Balance and Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown

As Gordon Brown gets closer to becoming prime minister and accordingly tries to accentuate his Englishness, his opponents are trying to raise the barrier of his being Scottish. The latest salvo comes in a report from the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, reported here.

(The opening paragraph isn’t to be taken as suggesting that the committee itself is opposed to Gordon Brown, rather that opposition to Gordon Brown is the reason why it gets so much publicity – the front page of the Daily Telegraph, for example.)

The problem is that there is an imbalance in the powers of the elected politicians in different parts of the United Kingdom. Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote on English domestic laws – on health and education, for example – but English MPs cannot vote on the equivalent Scottish laws, because they are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, Scottish MPs cannot vote on the equivalent Scottish laws, only MSPs can.

This is the inevitable consequence of giving different levels of government different powers. Westminster is no longer all-powerful in these areas. And Scotland is better governed as a result. (I remarked on this in a previous blog entry.)

This imbalance in powers upsets those of a tidy mind, and I suppose also those of a democratic disposition. The English do not have the power to take their own decisions in health and education because of the influence of the Scots. Named after Tam Dalyell’s constituency, this is the famous West Lothian question.

How to answer it? The report notes that there are four possible answers: the dissolution of the United Kingdom; English devolution; fewer Scottish MPs; or English votes on English laws.

The first is an answer of sorts, but really it is an answer to a different question. It would be ironic if the reaction to Scottish devolution was that England wanted to secede from the United Kingdom.

The third is no answer at all. If Scotland has too few MPs, then they still have an influence over English law, which we are supposed to be ending, but have too little influence over UK-wide matters.

Between the second and the fourth, there is the difference of decentralisation. English regional government would remove health and education from the clutches of the Scots, but would require a new set of political institutions to manage it. The referendum on regional government in the north east of England was a disaster, with a 4 to 1 vote against setting up a regional parliament there, and English devolution ground to a rather unedifying halt. That leaves an English parliament, made up of the English MPs at Westminster, which appears to be the current Conservative policy (to the extent that they have them). It has two drawbacks.

First, the executive responsible to the English MPs would have the confidence of the entire House of Commons and not the English MPs alone. This means that, for example, a government whose majority depended on Scottish and Welsh MPs would govern England too but be unable to get any legislation through. It would be in office but not in power.

Secondly, because the English parliament would be so much larger than the others, there is the risk that it would start to dominate the union. A party with a majority based on English MPs alone (the obverse of the scenario in the previous paragraph) would be able to take UK-wide decisions on the basis of English interests alone, and the scene would be set for all kinds of clashes between the English and the Scots over where to draw the line between UK issues and devolved ones.

The notion of subsidiarity is a guide, not a precise definition. Federal systems depend, if they are to survive, on some kind of balance between the member states. If one becomes too dominant, federalism tends to lead to either a unitary system or secession. (The fear of Russia or Turkey as a member state of the European Union is based in part on such considerations.)

So, of the four answers put forward by the report, three of them can be ruled out on principle, with the remaining one (English devolution) being ruled out because it is a unpopular. I think it is better to change popularity than to change one’s principles, so a revived proposal for regional government remains the best option for the future.

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As an aside, I might remark on the complaint that the present system is unbalanced and untidy, leading to being undemocratic. This is an odd complaint to come from politicians who, at the same time, defend such untidinesses as the royal prerogative, and the position of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, and even the first past the post electoral system. In the recent local elections, two London boroughs, Haringey and Kingston, are controlled outright by parties that came second in terms of the numbers of votes cast, and in a further four the largest party in seats came second in votes. (A report from the Electoral Reform Society explains.)

And I haven’t mentioned the last general election, where a mere 36 per cent of the votes translated into a majority of over 60 seats in the House of Commons. Now, there may be good reasons for an electoral system of this sort, but don’t let anyone who supports such a system get away with arguments for democratic tidiness or balance in any aspect of the constitutional debate.

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