The Scottish referendum result in September has well and truly pushed Humpty Dumpty off the constitutional wall, where he has been precariously perched since the Scotland Act of 1998. And, as in that nursery rhyme, there is no prospect of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again in any recognisable form. So where next with the various pieces that lie strewn across the political battleground?
Tam Dalyell was the MP who saw how devolution had the potential to destroy the British Constitution as we know it. He posed a simple but deadly question: how could it be fair to English voters that their MPs are excluded from having a say in what happens to the constituents of Scottish MPs, whereas Scottish MPs can vote on all English matters? Worse still, those Scottish and sometimes Scottish Nationalist MPs, could now be in a position to put into power at Westminster a government that did not have a majority among English MPs.
Tam is still waiting for an answer to that question he posed back in 1977, which is now known as the West Lothian Question. During a recent interview he suggested that one response to the referendum result should be the abolition of the Scottish Parliament, to batten down the hatches, and wait for the inevitable political hurricane that will result to blow itself out. Tam’s preferred option, as he well knows, isn’t going to happen. The genie of country-based nationalism is well and truly out of the bottle and not only in Scotland. The only durable response, therefore, is to see the devolution principle through to its logical conclusion, which means a proper and durable settlement for England.
That is not what the Prime Minister is offering. The Smith Commission — established as the votes were counted in the referendum — reported in November on a “Devo Max” settlement. It continues the political muddle that has existed since the original Scottish Devolution Act and a muddle that advantages Scotland but leaves England with the most inferior political status of any of the countries that make up the UK. The report’s 21 major fiscal and constitutional reforms can be grouped around two major themes.
Scotland will set the rates of income tax and will keep half of the existing VAT revenue raised in Scotland. Scotland will likewise have the power to borrow in its own right in the international money markets. A great silence falls on how the revenue from these tax-raising powers will be offset against the Barnett formula that decides the amount of central taxpayer support to each of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom.
As well as these major fiscal advantages Scotland becomes sovereign over how it runs its own elections. From now on, we will almost certainly have no common suffrage. Scotland will be allowed to determine, for example, its own qualification for the age at which citizens first vote. This reform is presented in the Smith Commission as though it were little more than a bauble to decorate a constitutional Christmas tree. But a moment’s thought suggests how destructive it will be to an equality of votes throughout the United Kingdom. For the first time since universal suffrage there will be no universally geographically applied qualification for the vote.
The Smith Commission report is the latest instalment of an appeasement policy that has been operated in Scotland’s favour for the past 40 years or more. The cost of the appeasement has been borne exclusively by England.
Fortunately, as Humpty Dumpty plummeted earthbound, it was already clear what would happen to his constitutional parts. That much was clear, of course, once the Scotland Act hit the statute book. There is no other means of answering the West Lothian Question satisfactorily than by re-establishing equity among the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom, each with its own representative parliament or assembly. The unthinking retort to such a proposal is that it would create two different types of MPs. The truth is, of course, that that is the very injustice under which English MPs currently labour. A majority of all MPs, with the support of MPs from non-English constituencies, can outvote in our current system the wishes of a majority of English MPs trying to decide purely English matters. An English assembly or parliament is the only way I see of answering Tam’s West Lothian Question in a manner that re-establishes equity amongst the four countries of the United Kingdom.
Each assembly — for England, Wales and Northern Ireland — should have the powers that have been, or are about to be granted to the Scottish Parliament. The remaining functions would be reserved for a senate (which would replace the present House of Lords). Foreign affairs, defence and the remaining Exchequer powers would be exercised by a senate common to all four nations. This senate, I suggest, should be made up of two types of members. Two hundred and fifty or so would be elected by the voters from new senate constituencies based on between six and seven current parliamentary or, as they would be called, assembly constituencies. Each one of these senate constituencies would return a senator. Whether they should be elected on a first-past-the-post principle, or on some other form of proportional representation, should be the basis for further debate. What must be ruled out from the outset would be the current system for EU elections, where the party hierarchy decides the order in which the candidates are elected, with voters restricted to a choice of voting for a political party but never a person. We must be able to elect our senators and they must be accountable to a known electorate and be known to that electorate.
I would also suggest that we retain the valued independence and wide-ranging expertise of the current House of Lords by allocating a hundred or so senate places among each of the constituent parts of the Big Society, so the established representatives of the professions, the arts, education, science, religion, trade unions and industrialists et al. would elect senators through their associations.
The current House of Commons would be the meeting place for the English parliament or assembly. Their Lordships would cease to sit in Parliament and the buildings of the House of Lords would be the meeting place for the senate. The senate should be encouraged to hold some of its sessions in each of the four constituent countries, particularly when considering legislation particular to that country. It should also be encouraged to hold pre-legislative hearings as part of its business, whether conducted in Westminster or in other countries of the United Kingdom. The overall aim would be to simplify the present structure of government and to do so at nil cost. The abolition of the House of Lords would save £93 million annually.
Timing is crucial. Whether we think it wise or necessary, the promises that have been made to Scotland must be honoured. People cast their votes on these pledges. But the professional constitutionalists — those calling for restraint and mega-conventions and royal commissions and God knows what, and who have had, after all, since 1977 to think out their position — should not be allowed to slow down justice for England.
Both the major political parties are now intent on erecting their own roadblocks against achieving justice for the English. The Prime Minister’s call for English votes for English issues is little more than a catchphrase. A moment’s reflection shows how near impossible it would be to work effectively within our current constitutional arrangements. Who would decide, for example, when an issue was an exclusively English matter, and when it related to the other three countries of the UK? Would those MPs who are critical of the current Speaker’s stewardship be happy with the holder of that office deciding which MPs would vote on which measures?
Nor should Labour’s understandable, but totally unacceptable, wish to maintain their Scottish bonus be allowed to negate setting the outlines of the English question this side of the election. The voters recognise weasel words when they hear them. Labour’s offer of a major constitutional convention is a not very skilful attempt to kill the debate until after the votes are counted. This issue, once lost in the long grass, is where, I suspect, Labour will wish to keep it. But Labour has to accept the truth that the bonus that is gained from having Scottish MPs added to the English parliament now has a sell-by-date put on it by the Scottish voters themselves.
I would suggest that an enabling Bill on England, Wales and Northern Ireland be tabled, debated and voted upon before the next election. The next Parliament should debate and settle the details of the enabling Act, but the form of the constitutional change must be clear and submitted to voters at this coming general election. The next Parliament could, of course, take such a measure off the statute book, but Labour will only do so by effectively branding itself as the anti-English party, with all the consequences this would bring in English Labour seats at the following election.
Some, perhaps many of us, opposed Scottish devolution in that we knew that devolution was a journey rather than a destination and that it would inevitably fracture the United Kingdom. But, sadly, breaking up has been shown not to be all that hard to do.
Scottish devolution was rammed through by those, like Gordon Brown, who now claim that its logical outcome, the settlement of the English question, would strike a dagger at the heart of our constitution. That dagger was wielded long ago by those who steadily refused to see that it was they who made the English question what it is. There were no demands for an English parliament until the Scottish reformers forced their reforms on England.
Those of us who opposed the original devolution proposals now have a duty to make a settlement of the English question in a manner that does not spitefully disadvantage those other three countries — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And a clear statement to that end can be made in the powers and country representation in the new senate. The English should propose limiting their numerical advantage in any four-nation constitutional settlement and to do so in deciding the national shares for the new senate places. Likewise, the English should move to give a new senate proper checks and balances on any extreme activities of the four assemblies or parliaments. I can think of no better time to rework our infinitely flexible constitution than the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this year.