Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What is the Question?

The West Lothian Question is actually a paradox, not a question, which is why there is no obvious answer. This is not necessarily a problem - we live with many paradoxes - but if you insist on an answer, then you must first refashion it as a question. The catchphrase "English votes for English laws" isn't a question either, but we might be able to reverse-engineer one (or three) if we take it as a description of the desired state that an answer might produce, i.e. a continuity between MPs and the matters that they legislate on. I will leave to one side the crass "English home rule" meme that appears to have caught the media's fancy (presumably because they want to flip the constitutional moment into an anti-Brussels campaign).

First question: if an MP represents an area of the country that has devolved powers for certain matters, should that MP be disqualified from voting on comparable matters affecting areas where those powers have not been devolved? This sounds like the closest approximation of the current issue - e.g. Scots MPs voting on health and education matters affecting England. However, if this is an issue of general principle, then it also applies to London, which has powers devolved to the Greater London Assembly. For example, should a London MP be able to vote on matters affecting transport outside London when a Birmingham MP has less authority over transport within London? We might call this the West Hampstead Question.

You could counter that this doesn't arise because the MP's scope would be based on his nation, not his constituency, but this suggests a national continuity that is more apparent than real. Tyneside MPs are no better qualified to vote on matters affecting Portsmouth (say the closure of a naval dockyard) than Clydeside MPs. It also suggests that national identity should be primary, which can only serve to weaken the union. Qualifying an MP's authority based on his nation means accommodating the variations in the devolved powers between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For example, policing is devolved in Scotland but not in Wales. Each bloc of MPs would have a different list of topics that they were unable to scrutinise or vote on, which would "balkanise" Westminster and reinforce the idea that MPs are mere lobby fodder.

Second question: should an MP's scope of authority be limited to her constituents' interests? This is a variation on the question of an MP's obligations, which was famously addressed by Edmund Burke: "Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole". Though Burke was arguing for an MP's right of independence from mandates and instructions, his logic also suggests that MPs should be free to vote on any topic before Parliament.

If this were not so, then MPs would have to regularly disqualify themselves from voting on matters that didn't directly affect their constituents. MPs of land-locked constituencies could not vote on maritime matters, nor urban MPs on rural matters. This would be absurd and chaotic. You might as well have expected Tory MPs who didn't have coal mines in their constituencies to have avoided commenting on the 1984 miners' strike (the current Tory position perhaps reflects a subliminal memory of flying pickets: you bussed-in Scots have no business here). This question also suggests that the Tory enthusiasm for "English votes for English laws" is poorly thought through and actually cuts against the grain of conservativism in the traditions of Burke and Oakeshott. Of course, if you're in competition with UKIP, then sounding like a dumb authoritarian is an occupational hazard.

Third question: should there be different classes of MP? Specifically, two classes: those with no restrictions on their scope of authority (what we might call the "Full English") and those with qualified rights. Arguably, we already have two classes of MP because the non-English have less authority, in terms of influence over policy that affects their constituents, precisely because certain powers have been devolved from Westminster to the regional assemblies. Given the structural advantage in power of English MPs (including a built-in majority of the House), it takes some cheek for Tories to claim that England is suffering a disadvantage relative to Scotland, which can only be addressed by further limiting the rights of Scottish MPs, but it takes world-class chutzpah for the Prime Minister to make this claim hours after the the Scottish people voted to maintain the union. David Cameron's message to the prodigal Scots appears to be "Welcome home - your bed's in the shed".

If we would prefer that MPs should have equivalent powers, then logically we must either reverse devolution or devolve similar powers to an English Assembly and make devolution consistent everywhere. Getting the English subset of the Commons to double-up would not be strictly equivalent, as this would create "double-strength" MPs, and it would also deny English voters the opportunity to discriminate tactically between regional and national elections, as the Scots and others do today. The objection that creating a new elected English Assembly would mean increased costs and an additional layer of government could be easily countered if it were to wholly replace the House of Lords.

What these three questions suggest is that advancing "English votes for English laws" risks weakening Parliament, restricting the independence of MPs, and accentuating divisions along national lines. Naturally, I am not the slightest bit surprised that Michael Gove, who took such a personal interest in the history curriculum and who is never shy in voicing his admiration for The Glorious Revolution and The Mother of Parliaments, should now be banging this particular drum. The problem with the Tories is that they remain, above all else, the stupid party. Labour, on the other hand, remain in thrall to focus groups and PR advisers. They are perfectly well aware of the idiocy of the Tories' position but terrified of criticising anything with the word "English" in it. This makes for an interesting contrast with the loose cannon that was Tam Dalyell.

The eccentric Dalyell was no stranger to pomposity. Though the term "West Lothian Question" was actually coined by Enoch Powell - another maverick with a lack of self-awareness - its currency owed much to the sarcasm with which the phrase, with its grandiloquent echoes of the Schleswig-Holstein Question, was deployed by backbenchers and political journalists in the late 70s. The gradual growth in the popularity and significance of devolution, and Dalyell's subsequent fame as a principled opponent of Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War, retrospectively dignified his pedantic worry, but it still remains as much a joke as a constitutional conundrum.

Some source the theme of Dalyell's 1977 intervention in the debate on the Scotland Bill (which would lead to the 1979 referendum on a devolved assembly) to Gladstone's comments in respect of the First Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886: "if Ireland is to have a domestic Legislature, Irish Peers and Irish Representatives cannot come here to control English and Scotch affairs". However this misses the point that Gladstone wasn't proposing a half-way house of partial devolution but genuine "devo max" (only defence, foreign affairs and customs and excise were to be reserved by the Imperial Parliament), for which the loss of MPs at Westminster was both a quid pro quo and a clear indication that an Irish parliament would be "subordinate" rather than "coordinate" (in the words of Parnell). Gladstone thought this would be enough to secure majority support. In the event he lost the vote and split the Liberal Party, with the Liberal Unionists eventually merging into the Conservative Party.

David Cameron's announcement should remind us that making the non-English clearly subordinate, and rubbing their noses in it, is instinctive to the Tories. Gladstone's failure should remind us that independence has an inexorable logic and that constitutional conundrums are just the noise of shearing metal as the machinery of government buckles under the strain. The more intriguing parallel is that Cameron may well be taking as many inadvertent risks with party unity as Gladstone did. But whereas old mutton chops felt he had a moral obligation to Ireland, Cameron seems motivated by nothing other than a self-interested fear of Nigel Farage.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    As I have recently written The West Lothian Question Is A Mirage. It is a sleight of hand that uses the fact that it is a Scottish regional parliament tht has powers devolved to it, to slide in the idea that the division is a national division, when in fact the division is only one between different administrative areas.