A radical answer to the West Lothian question
If we want a fair constitution, we need a federal Britain
Comment is Free, 1st July 2008
The last time Ken Clarke held ministerial office, it was as part of a government which was committed to denying the people of Scotland the right to govern themselves. For 18 years, the Tories at Westminster held out against growing demands for a Scottish Parliament. As a result, they helped to create one.
The reason is clear enough. The Tories governed the entire UK , in pre-devolution days, but they had few MPs in Scotland , and the policies they pursued were seen to be anti-Scottish. The SNP and its allies smartly stoked the consequent resentment. The Tory response was to send out MPs and ministers to issue hysterical warnings that any cave-in to the demands of these latter-day Wallaces would mean ‘the break-up of the union’ – which every Westminster politician knows is a fate worse than death.
The result, as Clarke acknowledged on the Today programme this morning, was a Scottish Parliament. The Tories created resentment in Scotland , then fed it, then refused to do anything about it. When Labour came to power, they created a Scottish Parliament and, for good measure, a Welsh Assembly. And Lo, the union has not ended. Yet. But Clarke, like many people across the UK , can now see that if it is to be saved, his party will have to tackle a new form of resentment, this time from the English.
The UK is a state made up of four nations. It’s often wrongly assumed – not least, apparently, by the government – that power has been devolved from England to Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland . Wrong. Power has been devolved from the British government at Westminster to Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland , but not to England . The result is a dangerously unbalanced constitution – and a grave democratic injustice.
The reason is simple. The British Parliament at Westminster contains MPs from all four UK nations. It does not, however, control what happens in Scotland , Wales or Northern Ireland on matters which are devolved – which include crucial areas like healthcare and education policy. In England , however, Westminster controls everything; which means that, while English MPs can’t vote on education policy in Wales or healthcare in Scotland , Scottish and Welsh MPs can influence those matters in England . More than influence, in fact – they can impose.
And they have done. In 2003, Foundation Hospitals - rejected by the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly – were imposed upon the English by the government’s Welsh and Scottish majority at Westminster. The next year, university tuition fees – which, again, Welsh and Scottish students do not have to pay – were forced down English throats by five votes – all of them Scottish.
These are only the most obvious examples of the current mess. Consider some others. Yesterday, for example, the government’s latest NHS package was unveiled, to huge fanfare. Did anyone mention that many of these ‘national’ measures only apply to England? Or, if we want to get right to the heart of things – how can a Scottish Prime Minister, not answerable to the people of England, run a government whose business consists of governing them, but not governing the Scots? Where does Gordon Brown’s legitimacy come from?
This is the timebomb ticking under the United Kingdom, and it is a bomb that Ken Clarke today set out to defuse with a complex package of constitutional measures designed to give the English some say again in the way they are governed. Unfortunately for Clarke, his proposal – to allow English MPs to debate the details of English bills, but still allow non-English MPs a final vote on them – is a messy compromise which will please precisely no-one. It asks the right question – how can we make the union fair for all four of its nations, rather than just three of them? – but it gives the wrong answer.
The Tories, like everyone else, need to decide whether or not they really believe in devolution – and then they need to follow their logic through. If they don’t, they should be proposing a return to pre-devolution days. If they do, they should be proposing real devolution for England – which means an English parliament.
An increasing number of people, including me, are doing the latter. I would go further, in fact: the fairest way to run Britain – and perhaps the only way to prevent the break-up of the union, if that is still possible – would be a federal system, in which all four nations have national parliaments with equal powers, and the Westminster parliament remains as a guiding force, with responsibility for macroeconomics, defence and the usual federal kitbag. Bingo: justice done, both within and between the nations of the union.
Ken Clarke has come up with the wrong answer, but at least he knows what the question is. The irony – terrible but also terribly funny – is that Labour seems to be utterly clueless. Desperate to retain their Celtic power bases – not to mention their Celtic prime minister – they are aping the Tories pre-1997 mistakes. As they do so, they are stoking English resentment, and making the case for an English Parliament seems stronger by the day.
Witness, for example, today’s article on this site by Welsh Labour MP Ian Lucas, which is bafflingly nonsensical. Lucas claims that Scottish and Welsh MPs should be able to vote on English matters – though not the other way around. Why? Just because it’s ‘very important’. Some Welsh students attend English universities, he says, therefore he should get a say in how English universities are run. Do no English kids attend Welsh universities? If so, why can’t English MPs impose tuition fees on his country? No answer. Instead, we are treated to the claim that ‘there are no “English-only” laws in the UK’, which is an ‘integrated state’. Really? In that case, there presumably can’t be “Welsh-only” and “Scottish-only” laws either. Best get rid of that Welsh Assembly then.
Lucas’s transparently self-serving drivel highlights the desperation of the government. In denying justice to the English, Labour are stoking their resentment just as the Tories did to the Scots. We know how successful that tactic was: will this one blow up in Labour’s face equally spectacularly? Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: the next time this government talks about promoting justice and freedom abroad, we should remind it forcefully that democracy, like charity, begins at home.