Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Mouthwords from Lipfriends
As you will know if you’ve been reading this LJ for a while, I’ve been banging on about English devolution and the West Lothian question for a long time. In that sense, and that sense only, it’s gratifying to find it finally being taken seriously – or at least being discussed, which is not the same thing. Suddenly, having for 15 years treated the words “West Lothian question” as if it were the name of some scandalous uncle who must never be mentioned, the Conservatives have decided that fixing it is the most important and urgent problem in British politics.

Anyone who sees this as more than the mendacious gaming of a deeply unethical government trying to wriggle out of the sacred “vow” they’d made to the Scots two or three days earlier deserves to be hit with a Stupid Stick. In my last post I quoted the words of Prince John (a character we might see as George Osborne to Cameron’s Prince Hal) after his shenanigans at Gaultree Forest: they seem even more apt in the light of subsequent events. In a way, I admire the brazenness of it.

But of course the Tories wouldn’t have been able to seize this initiative had Labour (with a very few exceptions, such as John Prescott) not preferred to leave the question of English representation untouched. The reason they did so is very simple, and equally shameful: because they thought it played to their party advantage to allow Scottish Labour MPs to vote on matters that would exclusively affect England. Even now, I’m seeing people on Facebook discussing how to throw a spanner in the West Lothian works, because – horror of horrors – the English might vote the wrong way if they were given a chance! I’ve nothing but contempt for that attitude. If you want people to vote for you, persuade them that your policies are right - don't stuff the ballot.

That’s not to say there aren’t many, many practical problems, or that Miliband’s “back-of-an-envelope” jibe at Cameron is misplaced; but to be driven by a fear of democracy, as many within Labour palpably are, is low.

In their efforts to justify the status quo, some have pointed out that MPs often vote on matters that don’t directly affect their constituents. Here for example, one writer notes that an MP from Cornwall is able to vote on a proposed railway line that doesn’t go anywhere near the peninsula:

Let's look at the case of George Eustice. George is the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall, a new constituency brought into being during the 2010 election. It's right near the south-western tip of England. Only St Ives and the Scilly Isles are between it and the Celtic Sea. At the end of April this year, MPs voted on the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill in the House of Commons. This is an enabling bill to permit preliminary works on a proposed high speed rail link between London and Birmingham. It's not a high speed rail link to Penryn or Falmouth; it's going to have minimal effect on his constituents. But who walked through the lobbies to vote Aye? George Eustice. And no one, to my knowledge, has raised a peep of protest about that.

What this blogger does not acknowledge (and may not have noticed) is that this is an argument, not against English devolution, but against devolution tout court. Why shouldn't English MPs vote on Scottish matters, since George Eustace can vote on HS2? The argument is exactly the same. And yet this isn’t a writer who’s proposing to repatriate powers from Holyrood to Westminster – not a bit of it. The Labour Party has of course just promised to send a huge amount of power in the opposite direction.

It was Labour, to its credit, that set up the Scottish Parliament, in the idealistic first flush of its 1997 victory. But it was never meant to be a stand-alone measure – indeed, on its own it creates almost as many injustices as it redresses. The House of Lords, regional devolution – there was quite a list – but, like a man who gets bored of DIY easily and litters the house with half-finished jobs, Labour bodged the lot, and abandoned them when it saw shinier things to do, such as kill people in hot climates. And now they’re saying, “Are you on about that damp patch again? A bit of ceiling fungus adds character to the house!”

My guess is that the Tories and Labour will probably agree to a constitutional convention, which will report well after the election, and the recommendations of which no one in power after 2015 will feel bound by. The only question in my mind is how little they will be able to get away with giving to Scotland before that.

As I was driving today I heard a Labour spokesman declare, as an argument against any change to the current arrangements, “I don’t believe in creating different kinds of MP. I believe in one Parliament.” The interviewer neglected to point out that there has been more than one kind of MP, and more than one Parliament, in this country for 15 years now.

But then they were both English, and probably both forgot.

From what little opinion polling was done on this side the border in the run up to the independence vote, I was boggled to note that the English people being questioned not only objected to the independence concept, but would, in the case of a 'no' vote have happily seen powers repatriated to Westminster.

Admittedly, the average pollee is capable of demanding several mutually incompatible things before breakfast, but this really surprised me!

For myself, I am sick to death of politians of all stripes on both sides of the border having, as I do, a foot either side.

For a week or two we found ourselves talking about independence and self-determination and ancestral ties and all that sort of thing- and it was possible to feel good about our democracy.

It was far too good to last. And now we're back to the nastiest, muckiest party political wrangling.

The question of what does Cornwall have to do with internal improvements in the Midlands came up, mutatis mutandis, in US politics as early as the 1820s. Daniel Webster was the principal spokesman for the view that projects in one part of the country benefited the country as a whole, which helped knit it together, but he later went on to apply this principle to the North swallowing Southern demands like the Fugitive Slave Act.

In any case, it's disingenuous to bring up the West Lothian question in regards to Birmingham not being near Cornwall. The reason for disenfranchising the Scottish MPs from English questions is not one of Scotland's distance from England, but lack of legal jurisdiction, as for purposes of devolved powers they represent a different polity.

My big question about the West Lothian question is this: why was it not raised until 1977, during the first debate over establishing a Scottish parliament, when exactly the same problem existed in regards to whatever powers were devolved to the Stormont parliament in the period 1922-69?

You know, that's an excellent question - to which I don't know the answer, though perhaps someone here does?

Actually, a Cornish MP voting on the HS2 does make sense, at least on the grounds that he might vote against it, believing that money should be spent on improving the very poor rail links in his constituency instead. The same could therefore apply to Scottish and Welsh MPs who might just see money going to the same old same old and depriving the regions yet again.

Under the system as it stands I don't think anyone would object to Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on a rail transport scheme in England, since rail transport is not a devolved power. If it were, however, then that argument would not apply.

What this blogger does not acknowledge (and may not have noticed) is that this is an argument, not against English devolution, but against devolution tout court. Why shouldn't English MPs vote on Scottish matters, since George Eustace can vote on HS2? The argument is exactly the same.

I don't think it is the same argument. English MPs can vote on Scottish matters, provided those Scottish matters have not been devolved. When given the chance, voters in England (well, those given the choice) have chosen against devolution (at least the versions on offer) and decided to have their affairs dealt with on a UK-wide basis. Voters in other parts of the UK decided that they would prefer otherwise.

I do agree that more devolution would be a better idea for England and the UK as a whole. However, I think that in the absence of an agreement from voters in a referendum or similar process (with the caveat that what was on offer previously wasn't particularly good, from what I remember), it is not appropriate to create divisions between matters within one assembly.

Everything in the Scottish Parliament is voted on by all MSPs, ditto the Welsh Assemby and the NI Assembly. Everything in the UK parliament should be voted on by all members of that parliament. If matters should not be voted on by everyone then those matters should not be in that parliament (which I think would be better). Until then, though, it doesn't work in a non-devolved judisdiction to have selective voting.

I may have been unclear. I'm not in favour of selective voting within the UK parliament, and never have been: I have always argued for either an English Parliament or a number of regional assemblies with substantial devolved powers comparable to those in Scotland and Wales. The passage you quoted was in the context of my pointing out that the blogger's argument was really one against devolution tout court, that is to say in favour of a single UK parliament in which (of course) English MPs would vote on Scottish matters, because all MPs would vote on all matters.

When given the chance, voters in England (well, those given the choice) have chosen against devolution (at least the versions on offer)

Both those parentheses are pretty important! The only people ever given the choice were the voters of the North East - i.e. a bit less than 5% of the English population. And you're right, what was on offer was pretty shit, as even the sponsor of the Bill, John Prescott, now admits. Apart from that I can only repeat what I said when someone made a similar claim on andrewducker's LJ a couple of days ago. Namely, that I suspect you'd have got a different answer (or at least a much closer vote) in some other parts of the country, notably the north-west. And I very strongly suspect that in the intervening decade views may have changed, just as they have changed so substantially in Scotland even within the last two years. English devolution wasn't a live political issue for most people in 2004; it is, increasingly, now, in part because of the Scotland debate and in part because of the increasing concentration of wealth and power in London, which is much more noticeable in the wake of a recession.

In short, the fact is that devolution has never been offered to the English.

Edited at 2014-09-22 09:03 pm (UTC)


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