Interview: Vernon Bogdanor

If you were old enough or keen enough (I was the latter) to stay up through the night to watch the last election in 2010, then Vernon Bogdanor should be a familiar face, if not a familiar name. In his role as one of Britain’s foremost constitutional experts, he appeared throughout the night as one of the BBC’s academic pundits. His suitability for this prominent role was certainly not hindered by the fact he was David Cameron’s former tutor.

Whilst the result of yesterday’s election is now known, it wasn’t at the time of print, and when I ask Bogdanor who he thought would win, he keeps mum, telling me, “Anyone who says they know the answer is either a fool or a social scientist.” Well, I suppose we now know whether any of the fools or social scientists were right.

Moving onto less speculative matters, I ask Bogdanor how he thinks 2010 impacted the political system. For Bogdanor, the key thing is “the growth of the multi-party system”. He also points out the growing geographical fragmentation of politics, “We have got different party battles in different parts of the country. In Scotland, it is obviously a battle between Labour and the SNP, in the West Country of England between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, in London much more between Labour and the Conservatives, in some of these East Coast towns, between Conservatives and UKIP. It is a question of whether it is a general election or a regional election or even a series of local by-elections. Even the idea of a national swing has gone.”

On whether the multi-party system is here to last, Bogdanor is clear, “I think the rise of a multi-party system is permanent and it fits in with trends in society because we no longer have a tribal system based on social classes. In the 1950s, people used to say, ‘We’ve always voted Labour,’ or, ‘My family has always been Conservative.’ We now live in a more consumerist society where people shop around. A third reason is that we have got PR for a lot of elections: for the Scottish Parliament, for the London Assembly, for the European Parliament and I think that might have accustomed people to vote for the smaller parties.“Ideally, I would like to see a single party majority government if more than 50 per cent of the people vote for it. I don’t want the kind of majority government like we had in 2005, when two-thirds of the country were against it. It is not in accordance with democracy.”

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One of the key themes of this election has been the rise of the SNP, despite their defeat in last year’s referendum. Bodganor is optimistic about any role the SNP might play in the upcoming parliament, telling me, “SNP MPs are members of parliament on the same basis as any others. They have said they are going to play a constructive role and not just fight for independence. In my opinion, they should be taken at their word.

“The problem for Ed Miliband is that they will form an anti-austerity bloc including the Greens and some members of his own party. But he is committed to balancing the current budget by 2018 which mean cuts in public spending. There will be an anti-austerity bloc that will make it difficult for Miliband to govern.”

The Conservatives have often argued that a corollary of further devolution to Scotland is English votes for English laws, an argument with which Bogdanor disagrees adamantly. “I am against English votes for English laws. I think it is not right because England is by far the dominant partner of the Union with 85 per cent of the population, and we cannot have a symmetrical system. With such an unbalanced system, it is not possible. You cannot have two different governments, one for foreign policy and defence, one for health and housing. Anyway, what is an English issue? Anything which involves public expenditure is not strictly an English issue because it has a knock-on effect on Scotland through the Barnett formula. England has to accept a system of asymmetrical devolution and practice self-restraint to keep the union. We were not willing to pay that price for Ireland and we lost Ireland, and I don’t want the same to happen to Scotland; I am a unionist.”

The Scottish issue brings up the whole question of whether referenda are a good thing generally. Bogdanor’s response, “Yes, I think that in a democracy, people are entitled to have a say on issues. You can’t tell from the fact that somebody votes Conservative whether they favour staying in the EU or not. On the large issues, I think you can only get legitimacy through a referendum.”

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Of course, there are many issues on which the opinions of the liberal elite and the population as a whole diverge, such as the death penalty. I ask Bogdanor whether the death penalty was an appropriate topic for a referendum, “If the demand were strong enough and a party favoured that, yes. I am against the death penalty and I take a perhaps old-fashioned, rationalist view that if the arguments against the death penalty are strong enough, they will win the day. I wouldn’t have a referendum on something that affects individual rights, like gay rights or things of that sort. I think they should be protected by the courts and shouldn’t be subjected to a majority democratic decision, but I am in favour of the wider use of referenda.”

As the conversation ended, I was left with an impression of a man full of optimism in Britain’s political system. Whilst the extent of his enthusiasm might be unwarranted, it is reassuring in light of the uncertainty around this election that Bogdanor sees the British system as fundamentally stable.

As Bogdanor says, “We are a highly stable country, much more so than most countries on the continent except for the Scandinavian countries. We have no really nasty right wing party like the Front National, no left wing nationalist party like Syriza. All our parties are moderate and committed to the constitutional system. There will be a way to make things work.”