The Conservatives want to reopen the devolution settlement

Update. I add a demolition of the Clarke scheme from the Unit I work with below the fold.

The Conservative veteran Ken Clarke has come up with an ingenious scheme for containing English resentment at the bad deal the British majority are getting out of devolution, as Tories see it anyway. This involves the lesser noticed part of Clarke’s constitutional task force report, the replacement of the Barnett formula for public spending in the devolved areas , including NI. Clarke grapples with the “West Lothian question”, the anomaly by which Scottish and NI MPs vote through measures on, say, English education that don’t apply in their own constituencies; and English MPs can’t vote on Scottish and NI education, because it’s devolved. The plan to limit English MPs to voting on amendments only is an ingenious compromise. I doubt, though, if it removes the possibility of a Labour government with a small majority being blocked by an English minority.

All party agreement would be needed for such a fundamental change and its hard to imagine Labour and the Lib Dems going for it. The DUP I’m sure would fight to keep their bargaining power in tight votes. The more likely but still imperfect solution is to reduce the number MPs from Scotland and NI, on the grounds that their Westminster MPs carry less responsibility. Imperfect representation for an asymetrical UK will continue to be the price of maintaining the Union.

Enoch Powell won an increase in the number of NI MPs from 12 to 17 in 1983 and a further one was added in 1997. A reversion to 12 is likely one day, but not some day soon. But stand by for a review of the Barnett formula as the price of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. It will affect Northern Ireland. The Clarke scheme is neatly dismissed by the head of the Constitution Unit of University College London thus:

Ken Clarke proposals neither new nor workable, says Constitution Unit

The proposals for a limited form of English votes on English laws which were outlined today by Kenneth Clarke MP are not new, says the Constitution Unit. Similar proposals were made by the Procedure Committee in 1999, the Norton Commission on Strengthening Parliament in 2000, and by Sir Malcolm Rifkind in 2007. All recommended excluding Scottish MPs from voting at one or more stages during the passage of ‘English’ bills through the House of Commons.

“From the little we have heard so far, Ken Clarke’s plan is no more feasible than previous proposals to limit the voting rights of Scottish MPs”, said the Unit’s director Prof Robert Hazell. “No one has yet satisfactorily defined how you identify an ‘English law’. The territorial extent of most bills varies in different parts of the bill. Either bills will have to be drafted in a completely different way; or you will have legislative hokey cokey, with MPs being allowed to vote on some amendments but not on others”.

The other doubt raised by the Unit is whether the Conservatives would try to implement English votes on English laws if they were in government. “I would be surprised if the Conservatives acted on this” said Robert Hazell. “The political and technical difficulties are formidable. And by definition, if the Conservatives are in government, they won’t need any form of English votes on English laws to get their legislation through.”

Prof Robert Hazell is editor of The English Question (Manchester Univ Press 2006), the product of an exhaustive five year examination of all possible solutions to the English Question.

  • The DUP I’m sure would fight to keep their bargaining power in tight votes.

    If they actually made the effort to appear more often in what they claim to be their nation’s parliament, then, they may have more of a moral argument. The double (and triple) jobbers all have an attendance record of less than 50% for votes.

  • English MPs can’t vote on Scottish and NI education, because it’s devolved.

    Are you suggesting that Scottish and North of Ireland MPs can vote on education?

  • “English MPs can’t vote on Scottish and NI education, because it’s devolved.”

    Are you suggesting that Scottish and North of Ireland MPs can vote on education?

  • I really don’t know what they were thinking when they set up devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and NI, but not in England. They must have foreseen this kind of problem – did they think it through and propose solutions aat the time? If not, why not? And if so, why are they not working?

    The only logical solution is, of course, an English Assembly for English affairs. And then you have a de facto federal state. Which is probably what they should have gone for in the first place. But I guess Phoney Tony still wanted to pretend that he wasn’t breaking up the ‘United’ Kingdom. Somehow the name ‘Federal Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ doesn’t (yet) roll off the tongue. Maybe he was afraid of the connotations of the ‘FK’ (somewhat akin to FCUK, the shop). Plus, of course, the dangers of sitting beside France in the UN, EU, and all other fora where the countries sit in alphabetical order.

  • Greenflag

    ‘Plus, of course, the dangers of sitting beside France in the UN’

    But not as embarassing as having to sit between Egypt and Ethipoia as just England ?:)

    Can’t blame the English for wanting to ‘resolve’ the West Lothian question . But I wish to Christ they’d finish resolving the Irish Question first 🙂

    Reducing the number Scot Westminster MP’s should be enough to help trigger the Scots further to independence -however in N.I it will only provoke another episode of customary unionist whining and moaning.

    Has ‘devolution’ actually provided any tangible benefits to either Scotland or NI ? other than increasing the number of highly paid politicians living off the public purse ?

    Patched up for now I’d say .

  • Prionsa Eoghan

    Horseman

    To be fair to Blair, he did not want devolution but was persuaded by George Robertson and Donald Dewar et al of the need to stymie Scottish Nationalism. Nice try. He even reckoned that Holyrood would have all the powers of an Englich church council. That was a keeper. We can say Thatcherism was the architect of the Scottish Parliament, but that comment from Blair ensured that Scottish Labour fought for more powers, like the ability to raise taxes.

    To me this is a halfway house measure. Many English, especially Tory MP’s want a two tier Parliament. Rather than hide behind the bullshit the sooner we go our seperate ways on friendly terms the better. Andrew Marr reckons the union is like a pizza, split apart but being held by ever thinner stringlets of molten cheese.

  • Peat Blog

    Horseman,

    The English were supposed to get regional assemblies and this was John Prescott’s pet project (it went nowhere as nobody wanted them except for some in the north-east and south-west).

    Instead they seem to want to try to give regional bodies increased planning and other powers in England so as to effectively override local opposition to infrastructural projects such as airport expansion. Seems like undemocratic regional quangos are all that the English will get from this government.

  • Brian Walker

    Ireland you quote me and ask:

    ““English MPs can’t vote on Scottish and NI education, because it’s devolved.”

    Are you suggesting that Scottish and North of Ireland MPs can vote on (English) education”?

    I am stating that this is the position, yes.
    That’s at the heart of the the controversy.

  • Diluted Orange

    It amazes me that the Conservatives, who are pretty much completely Anglo-centric, given their total capitulation in Scotland, haven’t really gone for this issue before now. It’s a disgrace that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can vote on exclusively English matters, whilst a reciprocation of that power is not extended to English MPs when it comes to the resolution of those same issues in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. However, it’s not always been that way and the English would do well to remember who suffered most under blanket UK policy imposed by Tory ministers, e.g. the imposition of the poll tax solely in Scotland a full year before extending it to the rest of the UK and the closure of the Welsh coal-mines.

    Prionsa Eoghan

    [i]To be fair to Blair, he did not want devolution but was persuaded by George Robertson and Donald Dewar et al of the need to stymie Scottish Nationalism. Nice try.[/i]

    I’m sorry but this debacle had Blair’s paw prints all over it. In 1997 he was newly elected with a landslide majority – if he didn’t believe in Scottish devolution he wouldn’t have gone ahead with the vote. It’s just a shame he didn’t have the foresight to see how this would eventually split up the country.

    There was absolutely no need “to stymie Scottish Nationalism”, the SNP were no-hopers in ’97.
    Alex Salmond was dismissed as a crank, he even stepped aside as leader for a few years to bring a fresh perspective to his party. The SNP weren’t even strong enough to warrant inclusion in the Lib-Lab coalition which controlled the Scottish Parliament until last year. I would argue that factors like the Iraq war, a catalogue of Labour sleaze allegations (which have been particularly prevalent in Scotland), a populace increasingly isolated from Westminster and a general disenfranchisement with Labour have been far more instrumental in propelling the SNP into government than anything the SNP did themselves.

    However, now that they’ve got there you’ve got to hand it to the SNP. They have stirred the pot no end. They are actively trying to agitate the English and succeeding alarmingly well. The English media has the Scots painted as money grabbers at every turn. This has led to a much greater sense of resentment from the English towards the Scots than ever before – you only have to look at the coverage Gordon Brown has had in contrast to his predecessor. Is his main crime that he didn’t have the audacity to anglicise his accent in the way Blair did? I believe this sentiment will be exacerbated once the Tories get into government.

    Devolution will be the total undoing of the Labour party. It is now an also ran in England and it is looking like it is fast becoming a back runner in Scotland too. I really think the UK has only about 20 years left in existence if things keep going at the current pace. And if Scotland falls you have to ask what is the point of the UK at all?

    Anyone who thinks the UK is an equal partnership between England, Scotland, NI and Wales needs a reality check. The “Union” has always been dominated from SE England and been ruled on London’s terms. NI, especially holds no economic value to the English but we are tolerated, almost as a duty in fostering a greater sense of British nationhood. Scotland is the real reason why the UK even exists at all and once that goes I expect NI to follow soon after – and this is from someone who would refer to himself as a Unionist(lite).

  • ireland

    reland you quote me and ask:

    ““English MPs can’t vote on Scottish and NI education, because it’s devolved.”

    Are you suggesting that Scottish and North of Ireland MPs can vote on (English) education”?

    I am stating that this is the position, yes.
    That’s at the heart of the the controversy.

    Posted by Brian Walker on Jul 01, 2008 @ 06:51 PM

    Hi it wasn’t actually clear from my post but i was referring to scottish and nortern irish education bills, not english. My understanding is that while an english mp cannot vote on scottsish education policy as it is devolved his scottish equivalent can vote on english matters. But a scottish mp does not have any right to vote on scottish education either as thats devolved.

  • Prionsa Eoghan

    >>I’m sorry but this debacle had Blair’s paw prints all over it. In 1997 he was newly elected with a landslide majority – if he didn’t believe in Scottish devolution he wouldn’t have gone ahead with the vote.< < Apart from Thatcher, no man in Downing street can govern alone. Those around Blair were convinced of the need for devolution. >>There was absolutely no need “to stymie Scottish Nationalism”, the SNP were no-hopers in ‘97.< < No-hopers is a complete exaggeration. Anyhow it was not the SNP I am on about but nationalism. Thatcher governed with an iron hand in a land where the people did not want or vote for Tory absolutism. Many were determined that we would no longer be used as guinea pigs for English idea's imposed on us at will. So in a sense Thatcher was the architect of the Scottish Parliament. People were turning to Nationalism rather than suffer British tory hegemony. There is not too much else I can disagree with in your analysis, however; >>They are actively trying to agitate the English and succeeding alarmingly well.<< Well no, everyone thought the SNP might take this course but thus far they haven't. Conciliation with Westminster, governing for the benefit of the people, and standing up for Scotland were it matters. All the stuff that smacks of real populism. If this annoys the English, then so be it.

  • Schicklgruber

    “But I wish to Christ they’d finish resolving the Irish Question first :)”

    They had that solved by 1921.

  • Diluted Orange

    Prionsa Eoghan

    [i]>>They are actively trying to agitate the English and succeeding alarmingly well.<< Well no, everyone thought the SNP might take this course but thus far they haven’t.[/i] Whilst I accept they haven't gone all guns blazing to Westminster demanding more of everything for the Scots - or else, it certainly seems to me that English disgruntlement at their perceived "charity " (which IMO is utter tosh by the way) to the Scots has risen sharply since the SNP came to power. Who in England had even heard of the Barnett Formula before 2 years ago? The SNP has been spending public money like there's no tomorrow, which they're entitled to do with the lump sum Scotland, NI or Wales get from London every year. However, they've been channeling funds in the direction of causes which will get them the most kudos/coverage in the press: freezing council tax, providing expensive drugs on the NHS etc. There's been no controversy before now because Labour could control affairs in both England and Scotland, simultaneously, without seeming to give preferential treatment in either direction. Under such default circumstances federalism/devolution might just work out OK without pissing any particular section of British society too much. But when the government of one or more of the devolved regions have separatist ambitions and don't tow the line with government policy at a UK level someone is going to get aggrieved. To be fair if I was English and I read the tabloids everyday I'd start to get mightily annoyed that the Scots could get certain drugs on the NHS, but I couldn't, or that my council tax was rising year on year whilst it was being frozen in Scotland, or that if my kids decided to go to university in Scotland they would have to pay an extortionate amount in tuition fees whereas most of their classmates wouldn't have to pay a penny, ..., etc.

  • Prionsa Eoghan

    >>The SNP has been spending public money like there’s no tomorrow, which they’re entitled to do with the lump sum Scotland, NI or Wales get from London every year.< < Not sure if you are meaning it as in we get handouts, but for clarity Scotland puts far more into the Westminster kitty than she get's back as per Barnett. And England get's from London every year as per Barnett, it is not England paternally giving to her recalcitrant, unworthy and ungrateful children. >>However, they’ve been channeling funds in the direction of causes which will get them the most kudos/coverage in the press:< < Well considering that we have a laughably hostile press with only one major newspaper even coming close to being politically neutral, the SNP are doing well in getting the kudos DESPITE the press. And there was nothing stopping former Labour governments carrying out similar policies, after all the money was the same. >>There’s been no controversy before now because Labour could control affairs in both England and Scotland, simultaneously, without seeming to give preferential treatment in either direction.<< You are right, Labour in Scotland continually took back-seats from London and done what they were told, hardly governing in the interests of Scotland. And again there is no preferential treatment going on now either, it is simply governing in the people of Scotland's interests. Aye it is as simple as that. I couldn't agree more with your last para. There is nothing to stop England following Scotland's lead. Or parting our two ways, we will spend the money for the benefit of our people, and England or what's left of the UK can fund foreign wars if they want.

  • Greenflag

    Heil Schicklgruber :),

    ‘They had that solved (the Irish Question) by 1921.’

    So all the farting around in NI between the British /Irish and American Governments and the politicians from all sides -for the past 40 years had nothing to do with the Irish Question ?

    Full marks for being an optimist -no marks for observation or analysis .

  • Greenflag

    diluted orange ,

    ‘Scotland is the real reason why the UK even exists at all and once that goes I expect NI to follow soon after ‘

    I’m not yet convinced that Scotland will go the full road to political independence from Westminster. But assuming they do where could/would /should NI go ? Neither NI nor the Welsh can be booted out of the UK simply because the Scots have upped sticks and left for ‘greener ‘pastures ?

  • doctor

    Greenflag, I’m not diluted orange but I think I understand the sentiments expressed. Scotland has always been the closest thing to an “equal” partner in the Union with England; obviously the equal status bit is quite a stretch but in symbolic/psychological terms it’s presented as such. Wales and any past or present iteration of British Ireland never came close, so Scotland is the best the pro-union side has for pretending the union is a genuine partnership between equal “nations” rather than a polite term for English empire.

    Take Scotland out of the equation and a union of England, Wales, and NI becomes even more obviously lopsided. In the Irish context, I don’t think unionists will become Irish nationalists the second Scotland secedes. But given the particular affinity and cultural ties unionists here have for Scotland (as opposed to England or Wales), I think Scottish independence would end up having an important effect on northern unionists’ view of the union and its remnants.

  • Prionsa Eoghan

    >>Scotland is the best the pro-union side has for pretending the union is a genuine partnership between equal “nations” rather than a polite term for English empire.< < Good point, this is exactly where millions of Scots kid themselves on. >>But given the particular affinity and cultural ties unionists here have for Scotland (as opposed to England or Wales), I think Scottish independence would end up having an important effect on northern unionists’ view of the union and its remnants.<< Well apart from the reasonable comments from diluted Orange, and not ruling out yourself Doctor. In two years of discussing Scottish independence here and elsewhere with Irish Unionists, there has been nothing but negativity, disparaging comments and outright hostility. Considering that I believe your statement to be true, I was gobsmacked at first at how paper thin the Scottish connection was, in terms of symp[athy for our aspirations. Not withstanding the position of Irish Unionists, it still has more than a touch of hypocrisy and selfishness about it.