The Tory Answer To the West Lothian Question: Compromise And Fudge

Yesterday, the Tories finally published the recommendations of their Democracy Task Force on how to ‘resolve’ the West Lothian Question. Their report contained no surprises, as it was virtually as leaked two weeks ago. There was, however, one clarification. In the leaked account of the Tories’ proposals, it was stated that: “At the third and final reading, all MPs could once again vote [non-English MPs having been excluded from the Committee Stage of England-only bills’ second reading], but a new parliamentary undertaking would prevent any party using Scottish votes to block amendments made by English MPs”.

In yesterday’s published proposals, it was spelt out what this would mean. In answer to a possible objection that it would be unfair to exclude Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on England-only matters that had financial implications for their countries (via the block grant regulated by the Barnett Formula), it is stated: “In any case, the Third Reading provision of our proposal would give some safeguard to the governing party and to non-English MPs”. In other words, Scottish and Welsh MPs could reject amendments made to bills by English MPs at the Committee Stage, although this would mean the bills would no longer be carried – i.e. they could not overturn the decisions made at the Committee Stage. In the same way, if there were a Tory majority or no overall control among England’s MPs, a Labour UK government relying on Scottish and Welsh MPs for its majority could also reject amendments made by English MPs at the Second Reading – with the same result: failed legislation.

For a critique of the Tories’ proposals, see my post on the previously leaked version. It’s a pretty tawdry compromise and an exercise in obfuscation, as you’ll see for yourself if you take the trouble to try and wade through the document published by the Tories yesterday (see above link). It’s hard to see how such a technical, procedural fix could seriously address English objections to the asymmetrical devolution settlement, especially as they leave its main imbalances and injustices in place.

In fact, in their statement yesterday, the Tories virtually admit to the fact that their proposals do nothing to fundamentally rectify these imbalances but are merely an attempt to live with them and mitigate their worst possible effect: England-only legislation opposed by English MPs that gets carried through the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs. In its conclusion, the Conservatives’ report states: “The United Kingdom was traditionally a unitary state without a formal executive-legislative separation of powers. By modifying this structure without moving to full federalism, the devolution reforms of 1997-99 introduced significant anomalies, and any change that seeks to resolve these will continue to have some inconsistencies”. That is, any change that seeks to resolve some of the worst anomalies of the present devolution settlement while leaving it basically in place will continue to be inconsistent. QED. This is a striking admission that only a federal system would provide a consistent, balanced solution: if you’re going to devolve or transfer certain powers to some of the UK countries but not others, the resultant unfairness can be resolved only by each of the countries, including England, having the same powers as each other.

The federal option is ruled out of court earlier in the Tories’ report, where it raises objections to alternative proposals to its own:

An English Parliament. ‘Devolution for England’ has an obvious and appealing symmetry. However, it would need to be accompanied by an English executive, leaving the UK Parliament and government with an attenuated role limited largely to foreign and defence affairs. We do not believe that this position would be sustainable, especially given the overwhelming preponderance of England within the Union. The result would be the effective – and probably in time, formal – break-up of the United Kingdom.”

Well, this is the kind of quality (or lack of it) of thinking and argument we’re dealing with in this report: an English parliament / devolution would ‘inevitably’ lead to the break up of the Union – as if their solution would do anything else! Of course, devolution-only for England probably wouldn’t work: it would require a new federal system and constitution. So yes, the end of the unitary Union but the possibility of a new federal union. In any case, as I’ve just indicated above, the Tories themselves admit that only a federal system would be truly balanced and that the devolution settlement broke up the old unitary arrangements.

The same ‘quality’ of argumentation is present where the report casually dismisses a proportional voting system for UK elections. Just after the report asserts that where the party majority among English MPs differed from that in the UK parliament as a whole, its proposals would require co-operation and deals between the parties to get legislation through (analogous to coalition government in systems where they have PR), it states: “The analogy is not exact. The separation of powers is part of normal US political life, as is coalition-forming in countries with PR voting systems. We do not favour either practice in the UK as British political culture would take a very long time to adapt to either practice”.

The Tories don’t favour PR for UK elections because ‘British political culture’ would take a long time to adapt to it! So something that’s intrinsically right and fair is rejected because we (or rather, the Westminster political class) might find it difficult for a while. What he really means is, PR isn’t right for England, because I don’t think it’s been too painful a learning curve for members of the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly to adapt to PR; and the last time I checked, these countries were still part of the UK. And PR is what England would get under an English Parliament, unlike under the Tories’ proposals which preserve the ludicrous disproportionality of First Past the Post (FPTP).

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the primary purpose of the Tories’ proposals as a whole is to preserve the FPTP system for UK and English elections on which the Westminster system relies. The reason I say this is that, on one level, the whole West Lothian Question and the inconsistencies of the Tories’ answer to it is the thorny issue that it is only if you preserve FPTP. This is because it’s FPTP that creates the possibility of the ‘majorities’ in England and in the UK as a whole being different. That is, it’s only majorities among MPs that are being addressed not majority opinion and choices by the actual electorate. Under PR, it would be virtually impossible for there to be a majority for any party in either the UK parliament as a whole or among English MPs alone. Taking the last election as an example, if you had a perfectly proportional system, then 36% of UK MPs would be Labour, 32% Tory and 23% Lib Dem; in England, the percentages would be 35%, 36% and, I think, 22% respectively. So you’d have had to have a coalition government for the UK – say a Labour / Lib Dem government – which would also command a clear majority among English MPs. End of problem – if all you’re considering is its parliamentary dimensions, which is the not whole picture, as my previous post made clear. Even taking a possible election result where the Tories won 45% of the vote UK-wide (exceptional by the standards of recent elections), they would still have to form a coalition with, or at least rely on the co-operation of, one of the other major parties to govern both UK-wide and in relation to England-only bills.

Why do the Tories reject this simplest of all the answers to the West Lothian Question within the current imbalanced constitutional settlement? Because, as the report goes on to make clear, they want to hold on to the present system – made possible by FPTP – where there is the possibility of an absolute majority for one party across the UK as a whole: “Our proposal would retain the overall parliamentary majority of the UK Government for all policy and daily business. The English MPs would only have reserved to them the detailed scrutiny and amendment of legislation exclusively affecting their constituents, the residents of England. However, by its ability to reject any legislation which contained unacceptable amendments passed at the Committee and Report stages, the UK government would be able to protect its interests by something very similar to a presidential veto”.

Of course, this statement neatly glosses over the problem of a hung UK parliament: let’s say, no overall control UK-wide, but a Tory ‘majority’ (of MPs only, that is) in England. Then you would have to have ‘continental-style’ coalition government or cross-party co-operation in any case. But this is not the point, which is that the Tories basically want to preserve the present status quo (for all its inconsistencies, which they themselves admit to) because they want to maintain the possibility of their gaining an absolute parliamentary majority across the UK, which in reality would be provided to them only by voters in England, and then only on the basis of First Past the Post.

What they don’t want to acknowledge is that a Tory UK government with hardly any – if any – Scottish MPs would create a far more serious imbalance and would stoke up resentment towards Westminster in Scotland; and it’s this, more than the resentment of English people that Westminster politicians routinely ignore (and which the Tories’ report also fails to address), that is the most likely way in which the Union will be broken up. In other words, it’s the Tories’ lust for power across the UK – including in Scotland, where they have so little support – that is the greatest threat to the Union.

Their ‘answer’ to the West Lothian Question contains no response to this greater threat. And this is precisely because it is an attempt to justify it and enable it to come about.


One Response

  1. […] that the UUP contingent would refrain from voting on England-only matters or – if the Conservative Democracy Task Force’s recent recommendations are adopted – would willingly desist from participating in deliberations at the committee stage of […]

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