exactly) the exact same effect as we see in the U.S. electoral college: “landslides” in the electoral college are easily manufactured by relatively small differences in the popular vote.

The effect is also a partial consequence of Britain’s nonpartisan redistricting system; gerrymandering in the U.S. depresses the number of districts that are likely to “swing” from one party to the other, while the British process tends to produce a larger number of districts close to parity. (However, unlike post-Wesberry America, there is no requirement of strict population equality for constituencies in Britain.)

Shugart and Taagepera’s Seats and Votes explains things far better than I can, if you can find a copy.

I like to watch

There was a time when I was enough of a politics junkie to watch election returns live. These days I’ll settle for reading the BBC results on the laptop while I watch the NBA playoffs on TV.

At the moment, it looks like Labour is running slightly behind its 2001 seat total (a net loss of 21 seats), with the Tories benefitting the most (+14), but there’s real no risk of Labour losing its majority unless the polls are really wrong—the current 3.2% swing to the Conservatives would have to become a 6.5% swing for Labour to lose its majority, according to the awesome Swingometer. (þ: Raffi Melkonian for the Swingometer link.)

Tuesday, 26 April 2005

“No” is the new “yes”

Dan Drezner wonders aloud about the implications of French voters deciding to reject the proposed E.U. constitution; he certainly doesn’t buy the doomsday scenario advanced by former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi.

Since the referendum is likely to fail for reasons other than policy grounds* (French voters being as ignorant of policy as any other democratic public’s citizens), reworking parts of the treaty, as suggested in this Economist piece, seems to be an unlikely solution. Rather, I tend to think (as some of Dan’s commenters suggest) that France may say “no” today, but will say “yes” later; the French electorate will have its protest vote, then get back onboard in a few months, probably without any substantive concessions. Ditto for the Netherlands.

Of course, the longer-term issue is that the iterated game is much less likely to work in Britain, where the public has never really been sold on the E.U. since joining in 1973. But again it’s unlikely that any proposed constitution would pass muster with the British electorate—again, because voters’ ratification decisions on the constitution won’t be made on policy grounds.

Sunday, 24 April 2005

Turnout collapsing in Britain

Robert Tagorda has a link to a really interesting Christian Science Monitor piece that notes a massive collapse in voter turnout in the United Kingdom over the last decade:

With less than two weeks to the May 5 vote, the big question facing British politicians is not who votes for them, but who votes at all. Experts predict the lowest participation in a century.

Turnout that persisted above 70 percent for decades after World War II is expected to plunge to 53 percent this cycle, according to Professor Paul Whiteley of England’s Essex University. Turnout in the 2004 US presidential vote was 61 percent.

Turnout is expected to be especially dire among young people – and worse still in inner-city districts like Vauxhall. “People of my generation do feel guilty if we don’t vote, but 18— to 20-year-olds don’t,” says Mr. Whiteley. “They don’t see party politics as interesting.”

Bizarre theories are raised for this turnout collapse by some:

Some critics charge that the increasingly presidential nature of British politics is a turn-off. Martin Bell, a former independent member of Parliament, says Parliament is too subservient to the prime minister. Mr. Bell, who is now managing a campaign for a candidate running against Mr. Blair in his Sedgefield constituency, also cites the erosion of trust in politicians.

“The problem of trust is at the bottom of the distaste for public life,” he says. “The prime minister hardly ever appears in Parliament. He hardly ever votes himself” in parliament, he adds. The inference is clear: Why should the electorate vote, when the country’s leading politician doesn’t?

The imperial prime minister (or, at least, the imperial cabinet) is nothing new in British politics (Walter Bagehot wrote about it in 1867 in The English Constitution), so Bell’s explanation seems rather unlikely. Another theory seems slightly more plausible:

Then there is the dramatic shift in British political geography. A generation ago, Britain’s electoral map looked like a Piet Mondrian painting: red slab in the north for Labour, blue block in the south for Conservative – a split evoking the contrast between coast and hinterland in the last US presidential vote.

Today, the map is pixellated like a faulty computer screen.

Ms. Giddy says it’s part of a cultural shift. “You don’t have strong allegiances to communities and parties in the way you did, say, when living in a mining town meant you voted Labour as an extension of your community,” she says.

This theory—essentially, dealignment of the British electorate—makes some degree of sense; indeed, dealignment of the electorate is a common explanation for turnout decline (despite increased ideological polarization of the major parties) in the United States. Of course, dealignment would suggest a substantial reduction in the importance of social class in British politics—something I’d hesitate to argue has happened, absent a lot more evidence. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the turnout rate is as low as the 53% figure posited by some of the experts; my gut feeling is that it will be higher, but what do I know?

Friday, 15 April 2005

Preferential voting

John Quiggin asks, “Why hasn’t Labour introduced preferential (single transferable) voting in Britain?” It’s actually a fairly good question, although I think Quiggin answers it later in his post:

Sooner or later, there will be a hung Parliament, and the price of LDP support will be full-scale proportional representation. If Labour introduced preferential voting without being forced to, it would not only cement LDP support but would greatly weaken the case for PR.

Labour, however, doesn’t need to make a deal yet—and, judging from the past 100 years of British electoral history, a hung parliament where Labour needs the LDP either to form a coalition or to sustain a minority government isn’t likely to come about anytime soon. So why help the LibDems today if you can put off an accomodation until later, perhaps much later?

Tuesday, 5 April 2005

The next big election

The BBC is among those reporting that British prime minister Tony Blair will call a general election for Thursday, May 5th, one month from today; at the moment, the Conservative Party is trailing Blair’s Labour Party by about five percentage points in the polls, although the Tories are running ahead among those “certain” to vote (þ: PoliBlog).

Wednesday, 29 December 2004

Britain's older poll tax

Jane Galt is amazed to discover Britain’s television police, responsible for ensuring the BBC gets its £121 a year from TV-watching Britons—even if they never watch the BBC. From the article:

The fee is very much a part of British life. It is a criminal offense for anyone with a television set not to pay it, whether they watch the BBC or not. Fee-evasion cases make up 12 percent of the caseload in magistrates’ courts. Although most evaders are fined, 20 people were imprisoned for nonpayment last year.

The BBC took in £3.9 billion ($7.5 billion) from the fee in 1993, but 5.7 percent of television owners still failed to pay. TV Licensing regularly carries out campaigns to warn them about the consequences of inaction that say, for instance, “Get one or get done” – “getting done” being slang for getting caught.

Enforcement officers visit homes and businesses about three million times a year. They have a variety of weapons at hand, including a law that requires retailers to notify the government whenever someone buys a television; a database with TV-owning information about 28 million Britons; and specially equipped vans and hand-held devices that can detect unlawful television-watching.

The predecessor of the TV licence, the radio licence, went away in 1971. For more details, visit the TV Licensing website, where you can learn about the TV licence in 12 different languages.

Sunday, 19 December 2004

How can 60 million people† be so wrong?

Blatant fabrications by their leading media outlets might be part of the explanation. (þ: OxBlog)