The votes are in and Scotland has (just about) voted against independence. This makes me feel a curious combination of relief and disappointment – relief as I think the union is the best outcome when looking at it rationally; disappointment for the Scots in that they have missed a golden opportunity to break from the dysfunctional, condescending Westminster.
Some support for the No vote came about in part because of the last minute scramble by the establishment to promise further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. This was met with the response by many (particularly on the English right) that we should see wider constitutional reform than just Scottish devolution, with further devolution for Wales and Northern Ireland, and even some form of English devolution.
In this, I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with the likes of John Redwood and Nigel Farage.
It’s a little disconcerting.
However, much of the focus of how this should be achieved seems to be on answering the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’. Posed in 1977 by the anti-devolution Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, this issue is about whether non-English MPs should be allowed to vote on matters that only affect the English. As more and more devolution has taken place, this question has taken on more importance, with England ‘missing out’ on being able to set its own agenda.
There is no good answer to this question as it is currently posed. One proposed solution would be to bar non-English MPs from voting or debating on purely English matters. This would see the creation of two tiers of MPs – the English able to vote on everything, and the non-English who are restricted on certain matters. Where would this leave perfectly capable non-English MPs who form part of the government? Where would this leave any non-English Prime Minister? Would it have been possible for Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling to be PM and Chancellor if they were prevented from participating in ‘English only’ issues?
I cannot see how this solution is anything other than completely unworkable.
The problem is that this question is being asked with the wrong mind-set. A contributing factor the Scottish Independence movement is the perception of being ruled by the English. Historically the English conquered Wales and Ireland, and these countries were then ruled by the English. When parliament deposed James II/VII in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for the crimes of being Catholic and promoting religious tolerance, they ended the reign of the House of Stuart that had united the Scottish and English thrones in the first place.
Throughout the history of the United Kingdom, the English have been, at best, the senior partners, and at worst, the absolute rulers of the other nations. Even within England, there is a perception (rightly or wrongly) that everything is skewed towards the South, and in particular London. If we can face up to and try to fix this mind-set, then we can have successful devolution that would leave a far greater proportion of the population feeling enfranchised, with the same powers available for all of the UK’s member nations.
Here’s my proposal of how we might achieve this.
We continue to have a Westminster based House of Commons and House of Lords. This is the British Parliament, and the seat of the British government. They are responsible for dealing with matters that affect the entirety of the UK, such as foreign policy, high level monetary policy, etc etc. The size of a constituency is made far, far larger, such that there are of the order of 25 constituencies across the UK. Each constituency elects around 10 or so members via a PR system (STV?), leading to around 250 MPs – less than half the current number.
We continue to have national assemblies for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we create a new national assembly for England. These assemblies are responsible for dealing with matters that affect each individual nation. Each assembly is devolved the same amount of power.
No one can serve on both a national assembly and in the British parliament at the same time. Each assembly is free to choose their own electoral system based on the wishes of the electorate. I would personally favour STV for the English assembly, with around 30 constituencies electing around 150 members. The English Assembly should not be based at Westminster, and ideally shouldn’t even be in London. Choosing Manchester or Leeds would have the beneficial effects of moving some power away from its current ludicrous concentration in London, as well as providing a boost for that area and helping to close the North/South divide.
Of course, we all know none of this will happen.
Challenging the status quo is not an easy thing in this country, and those in charge have extremely vested interests in avoiding change. The hallowed, ancient systems of government currently in place are revered by the old guard, with all their pomp and tradition better suited to the 18th than 21st century.
A system of PR would drastically reduce the number of both Tory and Labour MPs, as well as removing safe seats for idle back benchers of the ilk of Geoffrey Clifton Brown. Forcing members to choose between UK politics or English politics is also unlikely to be popular with MPs used to being in charge of the whole lot. Reducing the number of MPs will obviously result in many losing their jobs, but this would be necessary to help to pay for the change. It would of course be expensive as well, but that in itself should not be a barrier to long over-due constitutional reform that would be a huge investment in the politics of the future.
Whilst we’re on the subject of constitutional reform, maybe it would be a good idea to actually write a constitution. The UK is one of very few countries worldwide without one – the others being Israel, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia.
The Scottish Independence referendum has brought the question of what our United Kingdom is and what it should be into the foreground, and perhaps now is a good time for all Brits to discuss and agree on these issues. If we really are Better Together, then let’s explicitly define our relationship, making sure that everybody is represented, that power is fairly distributed and that the restrictions and legacies of the past are not all that define our common future.