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Wednesday, July 02, 2008 

The undemocratic task force.

In a way, it's almost verging on chutzpah for Kenneth Clarke, former member of the Conservative government which foisted so many unpopular and regressive policies on Scotland first as an experiment to now be offering solutions to a problem which he had a hand in cultivating in the first place. One of the main reasons why Scotland finally achieved devolution and a parliament was undoubtedly the poll tax, levered first on the nation which had steadfastly refused to become a part of the Thatcherite revolution and therefore deserved the contempt with which it was treated, but we should perhaps let bygones be bygones. On the whole, Clarke and his "Democracy Task Force's" paper (PDF) on the West Lothian question is worthy of praise, praise of which more in the final paragraph. It's just that it comes to such a simpering compromise in its conclusion that's unlikely to be accepted, and that will do very little to staunch the sense of grievance which some feel about where the power now lies in the UK.

First though the conundrum itself. Devolution in Scotland has left the unhelpful constitutional problem of Scottish MPs being able to vote on legalisation that affects only England and/or Wales, the Welsh assembly not currently having the same powers which have been devolved to Scotland. This problem wouldn't be so bad if the MPs in Scotland were spread more equally across all parties, but the Labour party has overwhelmingly had Scotland as its personal fiefdom for quite some time. This is gradually starting to be broken, with both the Scottish Nationalists themselves and the Liberal Democrats making gains, and could be much extended at the next election with Labour's collapse in popularity and with the SNP in power in Edinburgh, but at the last election Labour had 29 Scottish MPs, the LDs 12, the SNP 6 and the Tories a very lonely 1. Added into the problem is that most of the Scottish Labour MPs are either one of two things: mostly completely loyal and therefore unlikely to rebel against the Labour whip; or either ministers or former ministers, not to mention the prime minister himself. This has led to bills affecting only England, such as the votes on tutition fees and foundation hospitals being carried only by Scottish Labour MP votes. With the Tories likely to sweep the board in England at the next election, but with certain victory still in doubt, it's feasibly possible that Labour could still cling on to a majority but only through their Scottish seats, with the Tories the defacto party in power in England.

One of the other factors which the Clarke report doesn't touch on much is that the Conservatives already have won the popular vote in England, as they did at the last election, yet because of first-past-the-post still received 100 fewer seats than Labour. This will undoubtedly be even more pronounced at the next election, with the Tories likely to wipe out Labour almost completely south of a decent chunk of the Midlands (London is a different matter), yet the Conservatives continue to oppose proportional representation because they realise that even though the system works against them, they'll still be able to get a decent majority if they win well, let alone if they win big. This was more defendable when the vast majority voted for either Labour or Conservative, but that is no longer the case when the Liberal Democrats won over 22% of the vote last time round, not to mention the votes the other minor parties received despite there being next to no chance that any of the candidates would actually win any seats. The report however meekly dismisses proportional representation out of hand, with the simple response that "[W]e do not favour either practice [PR or US-style separation of powers] in the UK as British political culture would take a very long time to adapt to either practice." This simply isn't good enough.

The Clarke solution is instead of pure "English votes for English laws" a poor substitution for it that would make very little overall difference. Rather than simply barring Scottish MPs from voting on legislation which doesn't concern their own constituencies, the task force proposes that Scottish MPs would be barred from taking part in the committee stages and report stages of a relevant bill, while being allowed to vote on both on the second and third readings. This would still however leave non-English MPs with the ability to vote down a bill at the crucial third stage. Clarke is rather pleased that this would still leave the UK government with an effective veto if it felt that the bill damaged UK interests as a whole by urging its members to vote down the amendments made to it in committee stages at the third reading.

If this sounds complicated, then it is. If you're reading this in the first place then you're likely to have some sort of remedial interest in politics, but for those out there that don't this is about as confusing as it gets, like attempting to explain what colour something is to a blind person. It also falls down because it ignores the simplest solution, if we're also going to reject PR: that English votes for English laws makes the most sense and would be easy to institute. The other argument made by some is for an English parliament, or full English devolution, but this isn't a solution or option which I've ever been tempted by: what's the point of establishing yet another devolved instutition when we have a perfectly acceptable one already in use, if only it can be acceptably modified to make it work both more fairly and better than it currently does? The break-up of the union this also might herald is also a red herring; Scotland still seems unlikely to go independent any time soon, however much some both north and south of the border might like it to, and any changes on the constitutional level over the West Lothian question are hardly likely going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

It is of course Labour that is stalling any solution on either front. It didn't shoot down Clarke's "solution" for the exact reason that it keeps their strangehold on Scotland and also potentially England in tact. It's the best of all worlds in short-term polticial terms: the West Lothian question has been answered, but things carry on as before. That this trickery won't trick English voters themselves doesn't seem to enter into the equation. It's strange however why the Conservatives are still so mealy-mouthed with their policy. They could have proposed something that would have made everyone except the Labour party immensly happy, yet they've done the opposite. You can understand why they reject PR, as they fear that it could keep Labour and the Lib Dems in a coalition for potentially all-time, especially when they can still win big as long as they're slightly more popular than Labour under FPTP, yet on this they have potentially everything to lose. The best thing that can in fact be said for Clarke's task force's report is that it's short and to the point, unlike so many other policy documents. That it took four years to produce rather dampens down even that accolade.

Related posts:
OurKingdom - The Madness of Ken Clarke
OurKingdom - Cameron wanted English nationalism, not the West Lothian question, answered
Paul Kingsnorth - A radical answer to the West Lothian question

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I agree that Clarke's solution is no solution at all: you'd just end up with the Government adding token Scottish (or Welsh) factors to a bill to allow those MPs to continue voting. But to say "that English votes for English laws makes the most sense and would be easy to institute" is wrong. Rare is the bill that doesn't have an effect on public spending, and anything that changes how money is spent in England can affect the Scottish block grant, which means that Scottish MPs would have an interest. Also, it is only even superficially simple where the government has a majority both with and without the Scottish and Welsh MPs (in any combination). If who has a majority changes based on which blocks are voting, then there are real problems; the government is generally taken from the party of the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister being the person who can command a majority in the Commons - so the PM appoints a Health Secretary, say, but doesn't have an English-MP-only majority; how can that minister implement policy? The PM certainly isn't going to appoint an 'opposition' MP as Health Secretary. A further problem is, if the PM is from a Scottish or Welsh seat, then he would be unable to vote for some of his policies (and perhaps he shouldn't, if they don't affect his constituents, but if that is the case, why should he be making policy in the first place), which leads to the conclusion that the PM should come from an English seat - if Welsh or Scots MPs cannot be Prime Minister, then they are second class Members. Making MPs from any part of the UK second class must ultimately lead to the end of the Union. The only reasonable solution must be some sort of English devolution, whether to an English Parliament or to regional assemblies.

George Younger, Scottish Secretary of State in 1989, asked for the Poll Tax to begin a year early in Scotland because he didn't see why Scotland should wait "until the English were ready" - and of course Scotland joined in the Thatcherite revolution. You do talk rubbish.

Modern day evils like health apartheid are far too important to ignore by muddying the past.

I believe that far more of a driving force in Scottish devolution has been the North Sea oil. Circa 1968, the maritime border between England and Scotland was tweaked by the UK Government under the "Continental Shelf Act", placing formerly English waters in a new "Scottish sector". The English were not consulted, of course because we lived in a unitary state.

In the 1970s, hard times for many, Scotland began to cry "It's our oil!" and devolution/independence was on the political agenda well before Thatcher came to power. I believe there was a referendum on the subject late in the decade.

I study 70s and 80s newspapers and lived through both decades. It seems, looking at the newspapers of 1989, that many Scots were actually very keen on the Poll Tax - and yuppies and Thatcherite attitudes were rife in Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland.

Scotland was NEVER in the position England is now. After all, you can die in England for want of medication available on the NHS in Scotland!

Quoting a Tory secretary of state at me for proof of how Scotland accepted the poll tax is somewhat counter intuitive. The campaign against the poll tax which started in Scotland was instrumental in overturning it and also forcing Thatcher from power. I don't doubt that parts of Scotland such as Edinburgh were keen on Thatcher, but the Tories were still sparsely represented across Scotland - they had two seats in Edinburgh, but none whatsoever in Glasgow: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MPs_elected_in_the_United_Kingdom_general_election%2C_1987

In any event, one of the main concerns I have over the mooted English parliament is where exactly does this leave Westminster, and with it, the parliamentary system as a whole? While the bollocks spouted by the likes of UKIP about the EU making 80% of our laws is mostly spurious, some of it does have a ring of truth. An English parliament would similarly hive off health and education policy, possibly even home affairs, leaving Westminster with - what exactly? Defence? Economics? This doesn't mention the cost of establishing an English parliament in the first place, yet another set of elections which as we already note the public are currently much enthused with, and yet another set of politicians, all without actually even beginning to solve the fairness problem which has its route at Westminster.

I don't believe that the fact the UK Parliament won't have much to do is a valid cause to deny the English the same democratic rights as Scotland, Wales and NI.

And to complain that an English Parliament would create two sets of politicians seems to ignore the fact that Scotland et al already have two - MSP,and MP.

What I can't get my head around is the logic of people that say England should not have a parliament because it's too big - seems like it isn't too big to have legislation forced upon it due to a bunch of politicians unanswerable to the people of England; and who probably have already signed a declaration that they will put Scotland's interests first in all things.(The PM did!)

It doesn't sound democratic, it certainly isn't unprejudiced or unbiased - and it simply isn't fair.

Too many usually silent people are now beginning to get quietly very angry. If devolution was the solution to the national aspirations of about 5 million Scots, what else, but an English Parliament, will settle the building resentment of approx 55 million English.

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