Saturday, 17 June 2006

Is World Cup the Catalyst for the West Lothian Answer?

Today's Scotsman raises an interesting point by suggestion that the current World Cup could could intensify pressure on the devolution settlement.

Since Tam Dalyell asked the West Lothian Question it has gone unanswered and after 7 years of devolved power in Scotland it has raised its head above the parapets of Westminster to save Tony Blair's hide on a number of occasions.

The question that is seeking to be answered is:

How can it be right that MPs elected to Westminster from Scottish constituencies have no ability to affect the issues of their constituents which have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and

If power over Scottish affairs is devolved to a Scottish Parliament, how can it be right that MPs representing Scottish constituencies in the Parliament of the United Kingdom will have the power to vote on issues affecting England (including those that don't affect Scotland), but English MPs will not have the power to vote on Scottish issues?

According to James Kirkup's article in today's Scotsman there is growing disquiet in England and this might tear assunder the constitutional agreement that was established in 1999. A report is going to be made by the Scottish affairs committee next week that is going to highlight this unease and proposes possible solutions.

The committee sees four possible outcomes the dissolution of the UK; English devolution; fewer Scottish MPs; or English votes on English laws. Can any of these answer the question sucessfully and fully?

Dissolution of the UK

A radical proposal but would it be sustainable. It throws up a number of other questions not least of which is the Northern Ireland question. Could Northern Ireland survive on its own? We are still waiting to see if they can return to governing themselves at present. If they cannot what would become of them on dissolution, would they remain part of England or part of Ireland?

Both the major parties have governed the UK for years as unionist parties standing up against the Nationalists of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would they then take a big u-turn and give in to those calls after all this time.

What would become of North Sea oil and its revenue? those fields are goegraphically Scottish not English could nay government contemplate losing such a highly profitable income earner and put the English in a position of energy debt.

Admittedly dissolution of states has been occuring all over Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However, this has usually been initiated by the smaller fragments seeking and gaining their independence from the larger state. The notable exception was the equality of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Not one of these dissolutions has been powered from the largest section of the whole releasing voluntarily the other states.

English devolution

Tony Blair will claim he tried to do this and it failed. The problem with the North East Assembly proposal was that it was not devolution in any meaningful sense. There was to be no real power to that proposed Assembly it has less ability to change anything that the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.

Giving real power to the regions of England and increasing the powers bestowed on Wales and Northern Ireland could have real benefits to everyone. There are differences in provisions of certain services from region to region. Environmental concerns in the South West would be different from the largely urban Midlands. Transport in London is vastly different from those in the North West. Health care provision in the South East commuter belt is different from the heavy industry background of the North East. One shoe doesn't necessarily fit all, one solution created in Westminster is necessarily the best for the regions.

The problem with NuLabour and is they like control from the centre. NuLabour want to control the minituae of the things that fall under Whitehall departments from Whitehall. You just have to look at their proposals to merge Police forces, control of Health Service provision etc to see that bigger equates to better in their eyes. Therefore giving power to regions is probably not on their agenda.

Fewer Scottish MPs

Last May there already was a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs coming down from 72 to 59. Any further reduction would only serve to make many of the largest geographical constituencies in the UK even bigger. Now I know there are bigger constituencies in Canada, the US and Australia but these places also have a different degree of accessibility by-and-large. The wilds of Scotland do not easily allow for small airfields of easy access by superhighways.

Already to accommodate the reduction some constituencies in Scotland straddle two Scottish Parliamentary regions and two or more Scottish Parliamentary seats. Where I stood in Linlithgow and Falkirk East last May the voters were served by two different councils, two regions, two Police Forces, two health boards etc. The constituency had 2 constituency MSPs, 12 list MSPs and that is for a relatively straightforward division. Some Scottish MPs elsewhere have far more other elected representatives to deal with for various parts of their constituency.

So the practical side of having non-coterminous boundaries needs to be properly addressed before any further reduction is even considered also the practicalities of MPs serving large constituencies.

English votes on English laws

The question with this had been what constitutes English laws. Even Tam Dalyell the poser of the original question on occasion since devolution voted in Westminster on what was a devolved issue. In his explanation although the law would only apply to England it would have a knock on effect in Scotland. However, as Tam would no doubt probably agree some of his English former colleagues probably wish they had the same opportunity on some of the decisions that have been made in Scotland. So who is to determine what is truly a devolved issue in that sense?

So what is the best option? I would say English devolution. To what extent? Probably on a regional level but giving real power to the regions and not just forming talking shop. It works for Germany and Spain more or less equal in size to the UK. But until both Labour and the Tories are prepared to let some power leave their grib and let decisions be taken and exercised outwith Whitehall the West Lothian Question will continue to fester.

So while Gordon Brown's new found liking for the three lions on his shirt is the opposite of the majority of his fellow Scots it doesn't look like the West Lothian Answer is any closer to being found.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article.

    In London we have some odd situations when it comes to councils and constituencies.
    My local council (Waltham Forest) has 3 constituencies within it (Chingford and Woodford Green, Leyton and Walthamstow).
    I live in Chingford and Woodford Green, which is split between two boroughs, mostly Waltham Forest, but also a chunk of Redbridge.

    This makes for an odd situation for local parties. It seems like Labour are controlled centrally with Chingford controlled from the Town Hall (due to very little presence), not sure about the Tories as they have little presence outside Chingford.
    The LibDems are quite definitely parties based on constituency boundaries, I'm not sure how much cooperation with other local parties there is, between councillors there obviously is, but outside that there doesn't seem to be much.

    It basically makes for a mess...

    Plus there is of course the London Assebly, which adds more representatives...