Exit the West Lothian Question; Enter the Ulster Question

The Tories look set to establish their own version of the West Lothian Question in the next Westminster parliament. News reports today suggest that David Cameron is trying to forge an alliance or merger with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), with which it was connected in the past. The advantages of this are described in the Telegraph as follows:

“it is after the next election that the alliance could prove most worthwhile. With a hung parliament a real possibility and the UUP expected to win more seats, it could hold the balance of power and enable Mr Cameron to form a government. The Conservatives – who are enjoying a substantial lead in the opinion polls – currently hold only one Scottish seat, three in Wales, and, like the other mainstream parties, none in Ulster. Mr Cameron said that as a result of the strategy the Conservatives would be the only truly national party that represents ‘every corner of the United Kingdom’.”

In other words, Conservative-UUP MPs could be used to boost or even create a Tory majority at Westminster in precisely the same way that Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs currently inflate Labour’s majority. So we would have the prospect of UUP MPs voting for England-only bills that the other parties in England – representing the majority of English voters – opposed; or enabling Tory legislation for the UK as a whole to be carried even if this was unpopular with the MPs of other parties representing Scottish and Welsh constituencies as well as English ones.

The Tories have been at pains to only refer to the UK-wide matters on which the new breed of Conservative-UUP MPs would represent their Ulster constituents: “Like most others in the UK, what really worries [Northern Irish people] is social breakdown, fuel duties, the 10p tax row, excessive regulation on business, pensions and the Lisbon treaty”. But this doesn’t alter the gerrymandering logic. I see no difference in kind between UUP MPs taking the Tory whip on measures unpopular in England and the dirty deal the Labour government did with the Democratic Unionists (DUP) to get 42-days through even though a majority of MPs from English constituencies opposed the measure.

And are we really to believe 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 English bills? Maybe they would; or maybe one of the reasons why these recommendations or the earlier Rifkind ones advocating English votes on English laws have not yet been formally adopted by the Conservatives is that these points form a delicate part of the ongoing negotiations with the UUP!

In any case, as these two sets of Tory ‘solutions’ to the West Lothian Question are not in fact solutions to it, they would also not be solutions to the Ulster Question that would replace it under the Tories; especially if it was the UUP MPs that actually gave the Tories an overall parliamentary majority, which is one of their clear intentions. We’d then have a situation of UUP MPs becoming ministers and putting forward legislation for England only for which they were completely unaccountable to any voter. Suddenly, a crushing sense of déja-vu overwhelms me!

David Cameron’s suggestion, in the quote above, that having Tory MPs elected in Ulster would mean they were the only party that represented ‘every corner of the UK’ is an absolutely pathetic attempt to make out that such a gerrymandering fix would mean that his government would legitimately represent each UK country individually and the UK as a whole. One or two MPs in Scotland and Wales, and at best a handful in Northern Ireland, would not change the electoral logic that a Conservative government would be a) overwhelmingly an English-elected government, and b) the product of the distortions of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which is the only way a minority vote in England can be translated into a comfortable majority of English MPs. There would only be any legitimacy in such a claim if the Tory MPs for each UK nation broke with normal parliamentary practice and actually did take it upon themselves to represent the wishes and needs of their constituents and their countries at Westminster. But the Westminster system doesn’t work like that; and they’d inevitably just be rubber stamps for unaccountable English-only legislation and unpopular UK bills.

Anyway, who’s to say that other parties might not get in on the act before the next election? What chance a DUP-Labour tie up, building on their invidious vote trading over 42 days? Well, perhaps not: the DUP are way too conservative and puritanical for New Labour, aren’t they? Then again, under presbyterian, authoritarian Brown . . .. I can’t, however, see the Lib Dems pairing up with any of the Catholic parties, although an alliance with the Alliance Party would seem pretty appropriate, including for historical reasons, for those of us who remember the SDP-Liberal Alliance that was the precursor of the Lib Dems! Or maybe Sinn Fein or the SDLP could form a partnership or merger with one of the parties from the Irish Republic, which would seem like a fitting symmetrical riposte to the Tories’ move! Well, now; there’s a thought: Irish Republican parties participating in UK elections. Watch out, you Irish: they’ll be wanting to co-opt you back into the Union before you know it!

Anyway, if the Tories think they’ll convince people that the proposed deal with the UUP is about reintegrating Northern Ireland back into the UK mainstream, they must be in cloud cuckoo land. It’s about hard electoral logic and the desperation of the Tories to win an outright Westminster majority that they could at least make out to be based on more than English votes alone.

It’s a shame for Northern Ireland and its Unionists, though. This is because their politicians could end up being the villains as have Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs under New Labour. Voting on English laws, and propping up a government that would be even more unpopular in Scotland and Wales than in England, won’t exactly make any of their Union cousins more favourably disposed to remaining in the Union that they and the Conservative Party ostensibly seek to defend.

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