Saturday 20 September 2014

Parliamentary Questions

On 19th July 2004, Sir Thomas Dalyell Loch, the Eton and Cambridge educated 11th Baronet of the Binns, voted at Westminster to raise the university tuition fee cap to £3,000 per year - for university students in England, only.

Sir Thomas sat then for the constituency of Linlithgow, in West Lothian, in Scotland; his constituents' education was - then as now - governed by the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. And thus he answered his own West Lothian Question, which has dogged the British constitutional settlement ever since it was first asked, and which has an added frisson in the aftermath of Scotland's failed velvet revolution.

What is being proposed now by David Cameron, is a parliament - the Westminster parliament - which will continue to debate both bills affecting the whole United Kingdom and also bills affecting England only; but with the quirk that Welsh, Northern Irish and Scots MPs will be unable to vote on the English-only bills. This looks, on the face of it, sensible.

It will not work.

Suppose - just suppose - Ed Miliband wins the next Westminster election, but without a majority of English seats. Who then is the English Secretary of State for Health? For Education? For the Environment? for Transport? for Rural Affairs? Fully half of the current UK cabinet have portfolios which cover only England. If Miliband wins a majority in the UK but not in England, he will find himself on the horns of a dilemma.

Either he appoints Labour members to head the English departments, in which case they will none of them have a majority in the chamber to pass any legislation; or else he appoints Tories to his cabinet, in which case fully half of his cabinet are from the opposition. In either scenario, England is quite ungovernable.

You think that's bad? It gets worse.

Baron Smith of Kelvin, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle - no, seriously, if I was trying to make this up I would write something less unbelievable - is the unelected grandee parachuted in by Cameron to oversee an enhancement of democracy in Scotland. He's a Lord, you might have guessed from the title. As such he's a member of the Westminster parliament - like most members of the Westminster parliament, wholly unelected by any constituency.

Up until now, of course, that hasn't mattered. But, is he a Scots Lord or an English one? He was born in Glasgow, and his titular demesne is Kelvin. He even owns a Scottish island - Inchmarnock, off Bute. On this basis, you may say he's Scots. But like many other lads o' pairts, he's spent a great deal of his career furth of Scotland. As such, he's one of very many who have debatable peerages.

Should he be able to vote on English-only bills?

Well, should he?

It will not work, will it?

If only English unelected members should be able to vote on English-only legislation, should Scots unelected members be able to vote on Scots legislation?

Aye, right! The other one has bells on it.

Or should unelected members not vote on any national legislation, but only on union legislation? That too would stick in Scotland's democratic, presbyterian craw. A man is, after all, a man for aa that - even if some prince has made him a beltit knight, a marquis, duke or aa that. We are all Jock Tamson's bairns.

The union parliament cannot be the same institution as the English parliament, for the reasons I've given above. The English parliament must be a separate institution. Whether it's still elected by the unsatisfactory first-past-the-post system, whether it should include an unelected upper house - those are questions for the English. It's not something we Scots should intrude on. Whether the English parliament or the union parliament should inhabit Pugin's gothic extravagance on the bank of the Thames is a decision we can all put off until 2020, since the building is going to be closed for renovation anyway.

But that still leaves two uncomfortable, unanswered questions.

First: are we, in the twenty-first century, still going to tolerate unelected members in the union parliament?

Think about it.

  • They're there because some distant ancestor was a ruthless mercenary; or
  • They're there because they had once been elected, but the electorate had kicked them out; or
  • They're there because they hold office in the English state superstition; or
  • They're there because they paid some political party an awful lot of money.

Is that tolerable in today's world?

But second: how do you make a confederation work when one confederate has five times the size and five times the votes of all the others put together?

Of course, this has always been the problem with the United Kingdom, since its inception. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will always - on every vote - be outvoted.  This isn't like the EU or the USA, where smaller states can form coalitions of common interest against the larger ones. England's interests will always prevail. We might just as well not bother to turn up.

Is that tolerable in today's world?

Well, is it?

[Some parts of this essay previously appeared in my essay The West Lothian Question, take two]

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