West Lothian, a Scot for PM and other problems: the obvious answer
Why should Scottish MPs vote in the House of Commons on legislation that affects only England when English MPs can't vote on Scottish matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament (Tam Dalyell's 'West Lothian Question')? Should the MPs for English constituencies form a kind of English Grand Committee to deliberate on matters affecting only England? How can Gordon Brown, a Scot representing a Scottish constituency, preside (if Mr Tony ever allows him to) over a government responsible for legislation affecting only England, when his government and the Westminster Parliament can't legislate for Scotland on identical matters? Now that Scotland, Wales and (soon, with luck) Northern Ireland have their own assemblies, quasi-legislatures or the real thing, with varying powers, why doesn't England have the same thing? Why hasn't the devolution to Scotland of fairly extensive powers blunted the appetite for Scotland to secede from the UK as an independent state, an increasingly strongly supported idea according to the opinion polls?
There's actually a remarkably simple diagnosis available for all these current teasers, and an equally simple cure for them. Today's Independent newspaper publishes my letter setting out both diagnosis and cure:
Letters: Genuine democracy
The Independent, 31 January 2007
A federal system in the UK would deliver genuine democracy
Sir: Rising support for Scottish independence and a parliament for England threatens the Union, but none of the solutions currently being discussed tackles the underlying problem. Even the radical but piecemeal reforms proposed by Helena Kennedy and her Power Inquiry ("Hand over some power to the people", 23 January) don't amount to a real overhaul of our outdated constitutional arrangements sufficient to revive genuine popular democracy. Devolution has moved us half-way, but only half-way, into a federal system, with the Westminster parliament trying vainly to function both as an all-UK federal legislature and simultaneously as a parliament for England, with no definition or restriction of its powers in either capacity, and a membership incompatible with the latter.
The only durable answer to the many questions this raises is a separate second-tier parliament for England, with the Westminster parliament becoming a first-tier, all-UK federal body exercising defined and limited responsibilities, mainly for foreign affairs, defence, human rights and regional policy, plus any other powers voluntarily ceded to the centre by the four national bodies. All residual powers (i.e. effectively all domestic matters) would be devolved to the four "national" (second-tier) parliaments and governments. This transfer of full internal autonomy, much more than at present, to Scotland and the other three UK nations should satisfy most Scottish and other nationalists, meet the demand for an English parliament, bring government much closer to the people, definitively answer the West Lothian Question – and, best of all, preserve the Union. It would supply a vital role for the federal second chamber as a Senate of the Four Nations. It would cure us forever of the British disease of over-centralisation.
Federation works for the US, Australia, Canada, Germany and many others: why not for us? All it needs is some courageous political leadership, currently apparently in short supply. How about it, Mr Brown?
BRIAN BARDER (HM DIPLOMATIC SERVICE, 1965-94),
It's puzzling that such an obvious solution to so many of our current problems and anomalies doesn't form part of our national constitutional debate, although reality will (I'm sure) eventually force it on us. I think the reasons for this refusal even to consider the federal solution include the fact that the Europhobes have (absurdly) demonised the concept of federalism, which they misrepresent as centralism when in fact it's the reverse; and the fear on the part of timid Labour Party leaders that full devolution to England would risk permanent Tory control of England even though Labour would probably retain control at the Federal (Westminster) level thanks to all the safe seats in Scotland and Wales. In fact, English devolution could be a real tonic for Labour in England, forcing it to listen to the people and go out to recruit members and win seats, instead of sitting back and relying on Scotland to keep it in power at the centre.
But the most serious inhibition smothering any discussion of a federal solution must be the recognition that the Westminster federal parliament and government would lose a vast array of powers to the four national bodies, including justice, crime, prisons, education, health, most aspects of transport, the environment (except matters affecting the whole of the UK), and many kinds of tax policy. It's likely that Messrs Blair, Cameron and Brown, perhaps even Sir M Campbell (all Scots, incidentally), and their lieutenants would fight to the last drop of English blood to avoid having their responsibilities reduced to foreign affairs and defence, and such other matters as transcend the borders of the four nations of the kingdom. They would see themselves as demoted: stripped of power, patronage and prestige. Yet no-one regards the Federal President of the United States as being less powerful or prestigious than the Governors of California and West Virginia: or the prime minister of Australia as in any sense playing second fiddle to the premiers of New South Wales and Tasmania. These fears are fanciful. Let's do it!