Ever since Scotland, Wales, northern Ireland & London were given devolved assemblies to manage a degree of their own affairs, there has been a disparity at Westminster in that MPs from these areas could vote on issues which had been devolved to their regional assembly, effectively meaning that laws which only affected parts of England were influenced by MPs who had been elected elsewhere.
This evident unfairness was termed the ‘West Lothian Question’ and it has been an issue of controversy ever since the devolved assemblies were conceived, yet largely kept as a theoretical matter until becoming a major political football after the recent Scottish Independence referendum*.
*Despite being a big supporter of the Yes campaign in that referendum, I always said that I wouldn’t be against remaining in the UK if considerable electoral reform was a possibility – specifically more powers devolved away from London and a more representative voting system implemented. I also always held that all the arguments for independence/further devolution that hold for Scotland also hold for significant parts of England as well.
The No vote in that referendum came along with vague promises of more powers, which quickly turned into a question of what England gets out of the deal which boiled down to a party political matter between the Conservatives (who traditionally win the vote in England) and Labour (who traditionally receive much of their support from working class areas of Scotland & Wales) over so-called English Votes for English Laws.
On the face of it, barring MPs from devolved areas the right to vote on Westminster legislation that doesn’t affect their constituency is fair enough but this becomes a party political football when you consider that if you take the results of the 2010 general election and strip Scottish and Welsh MPs (Northern Ireland doesn’t return any Labour or Conservative MPs and we’ll deal with London later), Labour* would lose 67 MPs while the Conservatives would lose 9 MPs for votes on English laws.
Labour don’t like that idea and the Conservatives rather do, for obvious reasons.
*Of course, if current opinion polls are to be believed, Labour will be winning more seats in England and losing most of Scotland in next year’s election, but we’ll see how that shakes out…
As a Scot and a democrat, I don’t really like the idea of the House of Commons becoming a two-tier chamber where MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are less important than their English colleagues. Would this preclude a Scot or Ulsterman from being Prime Minister or holding a position in the cabinet that affected England-only legislation? What about London, which also has it’s own devolved assembly?
At the same time, I aknowledge that it is simply not right that an MP from Glasgow should have the right to vote on an issue which does not affect his constituency, but does affect the lives of voters in England who may have voted a very different way.
To me, the solution seems obvious. Federalism.
This is a dirty word to those in London who are consumed with the need for central power, with many objections raised against the idea on the basis of the lack of apparent will on the part of English voters for an English parliament (or more likely, several regional parliaments) and the cost of setting such bodies up.
However, if the United Kingdom is to remain united, then it cannot be with the ‘lesser’ partners having reduced influence in central government and England treated as the ‘real’ country as it exacerbates the feeling of isolation and degradation which is at the core of the move for further Scots, Irish and Welsh devolution/independence.
Quite simply, if Scotland is in charge of it’s own healthcare and education policy, shouldn’t the same be true of the North East or South West of England, both regions of comparable size and population, with drastically different demographic and economic concerns to other parts of England?
I believe that the current debate over constitutional reform in Britain has the ability to transform this country and save it as a relatively united entity, or shatter it completely.
The brave step of changing the entire government of Britain, devolving the majority of powers to regional assemblies (say, along the lines of the regions for the EU elections, giving nine or ten regions within England, loosely based on the old Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy plus London, splitting the Midlands/Mercia and maybe having Cornwall as a separate entity as well) so that the assembly in Bristol or Manchester or London was equal to that in Edinburgh, Belfast or Cardiff, with control over taxation, healthcare, education policy etc. all being devolved could save this country and make it a more dynamic, democratic and functional state.
Westminster would remain as the overarching federal government, concerned mostly with broad monetary and foreign policy, receiving a proportion of the tax income from each region to be used for defence, government projects and a bail out/redistribution fund to help out those regions in need of regeneration etc.
That’s fair, isn’t it? That gives us the sense of being ‘Better Together’ while reflecting the varied politics, cultures and demographics of these disparate isles?
On the other hand, Westminster can choose to bar Scots, Welsh & Irish MPs from voting on English laws which is, as I’ve said not in itself unfair but could result in a two tier chamber, alienating the Celtic fringe further from the central power base and inevitably hastening the push towards independence in these areas.
Furthermore, the refusal to decentralise power in England would fail to acknowledge the drastic differences in the needs of the various parts of England for you cannot rule the South West as you would London, Manchester as you would East Anglia etc.
The brave step towards federalism would be a victory for democracy, for the power of people to have a better say in how their patch of the country is run and in the end, a victory for the concept of a United Kingdom.