Here's the piece I promised yesterday:
“Not today, not tomorrow, not in any kind of future we can see know.” With these words, Britain’s Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer denounced proposals for an English Parliament, in a speech to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) on March 10.
The vehemence of Falconer’s words was in stark contrast to his claim that support for such a body is languishing at under 20 per cent. His concern is perhaps better justified by other polling evidence, which he did not cite. According to a 2005 study by Yougov, 70 per cent of British voters believe that Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote on English matters.
Falconer himself believes, with good reason, that such a ban would be tantamount to the creation of a separate English Parliament.
This growing demand for ‘English votes on English laws’ belies his claim that “we have the institutions in place to give voice to the different parts of the United Kingdom.”
In fact, there are deep-seated centrifugal forces at work within the UK. New Labour’s settlement may yet prove as transient as its predecessor. The unitary British state of Margaret Thatcher and John Major contained the seeds of its own destruction. By governing Scotland according to the values and interests of southern England, the Conservatives ensured that devolution would become the settled will of the Scottish people.
On coming to power in 1997, New Labour moved swiftly to give effect to that will. A new Scottish Parliament was created with powers over key areas of domestic policy like health and education.
Scottish MPs at Westminster nevertheless retained their right to vote on all legislation, even that which no longer applied to their constituents. New Labour chose to ignore this anomaly, which has been pointed out by critics of devolution since as far back as the Irish home rule debates of the nineteenth century.
The issue is generally known as the West Lothian Question, after the constituency of Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP who raised it repeatedly during Labour’s abortive attempt to bring in devolution in the 1970s.
The problem of Scottish votes on English laws was largely quiescent during Labour’s first term after 1997, thanks to the size of the party’s majority and the depth of its’ support throughout Britain. The Government’s attitude at the time was summed up by the then Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, when he said: “Now that we have devolution up and running, I think the best thing to do about the West Lothian question is to stop asking it.”
In any case, Labour though it had a solution, regional devolution within England. The first attempt to implement this came in November 2004, with a referendum in the northeast, where demand for a regional assembly was thought be strongest. In the event, it was not strong enough. The Assembly was rejected by almost 78 per cent of voters, with consequences that were understood well beyond northeast England.
In the aftermath of the vote, Ulster Unionist Steven King wrote that Britain’s constitutional settlement had become “a slow-burning problem.”
“If, before the end of this decade, the English are ruled by a Scottish Prime Minister, relying on the votes of Scottish MPs to implement his policies, the United Kingdom could head towards divorce,” he warned.
By this time, the West Lothian Question had already become practical politics. The support of Scottish MPs proved decisive in defeating Labour rebellions over foundation hospitals in May 2003, and student top-up fees in January 2004, even though neither policy was introduced in Scotland. The ESRC describes England as a "laboratory for policy innovation" compared to its northern neighbour, which chooses to "stick to more traditional policy agendas in health and education.”
Ironically, however, Scottish votes have several times helped to impose the ‘choice agenda’ over the objections of a majority of English MPs. Labour’s reduced majority means that further instances are likely in the current parliament.
This reality is contentious even within the Labour party itself. It was Labour MPs who took the lead in raising the issue at the House of Commons Liason Committee in February. Alan Williams, the MP for the Welsh constituency of Swansea West told the Prime Minister: “Eventually the English voter won't put up with me coming and telling them what they can do or can't do when I am not accountable for a single England vote."
For Mr Blair, the issue is an unwelcome complication at a time when he is already struggling to win key Commons votes. For his most likely successor, it could prove fateful. Gordon Brown is a Scottish MP sitting for a Scottish constituency. Yet he aspires to lead a British Government whose writ on many of the main areas of the domestic political agenda is limited to England. Could he pursue new Labour reforms in England, while public services in his own constituency are delivered in the traditional way, and at Scotland’s higher spending levels?
Some observers think not. Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell is said to be among them. Powell allegedly told Conservative MP Boris Johnson in 2004 that Brown could not become Prime Minister because of the West Lothian question. According to Johnson, Powell said: "It's a Shakespearean tragedy. Gordon Brown is like the guy who thinks he's going to be king, but never gets it. He's never going to be Prime Minister."
Powell’s metaphor is a good one. There is indeed a tragic irony in the way that Brown’s leadership ambitions and the devolved settlement he helped achieve now threaten to unravel each other. Brown’s speeches have repeatedly stressed the need for British citizens to “feel pride in a British patriotism and patriotic purpose.” The Chancellor has also attempted to position himself as pro-English by calling for England to host the 2018 World Cup, effectively bouncing the FA into making a bid.
Such moves have attracted growing cynicism as they have come to be seen as an attempt to brush aside the West Lothian anomaly. Brown is nevertheless likely to defy Powell’s prediction and succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister, if only because of the Labour Party’s inability to produce a serious rival candidate. Steven King’s nightmare scenario is therefore a realistic possibility.
This is not lost on the two main opposition parties, which are both moving to exploit Labour’s vulnerability on the West Lothian Question. The Liberal Democrats have long favoured a federal Britain. To date, their emphasis on regional devolution has largely chimed with Labour’s plans, but there are signs that might be changing.
Lord Falconer’s dismissal of English votes for English laws was strongly challenged by Lib Dem Constitutional Affairs spokesman Simon Hughes. "The present constitutional arrangements for making English decisions are unacceptable and need to be changed,” Hughes warned. "There may not be massive demand for an entirely separate and new English Parliament, but there is growing resentment at England-only issues being decided by politicians from other parts of the United Kingdom. "This issue will not go away, and the Liberal Democrats are determined to make sure it doesn't."
However, the most dramatic shift in recent years has been the one described by Lord Falconer as a “fundamental, even historic, change of position for the Conservatives.” Hitherto Britain’s most unionist party, the Tories have been forced to accept devolution in the wake of the 1998 referendum in Scotland. There is no doubt, however, that the current settlement puts them at a disadvantage. The fact that the Conservatives won the popular vote in England at the last election counts for little, because England is governed by a British Parliament in which Labour’s strength is augmented by Scottish and Welsh members.
The Scottish Conservative Party is hamstrung by the fact that, while the Holyrood Parliament has a key role in spending decisions, it has less say over taxation, neutralising much of the Tories’ electoral appeal.
The logic of their situation is slowly but relentlessly forcing the Tories to adopt a more radically devolutionist stance than Labour. Scottish Conservatives are increasingly attracted to Lib Dem and SNP demands for fiscal autonomy.
At Westminster, the Conservatives have already fought two elections on a platform of English votes for English laws, and a bill banning Scottish MPs from voting on English issues has been introduced in the current parliament by the Conservative peer Lord Baker. The prospect that such a bill could become law within the next decade is a realistic one.
Labour’s grip on the current House of Commons is already weakened. The Conservative revival under David Cameron means there is a strong possibility that its successor will be the first hung Parliament since the 1970s. In that situation, the West Lothian Question would become more contentious, and the Conservatives would have a strong chance of putting together a majority in favour of English votes for English laws. The chances that the Lib Dems would support a change are growing as a result of the party’s support for increased Scottish autonomy, since tax-raising powers for Scotland would make the status quo in England less tenable. Some rebel Labour MPs might also support a change in the law, given the defeats they have suffered as a result of Scottish votes.
Introducing English votes for English laws would not be straightforward, however. Simply banning Scottish MPs from voting could rob a British Government of its majority on English issues. Addressing this problem would effectively require a separate English Parliament.
Lord Falconer spelt out the consequences of such a momentous decision in his address to the ESRC: “The English Parliament would control the greater part of the economic power of the UK. It would be the dominant political force. Leaving the federal parliament either voting on the back of what the English Parliament has already decided. Or hanging on to its coat tails. “And where would this leave the other partner nations of the UK? No longer partners is the answer. But carried along on England's backdraft. We would end up, I believe, at exactly the point we had set out to avoid - unbalancing the relationship between the nations. How, under such circumstances, would the Union survive?”
Some advocates of greater devolution accept that a federal solution would not work, and argue that Britain must therefore move to confederalism and ‘shift the centre of gravity to the parts rather than the whole' in the words of Scottish philosopher Tom Nairn. That would mean Westminster losing its position as the key centre of power in the United Kingdom to a new English Parliament and its counterparts in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. How quickly the UK will move on the path to this outcome is debatable but the trajectory seems inescapable. The first step, Scottish and Welsh devolution, has already been taken, and momentum is building up behind the second, English votes for English laws, a development which, as the British Government itself recognises, leads inexorably on to an English Parliament, and a new confederal union.