Scotland and the West Lothian question: federation is still the only answer
Tam Dalyell, then MP for West Lothian, posed what has become known as the West Lothian Question: why should MPs representing Scottish constituencies at Westminster be allowed to vote on legislation which affects England but not their own constituents, because the subject of the legislation — education, health, etc. — has been devolved to the Scottish parliament? Today's (25 June 06) Sunday Times graciously allows me to ride one of my six or seven hobby-horses, all familiar to regular readers of Ephems:
The Sunday Times June 25, 2006
Letters to the Editor: Scots belong in a federal UK
MICHAEL PORTILLO is, for once, resoundingly wrong (The Scottish drift that is unnerving Brown, Comment, last week ). His answer to the West Lothian question — Scottish independence — would make the current anomaly infinitely worse by dismembering our country, without solving the underlying problem. This arises from our doomed attempt to run the Westminster parliament with two incompatible functions: both a federal legislature for the whole of the UK, but with limits on its powers to deal with matters devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: and simultaneously a legislature for England dealing with everything.
With devolution we have sleepwalked halfway into a federal constitution. The solution is to go all the way: a parliament for England, a written constitution defining the respective powers of Westminster and the regions, and a federal Westminster parliament exercising those powers not devolved to the regions — mainly foreign affairs and defence — and those shared with them.
The Portillo proposal to destroy the United Kingdom by hiving off Scotland would be like healing a stiff leg by amputating it: the Scots are essential to our sense of nationhood (I am not even half Scottish).
Sir Brian Barder
Michael Portillo may or may not have had half a tongue in his cheek in recommending the dismissal of Scotland from the Union as a pretty drastic remedy for a non-life-threatening malady — especially as it would leave unresolved the identical problem in respect of Wales and (if devolution is ever resurrected in that unruly province) Northern Ireland. Portillo, though, is not the only politician proposing daft solutions to a relatively straightforward problem. Lord Baker, former Tory minister, is tabling a Bill to empower the Speaker of the House of Commons to declare draft legislation dealing only or predominantly with a devolved subject, and therefore applicable only to England, to be a special England-only measure, on which MPs representing Scottish (and presumably Welsh and in future Northern Irish) seats would not be allowed to vote. The Tories generally are cautiously toying with some similar arrangement, entranced, no doubt, by the thought that an English Grand Committee of MPs for English constituencies would have a Tory majority. Such a nostrum would be fairly obviously unworkable. Some aspects of England-only Bills would generally affect Scotland and the other devolved regions to a greater or lesser extent. It would create a category of second-class MPs, entitled to vote on some measures but not others. Would they be allowed to speak on the special Bills even though unable to vote on them? Could a Scottish MP be appointed as minister for a devolved subject? Could we have a prime minister elected by a Scottish electorate (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, to take but one example) with overall responsibility for all government policy but prohibited from voting on a wide range of his own ministry's proposed laws, and unable to rely on a majority of exclusively English MPs to support them?
Of course a truly federal solution such as I propose would hold out the prospect of a parliament and government for England with a Conservative majority, alongside a federal parliament and government of the whole United Kingdom with a Labour majority. But why not? It happens all the time in the US, Australia, Germany, Canada and in every other democratic federation. The challenge of winning a majority in an English parliament could have a powerfully rejuvenating effect on the Labour Party under a new leader.
Nor is this simply a technical, dry-as-dust, constitution-happy, nerdish issue. It goes to the heart of the need to escape from the paranoid over-centralism that seems to grip our national politicians as soon as they kiss hands on appointment as ministers. The full-hearted federal solution that I propose would blow away with derision such aberrations as the current debate at Westminster on how to impose new rules and regulations on local authorities as regards car parking and traffic meter attendants. No longer would MPs sitting far from the Shetlands or Derry or Newcastle be trying to lay down the law on which areas of pubs and clubs should or should not be made smoke-free. These all ought to be matters for local decision by locally elected legislatures and regional ministers accountable to (and able to be influenced by) their local communities.
It's not a valid objection to the federal solution that there's at present 'no demand' for an English parliament (or several of them). Government should be about leadership, not about obediance to the editor of the News of the World. An English parliament and government with real powers over most of the matters that touch people's daily lives would soon attract interest and support. If politicans of all parties had the guts and gumption to declare with passion the manifest benefits of completing our half-baked federation, incidentally solving at a stroke the otherwise insoluble West Lothian question, there would soon enough be a positive response. No other 'solution' has been offered that won't create more problems than it solves. Time to grow out of our national f-word phobia!