Not just a West Lothian velvet divorce?

David Cameron, reportedly, is to ignore the warnings, noted by Mick, and will continue to attempt to pressurise Prime Minister in waiting, Gordon Brown, over the West Lothian question. A highly speculative thought crossed my mind if the Conservatives ever do follow this through to its, seemingly, natural conclusion – see below.Neal Ascherson’s recent openDemocracy article examined among other issues the constitutional, or rather the parliamentary, issue:

The constitution

The second problem is constitutional – or parliamentary. At Westminster, Scottish MPs can vote on laws which only affect England – educational reforms, for instance. Sometimes (in the present parliament, for instance) such bills rely on the votes of Scottish MPs to get passed through the house of commons, even when the majority of English MPs is opposed to them. At the same time, English MPs cannot vote on Scottish education or health, because these are devolved matters reserved for Holyrood.

It’s an anomaly, and it’s unfair. But it arises because British devolution schemes are all lopsided. The English do not wish to have their own English parliament, to rank alongside the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures under the higher “federal” authority of a British parliament. There are grounds for this reluctance: the enormous population imbalance between England and the rest of the UK. Such a structure would be “asymmetrical” with a vengeance.

But while the Westminster parliament remains also the British parliament, then it’s an anomaly the English have to put up with. Back in 1886, Gladstone’s great home-rule bill for a devolved Ireland came to grief because so many MPs – including many of his own Liberals – refused to contemplate Irish MPs voting on English matters. The result was a century of rebellion, confrontation and bloodshed.

Now the old arguments resurface, yet again. The problem is being used as a weapon to embarrass Gordon Brown before he succeeds Tony Blair. But there is more to it than party advantage. In 2004, an attempt to circumvent these pressures by granting English regions devolved self-government failed; voters in the northeast (where the proposals were first tested) did not want it.

Since then, talk about creating an English parliament has revived, though still on the margins of politics. The Tories are reluctant to take up the idea, even though an English parliament would almost certainly be Conservative-dominated. Instead, they toy with the idea that Scottish MPs should be barred from voting on purely English legislation. This could have the weird result of a parliament with potentially two majorities: the Conservatives legislating for England, and a Labour government using Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs to impose its will on “British” matters such as defence, foreign policy or immigration. When is a government not a government?

Interestingly, and recently, the Conservatives and Lib Dems have called for the power to amend Orders in Council as they pass through Westminster, as part of the current arrangements for producing NI legislation.

But, in the continued absence of a devolved administration, logic would dictate [although some local parties would object strenuously], at least, a complete redrawing of the membership of all the Westminster-based NI Committees, should the Conservatives gain power and follow-up on this call.. highly speculative I know, and it would also carry the risk of expanding the potential impact of the velvet divorce discussed by Neal Ascherson in his openDemocracy article, which explores the anomalies and, via Barnett, the Scottish subvention.

In a “normal” European country, this could be accommodated in a more decentralised federation (this month’s endorsement of an “autonomy statute” for Catalonia, including recognition of its status as a “nation” and the granting of wider economic powers from the central government in Madrid, is an example). But Britain is not a normal state. Because of the archaic doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty (absolutism), there is no halfway house between devolution and independence. Reluctantly, the Scots may come to feel that independence is the simplest and least quarrelsome way to manage the relationship between Scotland and England – much as the Slovaks did in 1993, when the Czechs grew tired of making further constitutional concessions.

Almost three hundred years after the treaty of union, are we sliding towards a British version of that “velvet divorce”? The only British politician who has enough influence to tackle these problems in the next few years is Gordon Brown, the great Scot at Westminster. He has the intelligence for the task, but does he have the imagination or the courage? There is more at stake here than Brown’s choice of football team.

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  • Prince Eoghan

    The Tories are stirring a hornets nest with this one. Much to my dislike, whilst expressing the desire to be our own bosses, it is not top of a Scots wish list. Fire us up and the English will know all about it, it will shoot to the top of the list.

    The tories were decimated in Scotland during the Maggie years. This was because they showed a marked indifference to their supposed countrymen. It seems that this tradition may be continuing.

    Go on Dave, please, go on.

  • This is an interesting issue which has been on the political radar for some years. Clearly the Tories have given up any hope of regaining popularity north of the border in Britain.

    The question is, what is the logical conclusion of this? If the principle that Scottish MPs shouldn’t have a say in English affairs at Westminster, then non-NI MPs shouldn’t serve on NI Committees. Following from that, an MP who is not from NI shouldn’t be allowed to govern here, which would get rid of the role of Secretary of State et al.

    I think this situation simply shows the idiocy of the Union. Clearly ruling the whole UK from the ‘centre’ at Westminster was untenable, yet devolution raises many questions given that artificial boundaries are imposed on elected politicians’ power, giving rise to the West Lothian question, and Scots then asking why they can’t control their own taxes and gain benefit from North Sea Oil, etc. The only logical move which can be taken next is dissolution of the Union. Beyond that, I’m sure that the constituent countries could form a loose commonwealth- an old boys’ club as it were.

    Indeed, the Tories may have stirred a hornets’ nest, but those hornets may end up attacking the concept of a one-nation state which they historically have so dearly supported.

  • I’ve just had a look at the BBC website, and quite amazingly Alan Duncan of the Tories has said: “I’m beginning to think it is almost impossible now to have a Scottish prime minister because they would be at odds with the basic construction of the British constitution.”

    So basically the Tories are saying that only an English MP can be PM! Surely this sends out the signal to the Scots, Welsh and those in NI that they are no longer welcome in the UK (were they ever?)- and this message is coming from those who thus far have been most vehemently supportive of the Union (after all, it was the Tories who opposed devolution in the first place).

    The question is, who would be the next PM then if this logic were followed? After all, Brown, Hain and Reid are all MPs for non-English constituencies. Two-Jags could get his opportunity yet 😉

  • kensei

    The obvious logical conclusion to this is the dissolution of the Union, or at the minimum a federal system. I’m all for it, naturally.

    A curious thing I noticed. In the pictures rolling recently of England’s 1966 WC win, it is all Union Jacks in the crowd. these days it’s the cross of St George dominating.

    I’m not entirely convinced the Union will last another 40 years, to be honest.

  • PHIL

    It is quite incredible how the English question has become mainstream in such a short space of time. A year ago this sort of thing was only being discussed in English, Scottish and Welsh nationalist circles, now it is a debate that is taking place on the television, radio and written press. Personally, I think that the Tories proposals for English votes on English laws are half-baked and falls well short of what I want as a minimum, English home rule, but the one positive that it does have is that it may accelerate the union’s demise because it is so unworkable. There is still a long way to go, but the pendulum is definately swinging towards English nationalism, which can only be good news for Irish, Scots and Welsh nationalists too.

  • Crataegus

    We need a Federal system and I would also say Regions within England. The question then is what should be done centrally and what in the regions and leading on from that what function for the House of Lords and how does this all fit into Europe.

    The various Assemblies that were set up without an overall master plan. They are all different and in addition we have elected mayors here and there. An utter mess typical of the standards of Blair’s government.

  • Della Petch

    The Tory policy is just unworkable and ridiculous. They are all just tossing ideas around because they are afraid of the consequences. The Scottish, Welsh, English and NI politicians with their gold plated arses will not let go of the biggest country easily, but in the end, they will have no choice in the matter.

    Just as the union movement came from the working classes, so too will an English Parliament and then Independence. When the Unionists are crying into their pillows at night, satisfaction will reign supreme.

    Tony Blair wanted a legacy – This is it.

  • gg

    Della Petch

    “Just as the union movement came from the working classes, so too will an English Parliament and then Independence.”

    You can’t really get somewhere more working class than the North East – so why did they vote against a regional assembly? Other than the suggestion they didn’t need another layer of wasteful and expensive goverment.

  • Prince Eoghan

    It is clear that opinions, while all over the shop, are pretty clear on the outcome for the union. Remember the Scottish parliament only came about as a sop to a rising nationalist sentiment in Scotland. After all those years of Tories that we never voted for, we were fed up with control from London.

    The sewel motions will in my opinion lead to a break-up one way or the other. The sewel convention was set up to deal with these issues of when Westminster legislates UK wide on matters devolved to Holyrood. A future SNP led coalition/govt will challenge Westminster on this issue, they would be crazy not to. Westminster has written into the Scotland Act 1998 that they are supreme in these matters, but this is proving not to be so.

    Ironically this Act along with the EEC and Human Rights Acts are now regarded as a basis for a written constitution for a future independant Scotland. Solidity and a clear path beckons.

  • Henry94

    gg

    English people don’t want regional assemblies. Their political identity is English. As far as they are concerned they have their Parliament and it is Westminster. If the Scots and the Welsh want to leave they can just like the Irish (most of us) did. The English will retain Westminster as their parliament.

    It is absurd for an English majority to be out-voted on an English issue by Scottish and Welsh MPs.

    If the fixing of that injustice meant Scotland chooses independence then the English won’t care. Why should they.

    For the first time I’m wondering if Sinn Fein should attend the Commons to support this. The break-up of the Union is absolutely in the Irish national interest.

  • gg

    Prince Eoghan

    “The sewel motions will in my opinion lead to a break-up one way or the other.”

    I thought a Sewel motion is when the Scottish Parliament ASKS for Westminster to include it in UK-wide legislation. And the Speaker’s Ruling means that issues which have been devolved are not even discussed at Westminster, as was the case with the Stormont parliament.

  • Prince Eoghan

    gg.

    No, it concerns where Westminster legislation is not consistant with Holyrood on matters devolved to Scotland. It has so far produced no major problems as there is obviously a good relationship b/w both govts.

    An example of when things became strained was over the recent anti-terrorist legislation. This legislation should have been discussed b/w the respective civil servants of both Parly’s. Feathers were ruffled and embarresment all round when it was revealed that the civil servants in London had consulted their Edinburgh counterparts not a jot.

    Although not to do with sewel, it seems to have sent a message to those involved about the arrogance of London. Westminster instead of riding roughshod, which under the Scotland Act, they are legally allowed to do. Have by setting up the sewel convention(made up of MP’s and MSP’s) tacitly agreed that they cannot tell Edinburgh what to do when legislation collide, at least not without a fight, hence my prediction for the future.

    Interesting times. gg, I have tried to be as clear as possible. Remember we are dealing with an evolving situation, some what if’s etc……

  • gg

    Prince Eoghan

    “it concerns where Westminster legislation is not consistant with Holyrood on matters devolved to Scotland”

    That’s not what it says on the Scottish Exec website, but I agree with you on your prognosis for the future if Westminster oversteps the mark.

    I once taught a class to foreign students (from a federal country) on the UK political system and they couldn’t quite understand why there seemed to be so many overlapping governmental layers and exceptions in the UK. I can see their point. Cross a border and you hardly know who’s in charge!

  • Pete Baker

    Worth pointing to the comments in the BBC report by Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell, MP for North East Fife, who correctly, I’d say, calls the Tories on their political opportunism in attacking Brown:

    “A constitution is like a brick wall – if you take out one brick without regard to the strength of the wall, it all comes tumbling down.

    “What we need is a Constitutional Convention to provide a constitution for 21st Century Britain.

    “The Scottish example in advance of home rule shows how it should be done. What we don’t need is knee-jerk responses driven by political opportunism.”

  • Della Petch

    gg

    The Regional Assemblies are not at all the same as a national Assembly or English Parliament.
    I am geographically very close to the north east and we too were supposed to get a vote, but Prescott cancelled it, when it was clear we would also say no. He says that no one else in England will be allowed to vote on the RAs, unless we accept them. We will not. When the north east was asked to vote, they would not allow the option of an EP, even though we asked to be given the choice and have continued to ask ever since.
    Come hell or high water, we WILL get an EP.

  • Rubicon

    I’m not at all convinced that the Scots and Welsh have the balls to see the break up of the Union.

    Will the Scots and Welsh take the financial hit of loosing the English subsidy?

    Garret Fitz wrote recently about Irish independence (partial) being achieved at a time when fiscal matters made it possible. Even then – the financial impact was harsh and took generations to see through.

    North of the border there’s no point in posing the question – Wilson had things right here many years ago. For the Scots and Welsh though – are they prepared to pay the price? The Scots might – but the Welsh?

    I recall a chat in Dublin with a group of Welsh supporters after a 6 nations match. They remarked on how alike the Irish and Welsh were until one of their group added “Yea – we’re like the Irish – except for a missing backbone!” His friends nodded.

    What would Ulster Scots mean if the Scots went independent?

    Her Majesty’s first mercenaries may also be her last.

  • Della Petch

    Henry94

    Most English would agree with you. Don’t forget that a lot of us also have Irish ancestry.

  • PHIL

    gg,

    One of the reasons why the people of the north east of England voted against a regional assembly was because it is an artificial construct. The people of Northumberland and County Durham have an alliegance to their respective counties, whilst the people of “Teeside” resent being lumped into the “North East” region whilst the rest of their county (Yorkshire) is in another region. The English peoples alliegences lie firmly with their cities/towns/villages, their counties and their nation and not with some region that was thought up by a beurocratic vandal in a Whitehall/Brussels office.

  • slug

    Prof Robert Halzell has written some interesting work on this. He says the Engliah Question will be resolved by the English. There is no demand for an English Parliament, and English Votes for English Questions is unworkable. He says that regionalism is the most probable solution to the English Question. It may take 20 years to have the English Regional Assemblies. But there is already administrative regionalism (via the Regional Development Authorities) and the Treasury is aware of the need for better regional performance and will continue to promote these. These will develop networks at regional level that might eventually bring greater demand for regional autonomy. This has the advantage of decentralisation, given that England is the most centralised large nation in the EU and one of the most unequal in terms of economic performance. Although regions were rejected in the 2005 referendum, it was only rejected by the same margin as the Welsh rejected devolution in the 1970s. He argues that the English will decide whether to accept the other 15% of the UK voting on their affairs, and if not, then regionalism is the most probable option that will, eventually, arise.

  • Rubicon

    Phil – wasn’t it Prescott’s idea?

    I side with Henry’s analysis – the English couldn’t be bothered to put in administrations they didn’t need – anymore than the Irish would ‘opt’ for it without the threat of gunboats.

    No better country than England to know!

  • Prince Eoghan

    gg.

    “That’s not what it says on the Scottish Exec website, but I agree with you on your prognosis for the future if Westminster oversteps the mark.”

    Ah, I see where you are coming from(just googled it). I was on the right lines, but not technically correct in theory. In practice though I am correct, an evolving system has a way of, well evolving.

    What is interesting is that none of the threads seem to have picked up the following scenario;

    All the polls that I have seen have the SNP in the lead for the next Scottish Parliament elections. If this holds, in all probability the SNP will head a coalition govt. The English show their usual arrogance, legislate without consulting(terrorism legislation recently) the SNP bristle, protest and kick up a storm. Westminster declares sovereignty and goes ahead, hey presto, hurt Scottish pride at your peril. SNP call and get referendum for independance. Bob’s your uncle, the approx 1 billion pounds a month flows into our coffers, and not London’s.

    This scenario at present is much, much more likely than an English parliament, that has no support at all. Why are we even discussing something that in my humble opinion has no real likelyhood of occuring. Whilst ignoring a major constitutional schism-in-waiting that is bubbling away under the surface:¬)

    Look, I am cautious about declaring that an independant Scotland is coming soon. What I do believe is that my generation seem to be voting for the SNP almost en-masse, while the older generation especially the Catholics vote labour to a man. As these guys die off it is a statistical certainty that eventually the SNP will gain power. Fingers crossed.

  • gg

    Would a centralised English parliament be of much use to a region like the North East? They’d still be governed from London, from far away. Would regional assemblies not make things more localy accountable? England needs some sort of devolution, but an English parliament would be unfair to a country of England’s size, in comparison to the populations and small areas governed by the NI Assembly or the Welsh Assembly.

  • JAY 119

    It is popular for the Scots Nationalist to believe that the North Sea oil fields are exclusively in Scottish waters, they are not. Nor do they bring in one billion quid a month in tax revenues, roughly half of that number. Currently, under the Barnet Formula the English taxpayers subsidise Scotland to the tune of 7.5 billion quid a year. My point is that the Nationalists in Scotland, while perfectly entitled to go for full independence, should not assume that their economy is in a postion to support it. The English have just had two laws forced upon them which are mightily unpopular, one is that old people in England will have to pay for residential care, the other is the top-up fees for students at universities. The Scottish Parliament rejected both these measures. Suggestions on this thread that English regional assemblies will solve this onstitutional conundrum are way out of line. Unless they are given the same powers as the Scottish parliament it would remain manifestly unfair. If they are given the same powers the whole thing will turn into a dog’s dinner with them rejecting laws on health and education they don’t like, as the Scots have just done.

    The point about it not being possible to have a Scot as PM is not about their race, but about having a PM who is voted in by a Scottish constituency where he. or she, have no authority over a whole raft of Scottish issues, but will be able to make policy on English issues.

    The Union is dead in the water, the English, will eventually demand their own parliament, maybe in London, maybe not. I have no taste for nationalists of any sort, but there is no denying English nationalism is on the rise and it has been triggered by the Scottish Parliament.

    (By the way while I’m on the point, your English haters on this site seem to see the English as s homogenous group of people, they are not. I million people born in Ireland live in the UK, and more than twice the population of Ireland has emigrated there in the last 100 years. Same for the Scots and Welsh, so by my reckoning a good 50% of the population of England are celts by descent, or have immigrated from commonwealth countries. Do you catch “arrogance” as a consequence of living in England?)

  • PHIL

    gg,

    There is a need for local representation, but that must be subbordinate to an English executive. England’s counties have existed for hundreds of years and there is no reason why they cannot be used as a basis for local government or for regions to be based on our county boundaries. The present regions cut through the middle of some of our counties so that many find themselves divided between two regions, or in the case of my county (Middlesex) three.

  • dodrade

    The Tories are playing with fire, risking the destruction of the Union just to get back into power. Anyone see parallels with Serb nationalism and the break up of Yugoslavia?

  • Prince Eoghan

    Jay.

    “Do you catch “arrogance” as a consequence of living in England?)”

    Jay, you may be on about me here. I have provided evidence of English arrogance concerning relations with the Scottish Parliament. As Scots we were subjected to it on a regular basis. Remember Scotland being used as a guinea pig for the poll tax. I’m sure the rest don’t have to be “English haters” like me to provide you with ample evidence of English arrogance.

    I agree that English Nationalism has been allowed to re-awaken because they see the benefits the Scots have recieved from having her own parly. I don’t know if it is a backlash, English Nationalism was owned by the fascists so long, there may be an element of the masses taking back control. Also those English with small apendages, who as a rule had to exhibit their condition until recently, with a tatty red and white plastic cloth hanging from car and house windows;¬)

    Alex Salmond, mentioned on the most recent question time, while spanking the fascist from the Daily Mail, Melanie Philips. That Scotland’s resource wealth(oil and gas) was going into the London treasury at the rate of £1 billion a month. I am aware of differing studies as far as value goes. However Westminster recently let the cat out of the bag(under the 30 year rule) that in their estimation the SNP had always underestimated Scotland’s resource wealth.

    “It is popular for the Scots Nationalist to believe that the North Sea oil fields are exclusively in Scottish waters, they are not.”

    I must not be too popular cause I know that some of the resources are in English waters, it’s no secret, is it?. However do you know, that just before the implementation of the Scotland Act. That would handover control of fisheries and Scotland’s inland waters to Holyrood. The civil servant’s in London(with govt’ approval) changed the direction of the Scot/Engur sea border. It now runs past Aberdeen from north of Berwick. Strange angle, that WILL cause much dissension b/w two independant nations.

    BTW. You may find this interesting.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/bloodofthevikings/genetics_results_01.shtml

    Seems that the British people held on more than we thought. The ancient people of Britain survived the German and Danish onslaught, the further south, west and S.W. you go in England. Cumbria too.

  • Scotsman

    The point about Oil and Gas is the symbolism, not just the tax revenue. (BTW, Most of the revenue is north of Aberdeen or West of Shetland these days- the English will have a job trying to claim that 🙂

    For those “feartie” Scots who would quite like to be rid of the worst aspects of rule from London, but are worried that they might lose their jobs or their house price might fall, the oil represents a nice security blanket for nationalists, as well as a source of symbolic grievance.

    The first minister has given up saying Scotland would be a basket case if it were independent. He is now instead focusing on the upheaval of the move towards independence. As Salmond says, he has conceded the principle, and is now quibbling about the process.

    The “Unionist” Tories are playing into the hands of the SNP, but that won’t worry them as they gave up winning Scottish votes long ago.

  • ‘Do you catch “arrogance” as a consequence of living in England?)’

    No, but by subscribing to the Daily Mail 😉

  • Prince Eoghan

    To Scotsman.

    Many of the fearties to whom you refer are just the kind of people who needed “comfort blankies” when they were growing up. What we need is dear old Dave riling them up, make this a front page issue, as, sadly many are ignorant of the details in question.

    Funny enough the Scottish tories have slowly been gaining ground in the Tony years, even sounding out the SNP about the possibility of a coalition(according to the press), Aye right. I bet they are not getting consulted about dodgy Daves ambitions.