If there’s one lesson in politics that Tony Blair has yet to learn, it must sure be that genuine political legacies rarely come about by design but rather by accident.
For as much as Churchill was of the opinion that "history will be kind to me for I intend to write it" Churchill’s place in British history, and his legacy, owes much to his having been is the right place at the right time – ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ as the oft-stated aphorism suggests.
The fact remains that one need not have risen to, or even necessarily, aspired to the highest of offices in order to have engendered a political legacy whose ramifications continue rattle around parliament, in the fashion of a latter-day Banquo’s ghost, with ever-increasing vigour. Such is the case of the former MP for the constituency of West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, and a simple question that he dared to ask in parliament nearly three decades ago, a question that today bears the name of his former constituency.
The West Lothian question, as it is universally known, is not actually a single question, but two inter-realted questions, which have plagued the devolution debate since they were first posed by Dalyell in the 1970’s:
How can it be right that MPs elected to Westminster from Scottish constituencies have no ability to affect the issues of their constituents which have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament
If power over Scottish affairs is devolved to a Scottish Parliament, how can it be right that MPs representing Scottish constituencies in the Parliament of the United Kingdom will have the power to vote on issues affecting England (including those that don’t affect Scotland), but English MPs will not have the power to vote on Scottish issues?
In truth, this is far from being a new question nor even one whose ramifications are confined exclusively to questions raised by devolution and the inception of the Scottish Parliament (and to a lesser extent, the Welsh Assembly). In strict constitutional terms, such an anomaly, under which MPs in one or more of the United Kingdom’s constituent countries have held sway over matters in which their own constitutents have no prima facie interest, has existed since the Act of Union of 1707, which left Scotland with its own distinctive legal and judicial system, which includes the ‘bastard’ verdict of ‘not proven’, which is unique to Scottish law, but with a Westminster parliament in which England has the majority of MPs responsible, until devolution, for enacting Scottish criminal law. Much the same kind of anomalies, if not even more marked in their scope, have existed periodically since 1921 in relation to Northern Ireland, particularly since the early 1970’s, since which time the province has been under direct rule from Westminster for all but the two to three years of the power-sharing Stormont Assembly, which came out of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ but which collapsed in 2002 and has yet to be reinstated.
Presently it is the second question, that of Scottish MP’s voting on English legislation that is tasking the collective minds, in particular, of Tory politicians, so much so that their ‘Democracy Taskforce’, headed up by Kenneth Clarke, looks set to propose that Scottish MPs should be prohibited from voting on legislation which applies only to England.
Now, on the face of it this might seem an eminently reasonable proposition – if English MPs have no say in matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or even the Northern Ireland Assembly (should that be reconstituted) then why should MP’s from those three constituent parts of the United Kingdom be accorded a vote on matters which relate only to England? This is by no means a new or novel line of argument nor one without its supporters, notably the Campaign for an English Parliament, who, as should be obvious from the name, favour a somewhat more radical solution to this issue that is being proposed by Ken Clarke.
Neither idea is without its complications, of course – a full English parliament would require the most dramatic and far-reaching reconfiguration of the British constitution and system of government in several hundred years, as big a change, in fact, as that brought about the 1707 Act of Union. This is no small undertaking, therefore, and not without its difficulties, not least of which is the ‘North-South’ divide, which remains as real an issue today as it was during the Middle Ages, when the North of England was governed in a semi-autonomous fashion from the City of York. I think it fair to say that large swathes of the North of England would be no more comfortable with an English parliament dominated by MPs from the South than the CEP are with a Westminster government in which the Prime Minister’s mandate to govern England rests on the votes of Scotland. Nevertheless, one could conceivably construct such a parliament, by careful reconfiguration of parliamentary boundaries and the use of proportional representation, in such a way as to provide for an equitable system in which no one area or political party is afforded what amounts to a guaranteed majority.
This is not the case, however, when we come to Ken Clarke’s proposal to prohibit Scottish MPs from voting on English issues under the existing parliamentary framework, due to rather sizeable constitutional obstacle – one which, in keeping with established form, I’ve chosen to dub the ‘West Oxfordshire’ Question*.
* In case anyone is wondering, David Cameron’s consitutuency (Witney) is, of course, situated in West Oxfordshire, hence the name of the question, which is intended to ironic…
To explain the nature of the West Oxfordshire question is, perhaps, best to begin with a couple of paragraphs of flannel from the gloriously obsequious Burce Anderson, writing in today’s Independent…
When a Tory government passes a bill to prevent Scottish MPs voting on English matters, there will be an anomalous consequence. A future Labour Prime Minister who sat for a Scottish seat would be able to advocate certain policies affecting, say, education in England. He could put them in his manifesto. But he, himself, would be unable to vote.
Anomalous, undoubtedly – but it is at least a fair anomaly. It may be the only way to reconclie the English to the consequences of devolution. It would also help the Tories to win a lot of English votes. David Cameron himself has Scottish ancestry. This will not prevent him from urging the case for fair votes.
Now, much as I generally disagree with him on most things, Anderson has never struck me as a complete idiot. Partisan? Certainly, but not generally in the ‘off with the [mythological] fairies’ sense that one gets when confronted with the more vacuous musings of Polly Toynbee, or with pretty much every word expelled from the pen of Mad Melanie Phillips.
So I find it hard to credit Anderson with being quite so dumb as to have failed to realise that stripping Scottish MPs of their vote on English issue has rather more serious and far reaching constitutional consequences than simply that of denying a Scottish PM – who could he be referring to here? – from voting in the Common on certain manifesto commitments.
What Anderson has overlooked – deliberately, I suspect, in order to downplay the issue in favour of a policy that he sees clearly as being in his own favoured party’s advantage – is that one of the more important powers that attaches to government and, particularly to the Prime Minister, under the British constitution is the the power to introduce legislation together with control of the Parliamentary timetable.
What one could, therefore, quite conceivable end up with is a situation in which a government – quite obviously a Labour government, given that this issue rests on the status of MPs from Scotland (and Wales) where Tory representation is near non-existant – has the parliamentary mandate and majority to form a government unaided by any other party, and therefore the power to introduce legislation as sees fit, only for it to be entirely unable to pursue that legislation when it comes to English issues by virtue of being in the minority in the face of an English Lib-Dem/Tory coalition in the House of Commons.
Now some may think that a more equitable situation than that which exists at present, where Labour can rely on the votes of Scottish MPs to force through legislation which relates only to England but that rather misses the point, which is that a simple prohibition of Scottish MPs voting on English legislation could create a situation in which one has the worst of all worlds; a government with control of the legislative agenda but lacking the power to enact that legislation in England coupled with a defacto ‘ruling’ coalition in England that has no power to legislate at all – and before one gets any daft ideas about such a coalition being able to effectively legislate by amendment, lets not forget that amongst the government’s powers in such matters is the power to withdraw legislation, if not formally then by talking out its own bills on the guillotine, which is yet another practice denied to opposition MPs.
That’s the essence of the West Oxfordshire question:
If, by excluding Scottish MPs from voting on English bills, parliament is left with left with a government that lacks a Common’s majority on English issues, how is fair that that government retains control of the legislative programme and timetable for England.
What one has there is a recipe for paralysis and parliamentary instability – how does a government in that situation respond if it loses a key vote on a key policy? Should it resign and seek to obtain a fresh mandate or soldier on, knowing that its entirely legislation programme for England may well be undeliverable?
And if the government does resign and is then returned to office at the next general election, but in exactly the same situation, well what happens then? Do we keep on holding general elections every few months until the electorate either decides than any government is better than no government at all and returns a Tory administration, just for the sake of having a government, or gets sick of the whole rigmarole and either decides not to vote, or even decides to take it out on the Tories and/or Lib Dems out of frustration at what will obviously be seen as deliberate wrecking tactics?
The parliamentary and electoral system, it can readily be argued, is unfair in many respects and throws up more than its fair share of anomalies, particularly in respect of the Lib-Dem and other minority parties whose representation in the House of Commons never matches up to the proportion of votes that they receive at general elections. Such a line of argument can be followed through, quite readily, in relation to the position of the two main parties, certainly over the last 30 years or so, where each has, at different times, found itself with a parliamentary majority out of all proportion with its share of the overall vote. And yet, for all that, at no time has either of the main parties and their supporters ever reached the conclusion that the system is so loaded in favour of one particular party that it is near inconceivable that that party could lose an election. Even in the face of the worst electoral outcome both Labour and the Tories, in opposition, have still been able to believe that things could be turned around and that, one day, their day would come again. Even the Lib Dems, to a lesser extent, have been able to hold on to their dream of one day taking their place in government, even if their aspirations are necessarily rather more modest than either of the main two parties and their goal, to obtain a share of power – and the means to rework the system into a more equitable form – than that of obtaining power outright.
The credibility of democracy rests on it being seen to give the electorate a choice of government and the possibility, however remote than might sometimes seem, of change – in fact one can argue that the defining characteristic of a healthy democracy is not the mere fact that the electorate can elect a government of its choice but rather that it has the power to remove a government from office should in no longer have confidence in its capacity to govern effectively. One only has to look at the many examples that the culture of ‘big man’ politics in Africa has to offer to realise that when democracy fails, it fails not because of the government the electroate chooses but because the one they cannot get rid of.
How would the British electorate react to just such a situation – to the possibility, at least in England, that one of the two major parties might find itself without any realistic prospect of ever being able to form a credible government due to the imposition on parliament of an ill-thought out hybrid system system of government that affords one party (or possibly coalition) an inbuilt and near unassailable majority in parliament. Not very well at all, I should imagine – one simply cannot disenfranchise anything from 30-40% of the electorate without their being some consequences and fallout nor could one guarantee that any such consequences would necessarily be peaceful.
Unlike the US, where a President may readily lose control of the legislative programme to a majority opposition due to the strict separation that exists between executive and legislature, in the British constitution the power to govern is bound up in the power of governments to control and direct the legislative programme – if a US President loses a key vote in Congress, he may become a lame duck and find it difficult, but not impossible, to govern but he will not find himself in a situation where he may be forced to resign his office as result – this is not the case for a British Prime Minister, where any critical vote in the Commons may become a vote of confidence and where the inability to legislate often goes hand-in-hand with the inabilty to govern.
Far from providing a solution to the West Lothian question, the proposal to prevent Scottish MPs from voting on English issues merely opens up a whole new set of constitutional questions and problems as complex, if not more so, than those posed by the present status quo.
For all that entails an extensive series of constutional reforms, the like of which we have not seen for centuries – indeed one could well say the like of which we have never seen – an English Parliament within a federal United Kingdom would offer a far superior outcome to that offered by Cameron’s appalling hybrid, if only because such a Parliament, with clearly devolved powers and lines of authority, would be not be subject to the same uncertainties arising out of the Prime Minister’s royal prerogative powers in relation to legislation, which would clear be devolved to the First Minister of such a parliament, as would arise were we simply to strip Scottish MP’s of their vote on English matters within a unitary Westminster parliament.
That’s not to say that I necessarily support the creation of an English parliament – before arriving at such a conclusion I would first have to see the detail of any such proposal and would certainly want to see, in addition, how such a parliament would address the questions arising out the North-South divide – I am, after all, a member of the Labour Party and would be no more disposed to support proposals which resulted in an inassailable Tory hegemony centred on Southern England than Tories are to accept a Labour hegemony based on what they often refer to as ‘the Scottish Raj’.
But what I am clearly saying here – and I see no reason why someone like Bruce Anderson would fail to recognise this, other than the obvious, i.e. he sees short-term partisan advantage for his own party – is that an English Parliament would offer a solution to this issue that could, if constructed correctly, potentially deliver a fair and equitable system of government, where Cameron’s hybrid promises nothing but an unworkable and inequitable mess. For Anderson to suggest, as he has, that the sole anomaly to be found in Cameron’s hybrid would be the inability of a Scottish Prime Minister to vote on his own legislative programme suggests that he is either so blinded by partizan political avarice that he ignores the obvious or that he somehow considers the British public to be, to a citizen, a bunch of constitutional imbeciles.