Tuesday, October 03, 2006

'S A Fair Cop

Has Boris Johnson offended yet another group of people? Nick Robinson suggests he's offended the Scots; a risky venture if ever there was one.

So what did Boris say?
Mr Johnson... called for Scottish politicians to be banned from voting on English matters.

"I have no wish to be disrespectful to the Scots. But it is outrageous that I as an English MP can be outvoted on issues such as Oxfordshire's NHS without corresponding powers the other way.

"The Scots should not get free university education subsidised by us in England. They shouldn't get free nursing care.

"As a Scot Gordon Brown will find it hard to convince people in England he should be prime minister."
Oh, how disappointing. I'm Scottish but I'm not offended at all.*

The problem is, he's basically right, isn't he? It is outrageous that Scottish MPs can vote on health issues in Boris' constituency but he can't vote on issues in theirs.

Theoretically, of course, Westminster is still ultimately sovereign and could take back the power it has devolved to the Scottish parliament at any time so Boris is not strictly correct in his assertion; English MPs at Westminster actually could vote on devolved matters (and they occassionally still do) and the Scottish parliament are obliged to abide by any such votes.

But practically, as things stand, there is an imbalance in the system; It's an imbalance caused by New Labour's devolution reforms, one they don't care about because of the MPs Scotland delivers to the Westminster parliament.
  • Labour Party: 39
  • Liberal Democrats: 12
  • Scottish National Party: 6
  • Conservative & Unionist Party: 1
  • The Speaker of UK Parliament: 1
Not much incentive there for Labour to sort this out. (As an aside, I wonder how keen the Tories would be to sort it out if they had 39 Scottish MPs in parliament rather than 1. Not very, I suspect.)

I do genuinely see why this irks many English people. The Foundation Hospitals Act, narrowly passed after Scottish and Welsh MPs voted for legislation which applied only to England, was a case in point. There is a real problem here and if a solution isn't found, it may well fester nastily.

Boris' solution however, is just silly. Here's why:
Say a Labour government were elected with a good UK majority but without a majority in England (as has happened in the past). Under the Tories’ ideas, that government would not be able to implement any of its health, crime, education, etc, proposals, as it would lack the necessary votes...

If you did want things done, then you would need two separate governments acting in parallel, with two different prime ministers depending on the subject in question (Labour for defence, pensions and welfare payment, Tory for health, education and crime). It would not be a continental-style coalition, but some curious new animal for which I can think of no precedent around the world. Prime Minister’s Questions would be interesting, with the two party leaders having to run from one side of the dispatch box to the other depending on what the subject matter was.

With the opinion polls the way they are now, the above scenario looks a realistic possibility at the next general election. English votes for English matters in such a parliament just wouldn't work, certainly not in the yaa boo environment of British politics.

Not sure what the solution is (one of the great luxuries of being a blogger) but it isn't the policy the Conservatives currently advocate. Still, at least they've got a policy on this, hopelessly confused though it is. That's definitely a step forward from where they are on most issues these days.

* Not sure about the "subsidised" part. The Barnett formula plus or minus oil tax revenues equals confusion. Amazingly, everyone who tries to answer this question discovers that the answer entirely supports their chosen political view. What are the chances, eh?

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Osama Saeed said...

What a convoluted idea from Johnson. Is a simpler and neater solution not for Scotland to become independent? What's the point of all this other complicated constitutional tomfoolery?

Neil Craig said...

At the last election the Tories got 50,000 more votes in England than labour but due to the vagaries of the FTPT electoral system, fewer seats. That this did not raise "English nationalist" hackles against what is undeniably a corrupt electoral system, albeit one the Tories support, shows that this is not a real nationalist issue but Tories throwing dynamite at troubled waters.

The obvious problem with making it impossible for the UK leader to be a Scot is that it reduces us pretty much to the status of anself ruling colony which would clearly be unstable.

The equally obvious answer is a federal structure for everybody, my preference would be England becoming several regions rather than one, but in any case a federation.

mj said...

A obvious problem with the current British system is that it's some sort of half-measure between a purely national system and a federal one.

In a "normal" federal system, like Germany, each state/country runs it's own business through it's own parliament whereas the federal parliament runs federal business and imposes limits on the states.

Obviously there is a problem when the "English parliment" is the same as the federal one. With each state sending representatives to Westminister this gives Scotland and the others a vote in English business, where they rightly shouldn't have a voice. But it at the same time gives England a supreme position of being a country synonymous with the state (sort of).

So,reinstate the English parliament, let it run England, and let the UK parliament function as leader of the federation.

The other alternative would of course be to abolish the the country assemblies and forget the silly notion of devolution.