AV referendum: for the sake of England, don’t vote!

Do you think the First Past the Post voting system used for electing UK MPs should be changed to the Alternative Vote? Do you even care?

Firstly, should anyone who supports the idea of an English parliament give a monkeys about the voting system used to elect the UK parliament? On one level, no: the fact that this AV referendum is being held on the same day as the elections for the Scottish parliament, and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, but that the English have never been consulted about a parliament of their own; and the fact that we’re being offered only the disproportional AV system, whereas those very devolved elections use a different, proportional system, is a downright insult. So not only is there no representation for England as a nation on offer, but there is to be no proportional representation for England even within the UK parliament. So I know where I’d tell them to stick their AV.

On the other hand, a ‘better’ electoral system for electing English MPs would surely be a gain for the nation even while we’re being governed by an unrepresentative UK executive and parliament. Does AV constitute such a gain? Well, in my view, AV is marginally – very marginally – better than FPTP. It does ensure that parliamentary candidates have to secure the explicit support of a larger proportion of their local electorate in order to win – though it doesn’t guarantee that MPs must obtain the support of a majority of voters: that depends on how many voters don’t express a preference for either / any of the candidates remaining after the less popular candidates have been eliminated.

However, in reality, this greater share of the vote MPs have to win, which includes the second and subsequent preferences of voters whose first-choice candidates have been unsuccessful, already exists in latent form under the FPTP system. The only difference that AV makes is that it allows voters to explicitly express that support with their preference votes, so that – for example – a winning plurality of, say, 40% is turned into a winning ‘majority’ of 52%. That extra 12% of voters who are broadly content for a candidate to win on 40% of the vote are still there under FPTP; so AV in a sense just legitimises what happens under FPTP: the election to parliament of MPs who fail to be the first choice of a majority of voters.

AV is, therefore, mainly a means to secure buy-in to an unfair system that has ill-served England. That’s what FPTP has been: over the past few decades, it’s given us Tory and Labour governments that have never commanded the support of a majority of English men and women. It gave us the divisive, confrontational and egomaniacal Thatcher regime; and it was responsible for Blair’s New Labour, with its legacy of asymmetric devolution, British-establishment Anglophobia, public-spending discrimination against England, and the overseas follies of Iraq and Afghanistan, with so many brave young English people exploited as cannon fodder in unwinnable, unjustifiable wars.

FPTP has failed England. AV is only a very slightly mitigated version of FPTP. Both will lead to more disproportional, unrepresentative UK parliaments that will continue to ignore not only the just demands for an English parliament but England’s very existence. Under the present UK political settlement, England as such is completely discounted and passed over in silence. The pro-AV campaign says that, under AV, your vote really counts. But England will still count for nothing, whether we have AV or FPTP.

So make your vote really count this Thursday in the AV referendum by greeting it with the silent contempt with which the political establishment treats England. England’s voice is not being consulted; so respond with sullen, stern silence in your turn. Don’t vote for a system – the UK parliament itself – that disenfranchises you. And let the result – whether a win for AV or FPTP – be rendered as meaningless as it really is through a derisory turn-out across England.

England will have its say one day in a meaningful referendum: on an English parliament. And I bet neither AV nor FPTP will be on offer as the voting system for a parliament that truly represents the English people.

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Alternative alternative voting systems: Part One

It seems fitting to begin this series of analyses of alternative voting systems on the day when our half-Dutch Deputy PM has leaked the date of the coalition government’s proposed referendum on replacing the First Past the Post voting system with the Alternative Vote (and is doubtless also celebrating his motherland’s World Cup triumph over Brazil – sob . . .).

That referendum will be on the same day as the elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. So while the rest of Great Britain gets to vote for their own national legislatures using a genuinely, if imperfectly, proportional system (AMS), we in England are being offered a referendum that denies us the choice of a genuinely proportional system (which AV is not), let alone a referendum on an English parliament to match the referendums on the Scottish and Welsh parliament and assembly that took place 12 years ago. Well, I guess such a flagrant denial of English people’s democratic rights is only what you can expect from a Eurocrat who refuses to say whether he is English or not.

Most of the systems I’ll be discussing in this series of posts are themselves alternatives to the alternatives to FPTP that have been espoused by the Labour and Lib Dem parties in the run up to May’s general election and, in the case of the Lib Dems, for a long time before it: the Alternative Vote (AV) and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) respectively. However, in this first article, I want to briefly go over the merits, or rather mainly demerits, of the Alternative Vote system. I won’t reiterate the more detailed points I made in my previous discussions on AV (here and here). What I want to do here is set up a series of criteria against which to measure the merits of voting systems; and in this article, I’ll apply those criteria to AV and FPTP.

There is a whole Wikipedia article devoted to discussing some of the technical criteria by which experts on voting systems assess their qualities. However, this is far too abstruse for my purposes, and my criteria are a lot more intuitive. They are as follows:

  • Does every vote count / is every vote counted? On the face of it, that sounds like a rather funny question: of course, every vote counts (matters) and is counted. But that’s not actually the case in all systems. With respect to AV, the ‘majority’ that AV produces in favour of the winning candidate is occasionally dependent on eliminating some people’s votes altogether, i.e. if they haven’t listed one of the candidates surviving in the final count as one of their preferences. It seems rather paradoxical that a system that is supposed to carry more legitimacy than FPTP engineers overall majorities for the winning candidates by disenfranchising some supporters of smaller parties altogether: effectively, ignoring their vote.
  • Is the system proportional? How effective is the system in producing shares of the seats that closely match the shares of the vote obtained by the parties?
  • Does the system foster accountability? In other words, to what degree are the elected representatives directly accountable to a specific, local electorate, as they are for instance in constituency systems as opposed to those involving party lists?
  • Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences? In other words, does the voting system allow voters to send a message to politicians about how they really think on a range of issues, rather than just voting for one party in a way that the parties themselves take as a mandate to carry out their whole policy programme?
  • Does the system mitigate the need to vote tactically? In other words, does it genuinely free people up to vote how they really want?
  • How easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? No point in having a mathematically perfect system if voters don’t understand how it works in such a way as to fully take advantage of it.

I’m now going to assess the relative merits of FPTP and AV by awarding points for how well each system performs against each of these criteria: one point being the lowest score and five the highest.

In relation to the first question – does every vote count / is every vote counted? – I’d give FPTP three points and AV only two. Under FPTP, at least every vote is taken into consideration and treated equally, and all votes go into the final count. But those votes often do not count in the other sense, in that votes for all but the two leading parties, or even the only leading party, are usually pointless: they won’t affect the result in any way. AV performs worse in this respect, as I pointed out above, in that some of the votes are actually not included in the final count: first-preference votes for parties eliminated from the final count, in cases where voters have not indicated a lower preference for any of the parties still in the race. In addition, the second or subsequent preferences of people who have voted for one of the top-two parties in the election are not counted at all. That means that the final result is based on counting some non-first preferences but not all. So AV gives the impression that what all voters indicate as their first preference actually matters; but in fact, the end result is rarely different from a FPTP ballot, and votes for smaller parties are just as pointless, if not more so, as under FPTP.

Second question: is the system proportional? In this respect, FPTP is just about the worst system there is and so scores only one point. AV is only marginally better (in some cases, it can be even worse) and so scores two. AV is not a proportional system. The only thing you can say in its favour is that, as AV allows for results that better reflect the consensus of opinion in each constituency, therefore the aggregate result across the different parts of the country is more likely to be consistent with the real level of support that each party enjoys. But this is only so to a very limited degree.

Question 3: does the system foster accountability? Here, I’d give both systems a three. As they are used in single-member constituencies, this makes them quite conducive to accountability in that each MP is directly answerable to the electorate of the local area they represent. On the other hand, both systems lead to disproportionate parliaments and bring about massive majorities for parties that have gained only a minority of the popular vote. In addition, these systems prop up ‘safe seats’ (AV perhaps a bit less so) in which MPs can more or less expect to be re-elected indefinitely. Both of these facts diminish the accountability of MPs to their voters.

Question 4: does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their views? Here, I’d give FPTP one point and AV two. For a modern democracy and society, FPTP is an extremely blunt instrument and really doesn’t provide much of a means for voters to let politicians know what they really think about them and their policies. Nowadays, people tend to agree with different policies and ideas across party boundaries, but the ability to vote for just one party / candidate does not allow that diversity of opinion to be expressed. Instead, people often, if not mostly, end up voting for a particular candidate as much to keep out another candidate as to endorse the entire manifesto of the party they’re voting for. AV represents a slight improvement, in that it does at least allow people to vote for a candidate who’s almost certain to lose while at the same time casting a second- or lesser-preference vote for the ‘least bad’ candidate that has a chance of winning – you can vote for the parties you genuinely support as well as voting tactically.

High-preference votes for candidates from minor parties are rarely effectual under AV: they rarely alter the end result. However, they do enable voters to send more of a message to politicians. For example, had the recent election been held using the AV system, I would have indicated UKIP as my first preference and the Lib Dems second: UKIP to let politicians know I am angry we were denied a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and on EU membership; but Lib Dems as the best means (I thought at the time) to bring about constitutional and electoral reform, and because only they had a chance of beating the Tory. In the event, under FPTP, I just had to vote Lib Dems: a tactical vote, rather than adding my voice to those of millions who might have put UKIP down as one of their preferences if they’d had the choice.

Which brings me to the fifth question: does the voting system mitigate the need for tactical voting? FPTP scores only one point here, as it quintessentially encourages tactical voting amid effective two-party politics: Labour or Tory in the Midlands, North of England and Scotland; Lib Dem or Tory in southern England. Wales is a bit more of a patchwork outside the industrial and urban centres of the south. AV gains only one extra point here (i.e. two in total), as you still end up having to vote tactically under AV, even if the tactical vote is listed last in the order of preference you’ve indicated on your ballot sheet.

Finally, how easy is the system for voters to understand and use to best advantage? FPTP: three points – it’s extremely easy to understand and use, but at the same time, it doesn’t empower voters, and they very often end up feeling cheated or that they’ve wasted their vote. AV is less transparent than FPTP, so I’d give it only two points here. Voters could think that all of the preferences they indicate in an AV vote will be taken into consideration and be reflected in some way in the final result. For instance, they might think that ranking the candidates was equivalent to giving them a certain number of points (rather along the lines of the Eurovision Song Contest) and that first-preference votes carried more weight than last preferences. In reality, they don’t: if you vote for a minor party as your first choice, that vote will eventually be discarded; and if your lesser-preference votes are reassigned to the surviving candidates, these are going to carry as much weight as your first preference whether you want that to be the case or not.

Here is a table summarising the points I’m awarding to First Past the Post and AV against my criteria:

Criterion FPTP AV
Does every vote count?

3

2

Is the system proportional?

1

2

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

Does the system let voters express all their views?

1

2

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

Conclusion: AV is a marginal improvement on FPTP – but only extremely marginal, and they’re both pretty rubbish.

I’ll be adding alternative alternative systems to this analysis, and this table, in subsequent posts. Next time: Approval Voting.

The Liberal-Democrat Accession and the English Parliament

You should always be careful what you wish for and be wary of the law of unintended consequences. Although I will probably be voting Lib Dem this time round – unless my Tory MP astounds me by previously unsuspected support for an English parliament – a Lib-Dem break-through could have far-reaching ramifications for the prospects and nature of any future English parliament.

For a start, as they made clear yesterday, the Lib Dems will make their support for a minority Labour- or Conservative-led government conditional on introducing proportional representation. One imagines this would involve a referendum on changing to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for UK-parliamentary elections.

Many supporters of PR see it as a way to mitigate (i.e. ignore) the West Lothian Question. The logic behind this position is simple, though flawed in my view. For example, under STV, if the actual vote on 6 May exactly followed yesterday’s ICM opinion-poll ratings (Con 33%, Lib Dem 30% and Lab 28%), then the Conservatives would be the largest party both in England and the UK as a whole; and in any coalition of the parties to form a government, the UK majority thus constituted would also be consistent with the parties’ shares of seats in England. Therefore, on one level, it would no longer matter if non-English MPs voted on English laws, as the same laws would be passed if only English MPs voted.

On the other hand, the reverse logic could also apply: if the votes of non-English MPs were no longer needed to pass English bills, why let them vote at all? The only real justification for non-English MPs voting on English legislation presently is when there is a link to spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland via the Barnett Formula. But presumably, the days of that formula itself might well be numbered under a Con-LibDem coalition, as the Lib Dems favour scrapping it and even the Tories talk in their manifesto of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

Indeed, in a proportionally elected House of Commons, the situation of non-English MPs voting on English laws would come to appear blatantly, if not scandalously, anomalous. Under First Past the Post, by contrast, the fact that Labour’s Scottish MPs have occasionally been required to pass the government’s England-only legislation against the will of a majority of English MPs did not on one level seem that outrageous in that the government majority procured in this way was no more disproportionate than the normal majority of English MPs only it would expect to command, as both majorities were merely the product of the absurd FPTP electoral system rather than of the way English people actually voted at the 2005 general election.

In other words, in a situation in which voting majorities in the Commons bear little relation to the way the public actually voted at the election, the misuse of non-English MPs to inflate those majorities even further does not stand out too obviously. By contrast, in a proportionally elected House where the parties’ shares of the seats are meant to reflect the way people voted, and where MPs are meant to be more accountable to their electorates, distorting those shares by allowing MPs not accountable to the people affected by bills to vote on them would be completely inconsistent and unacceptable.

Accordingly, I tend to think that, rather than mitigating the WLQ, PR would render it inoperable. But then if you do not allow non-English MPs to make England’s laws, what arrangements would be made for that little matter of how to govern England? Do you go down the route of an English Grand Committee: English laws debated and voted on by separate sessions of English MPs only? Do you draw the logical conclusion and say that Parliament needs to evolve into an English parliament to deal with English matters, with a separate set of representatives elected from across the UK to deal with reserved matters? Or do you just try to ignore the problem by pretending that England does not exist and that the West Lothian Question simply does not arise, let alone require a solution – the Labour government’s approach?

In this way, by insisting on introducing PR before dealing with the English Question, the Lib Dems might find that question comes and bites them in the bum: they could create a constitutional mess in which the very legitimacy and function of the parliament for which they had finally secured PR was called into question – a British parliament without a valid democratic role and status in most of what it did, i.e. in English matters.

To be fair to the Lib Dems, their manifesto does state that they want to hold a citizens’ convention to help draw up a written constitution, and the English Question would be dealt with as part of this process. But the Lib Dems are not going to be in a position to carry out this commitment in full as part of a coalition government. All they’ve actually said is that they’d make electoral reform a minimal precondition of any deal to support a minority government, not the whole constitutional-reform programme; and neither Labour nor the Tories have any appetite to address the English Question. But as I say, the English Question may impose itself as unavoidable if the Lib Dems do succeed in introducing STV.

There are two possible scenarios that follow on logically from this. Firstly, if the Lib Dems do secure STV (and if, as I argue, this would lead to an urgent need to address the English Question because of the crisis of governance it would bring about), then any English parliament would also be based on STV. Having gone to the trouble and expense of introducing STV, which would require the re-drawing of constituency boundaries and the amalgamation of constituencies into multi-member seats, there is no way the English parliament could then revert to the pre-STV single member-constituency system. Having finally achieved their goal of a proper proportional system, the Lib Dems would never accept an inferior system for England; nor – I think – would the English people.

However – scenario two – what if the British public did not endorse STV in the initial referendum required to adopt it as the system for UK elections? For instance, Gordon Brown favours the Alternative Vote (AV) single-member system, and if the Lib Dems’ referendum were held under a putative Lab-LibDem coalition, it could be a multi-option referendum with AV as one of the systems on offer. Labour could be expected to argue strongly for AV, which is in reality merely a mitigated form of FPTP and would preserve the unfair advantage the present system gives to the party. Who knows, voters might prefer to retain single-member constituencies and the winner-takes-all aspect of the present system, albeit in a slightly fairer form. Under this second scenario, the West Lothian Question could remain in place for much longer, as AV would perpetuate the disproportionality of the present system from which the very ability of Labour to form any kind of government depends and which also disguises the outrageously unfair extra advantage Labour obtains from the WLQ.

In this context, the Lib Dems could find themselves in the unenviable position of propping up an unfairly elected Labour government that exploits its stronger base of support in Scotland and Wales to secure its power in England. Would it not then be both more effective tactically, and give greater moral credibility to their demands for constitutional reform, if the Lib Dems declared now – ahead of 6 May – that they would not exploit the West Lothian Question in the new parliament, even if to do so were the only way in which a coalition of which they were a part could actually form a working majority?

After all, how can the English people believe in the Lib Dems’ advocacy of greater democratic fairness and proportional representation if they are in theory willing to exploit one of the most egregiously unfair and disproportional aspects of the present system simply to have a share in government? If they want England to back them on 6 May and support STV in a referendum, then surely they should back ‘building a fairer Britain’ in the forthcoming parliament, too – including fairness for England.

The article ConservativeHome rejected: To be a party of the Union, the Conservatives must also be a party for England

On the day after the Conservatives published a draft manifesto for the English NHS that failed to mention ‘England’ a single time, I thought it would be fitting to publish an article of mine that was originally accepted for inclusion in the ‘Platform’ section of the ConservativeHome blog back in November of last year. However, they subsequently got cold feet and decided not to publish.

The rejection of the article, coupled with the Conservatives’ refusal to accurately present their English-NHS policies as limited to England, doesn’t make me optimistic that the election campaign will be marked by honesty over English matters. Here’s the article:

It has been said by some – and I would tend to agree – that the biggest threat to the continuation of the Union is likely to come from England, not Scotland. There is a groundswell of feeling and opinion throughout England that our present constitutional and political arrangements have left England in both a democratic and financial deficit; and it is arguable that the wave of disaffection with Parliament and our political system that broke in May and June of this year was primarily an expression of English alienation and disenchantment with the status quo. At the very least, the UK-wide eruption of disgust at MPs’ perceived corruption was more acute in England, which does not have a parliament of its own, thereby exacerbating the feeling that the political class has become unaccountable to the public.

There are now many people in England who secretly or not so secretly wish that the Scots will get their independence referendum and will vote to leave the UK. Indeed, if the English were offered a referendum on independence for England, it would not be surprising if the percentage in favour exceeded the 29% of Scots who reportedly back independence for Scotland at present. Arguably, in any case, all UK citizens should be allowed to participate in any definitive independence referendum for Scotland, as opposed to the SNP’s proposed consultative referendum asking for a mandate for the Scottish government to negotiate an independence settlement with the UK government. This is because Scotland cannot technically vote to ‘leave’ the Union. The effect of a vote in favour of Scottish independence would actually be to dissolve the Union: Great Britain would cease to exist, as this entity is the product of a union between two nations (Wales being subsumed within England at the time); and if one of those nations decides to go, that breaks up the union. In other words, Great Britain is the name of a marriage; and when a divorce arises, there is no more Great Britain – just separate entities known as England (and Wales) and Scotland.

So part of any deal for Scottish independence would have to be a new constitutional settlement for the residual nations of the UK to form, for instance, a new ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’. And it would only be right and proper that the prospective citizens of the new state should be asked whether they wanted to be part of it. So perhaps you’d need two referendums, in fact: one for the Scots about their national future; and one for the rest of the UK.

This is, of course, a scenario that traditional unionist Conservatives would like to avoid at all costs. But you can’t deal with English disaffection with asymmetric devolution and with the lack of a representative parliament for England by denying English-national feeling and identity, as the Labour government has tried to do. New Labour has tried to manipulate English people’s traditional patriotic identification of England with Great Britain – the two often being interchangeable in English people’s hearts and minds – to engineer a ‘New Britain’ that denies the existence of a distinct English nation altogether: a Britain / UK that no longer comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but is viewed as Britain + the devolved nations – Gordon Brown’s ‘Britain of nations and regions [formerly known as England]’.

Whilst this new British-nation building has arguably mediated a profound Anglophobia at the heart of the liberal establishment, it has also been a reaction by the Westminster establishment as a whole to the traumatic shock to the 300-year-old Union that was delivered by an ill-thought-through devolution settlement. The fear was that a new English nationalism would build up in parallel to the growing national consciousness and self-confidence of the Scots and the Welsh; and that the English would start to demand their own parliament and national institutions that could rip open the Union from within. But instead of acknowledging that it was an inevitable consequence of devolution that the English would start to become more aware of themselves as a distinct nation, and would consequently start to demand English civic institutions like those of the other British nations, the approach has been virtually to deny that England even exists, which – politically and constitutionally speaking – it in fact doesn’t. In this way, the Union parliament can be presented as a perfectly adequate representative democratic body for England because there is no England, only the UK. As Tony Blair’s first Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine memorably put it, “The way to deal with the West Lothian Question is not to ask it”.

Given the Conservative Party’s profound attachment to the Union, it would be understandable if a Tory government were to continue along this path of denying any distinctly English dimension to national politics and constitutional affairs. Clearly, this is the case not only because of the perceived threat of a growing English nationalism but because the Conservatives are desperate, for electoral purposes, not to be perceived by Scots as an English party – which they mainly in fact are. But to replicate New Labour’s actions and attitudes in relation to England would not only be unjust but would also be alien to Conservative tradition and counter-productive to the aim of preserving the Union. Traditionally, that is, the Conservatives have been adept at balancing the competing English and British identities and patriotisms of the English people: channelling English national pride into a One Nation Britishness that yet did not deny Englishness. If, on the other hand, the response of a forthcoming Conservative government to the contrary challenges of English and Scottish nationalism is, like New Labour, to make it unacceptable to publicly articulate pride in Englishness, then this will in turn be unacceptable to the English public in the long run. The Union cannot be sustainable if its largest constituent part has to deny its own identity and democratic aspirations indefinitely while allowing its other parts to affirm their own – indeed, in order to allow the other nations to affirm their distinct identities, requiring England in a sense to become the Union by itself: the place of Britishness from which only the other nations are allowed to differentiate themselves; whereas if England becomes merely England, not Britain, then there is no more Union, just four distinct nations.

So what are the alternatives? Well, Ken Clarke’s answer to the West Lothian Question, which has been dubbed ‘English pauses for English clauses’, manages to avoid really asking the question, too. While it makes it possible for English MPs to amend England-only clauses of bills at the committee stage, Clarke’s recommendation still leaves the structural West Lothian anomaly in place: bills affecting England only or mainly can still be put forward by an executive comprising MPs from across the UK’s nations, and still need to be passed by a parliamentary majority made up of MPs from all four countries. In any case, such a procedural titivation is hardly likely to stem the growing tide of public dissatisfaction with the workings and representative character of Parliament in general, let alone the aspirations towards English self-government.

It seems to me, then, that if the Conservative Party genuinely seeks to preserve the Union as a true, undivided Union of equal nations, then it will have to seek a way to allow a distinct and healthy English-national politics and civic life to develop and prosper, even if this is within the broad confines of the existing Union structures. This may in fact be a last-ditch chance to save the Union as we know it from the alternatives of a federal UK of four nations or a total break-up of the UK into its component parts. Quite what shape the new English politics would take once the English genius is let out of the asphyxiating British lamp is not something that can easily be foreseen. But it seems to me that the Conservative Party is the natural party to guide and steer this process, precisely because of its deep roots in English society and traditions, and the naturally conservative (small ‘c’) character of the English people.

To begin with, the Party could start honestly referring to its England-specific policies and, in government, laws as English, rather than maintaining the present pretence that its policies in areas such as education, health or policing relate to the whole of the UK. In their manifesto at the general election, the Conservatives should reserve a dedicated section to their policies for England, which in fact will make up the majority of their legislative activity in government, given the very many policy areas in which UK governments now have competency for England only. This would be a hugely refreshing change and would demonstrate to people in England, including those that might otherwise be tempted to vote for more nationalist alternatives, that the Conservative Party is mindful of the specific social and economic concerns and needs of English people alongside its responsibilities to the whole of the UK in areas such as the economy or national security.

Such a degree of honesty about England-specific policies need not provoke a cry of indignation from the nationalists and Labour alike that the Conservatives are putting the needs and priorities of English people above those of Scotland and Wales. On the contrary, many people in those countries would also find it refreshing that national-UK politicians were finally accepting the post-devolution realities and not talking about England-specific matters as if they were relevant to them, too. This sort of honesty would be in stark contrast to the behaviour of Labour, in particular, which is clearly seeking to bolster its traditional support in Scotland and Wales based on an appeal to its traditional policies on the NHS and education for which Westminster governments are no longer responsible in those countries. The Tory response to Labour’s gerrymandering manipulation of the West Lothian Question should not be to deny the validity of the question but to show up Labour’s deceit for what it is. The Conservatives can present themselves as a government for Scotland and Wales; but they can’t do so by denying that, in many ways, Westminster administrations are now governments for England alone. There are English matters and there are UK matters, and the way to restore the trust of the public is to recognise the difference and present strong policies in both departments.

The Union is presently under a greater threat than at any previous time in its history, other than in times of war. But the way to respond to this threat is not to deny the identity and democratic aspirations of the largest nation within the Union. New Labour has tried to craft a soulless Britain without England. The challenge for the incoming Conservative government will be to shape a great Britain that still has England at, and in, its heart.

Open letter to the BBC, ITV and Sky on the proposed leaders’ debates

Below is the text of a letter I’ll be sending to the BBC, ITV, Sky, and possibly Ofcom, the Electoral Commission, the SNP and Plaid Cymru over the next few days!

Dear Sirs,

I note with some dismay the plans to hold three debates between the leaders of the three largest UK political parties at the forthcoming general election: one each on the BBC, ITV and Sky. My concern is not about the fact that this format could be seen as unduly favouring the main parties, or that it changes the nature of the contest into a battle between presidential-type candidates for the top job. What I am mainly disturbed about is the way these debates are in danger of seriously misrepresenting the key issues at the election and, more particularly, failing to make clear who those issues affect.

These clashes are being billed as ‘UK’ debates: the UK party leaders discussing issues affecting the whole of the UK, for which the new UK government and parliament will be responsible. Reflecting the debates’ supposedly UK-wide character, the participation of the leaders of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru has been excluded; and separate debates have been proposed to focus on the key election issues for each of the devolved nations.

However, this way of dividing up the debate is based on a distortion of the facts. The truth of the matter is that it is not Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that should have their own separate debates but England. This is because it is only for England (and occasionally Wales, too) that many of the key election issues are of any relevance at all: education, health, crime and justice (including Wales), planning, housing, the environment and rural affairs, communities and local government, culture and sport, much of transport policy, etc.

Do the BBC, ITV and Sky need reminding that, because of devolution, the UK government’s responsibilities in these areas are limited to England? Given this fact, any debates on these topics should be billed as England-specific and preferably be broadcast only in England. Of what relevance to people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would a debate on NHS funding and reform be when the NHS in question is the English NHS? The same applies to the other policy areas mentioned above.

Admittedly, the votes of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will still have a material effect on the eventual government’s policies for health, education and communities in England, as those votes will determine the colour of the UK government. But that is not what the election should be about in those countries: the voting choices of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people should be determined by what the prospective MPs for those countries are proposing to do for them, not what the UK party leaders are proposing to do for England. If, however, debates purporting to be about UK matters (which are in reality English matters) are broadcast in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and if the party leaders are allowed to get away with falsely presenting those issues as relating to the whole of the UK – then the broadcasters would be guilty of a serious act of misrepresentation that is almost tantamount to electoral fraud and gerrymandering:

  • presenting a false prospectus to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • encouraging them to waste their votes on policies that do not affect them
  • and allowing policies affecting English people only to be in part decided upon by voters living outside England.

The proposal to hold separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seems in part to be an implicit recognition of the fact that the ‘UK’ debates are in many respects England-only debates. But will they be presented explicitly as such? All the signs are that the debates will indiscriminately mix up genuinely UK-wide matters (reserved responsibilities of the UK government, such as defence, foreign affairs and macro-economics) and English matters (i.e. all those policy areas for which responsibility in the other countries of the UK has been transferred to the devolved administrations). In the news report on the BBC website about the agreement to hold the debates, it was stated that: “The format will be the same for each [debate], although about half of each debate will be themed”. Does this mean that about half of each debate will be devoted to specific topics for which it will be made clear which countries they affect?

This is a really critical question. Given the importance that is being attached to these debates as events that could play a substantial part in deciding the outcome of the election, if a themed debate on health or education is not clearly indicated as relating to England only, then the broadcaster in question will be guilty of grossly misleading the electorate: the election result could end up being shaped by the misapprehension of many Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters that the parties’ policies on those issues actually affect them – which they don’t, at least not in any direct way as would be implied by the misrepresentation. If the themed parts of the debates are accurately characterised in respect of the countries affected by the topics discussed, then there is no reason why these debates should not be broadcast across the UK, even though it would have to be explained that large parts of them were largely irrelevant to viewers outside England.

Instead of this, however, one has the distinct impression that the exclusion of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru is designed to avoid having to make clear to viewers that large parts of the debates relate to England only. This is because if Alex Salmond and Ieuan Wyn Jones took part, they would doubtless refuse to discuss many of the key, England-specific, issues on the basis of the democratic principle that they are elected by the people of Scotland and Wales to make decisions that affect them, not decisions affecting only the people of England. So, rather than allowing the nationalists to shatter the other parties’ deceit that the UK election is about only UK-wide matters, it is deemed more appropriate to suppress the national consciousness of the English people by removing the nationalists from the picture altogether. The ‘nation-specific’ perspectives of Scotland and Wales can then be sidelined in separate broadcasts; whereas, on the contrary, those perspectives in fact provide an absolutely vital input to the UK debates – the true perception that many ‘UK’ issues are also in fact nation-specific: to England, that is.

In reality, the way these debates ought to be structured to take account of the facts of government post-devolution is diametrically opposed to the structure that has been proposed: instead of ‘UK’ debates that are in reality part-UK and part-English being broadcast to the whole of the UK but excluding the SNP and Plaid Cymru, there should be, on the one hand, genuine UK debates (dealing with reserved matters) in which the leaders of the SNP and Plaid should naturally participate and, on the other hand, England-specific debates (broadcast in England only) from which the leaders of the nationalist parties could justifiably be absent, as they’d have nothing to contribute.

If the UK debates genuinely dealt with UK-wide matters only and were broadcast across the UK, then it would be entirely inappropriate to exclude the leaders of governing parties in Scotland and Wales. The Scottish and Welsh perspectives should surely be represented if the UK is a genuine union of democratically, if not demographically, equal nations. The Scottish and Welsh point of view on reserved matters would be useful to voters in England not just because of the corrective it would supply to the established parties’ misrepresentation of English matters as UK-wide matters but because it would make possible a more honest and comprehensive discussion about the facts of public expenditure across the UK, including the Barnett differentials, and the different priorities for spending and cuts in the different countries of the UK.

For example, in the article referred to above, Gordon Brown is quoted as saying, in one breath, that the debates will provide an opportunity to: “discuss the big choices the country [the UK and England] faces. Choices like whether we lock in the recovery or whether we choke it off [UK-wide]; whether we protect the NHS [in England], schools [in England] and police [in England and Wales] or whether we put them at risk to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy few [across the UK]”. The participation of the nationalists would prevent Gordon Brown and the other leaders from getting away with what is a distortion of the facts here: some areas of public expenditure, including England-specific items like the NHS, may be safeguarded; but this will be in the context of overall cuts, which will also result in cuts to the Scottish and Welsh block grants. So the party leaders will try to reassure voters that the NHS is safe in their hands; but spending in Scotland and Wales – including potentially on the NHS in those countries – will have to be reduced.

It is vital that voters in Scotland and Wales are made aware of these facts. And it is equally crucial that voters in England understand that the parties are talking only about England when they refer to spending in devolved areas of government; and that policies and public spending outside of England are subject to different political priorities and fiscal imperatives. Being made aware of the different policies on and funding of the NHS or education in Scotland and Wales would enable English voters to make a more informed choice about health and education in England. There certainly might be more public demand for a needs-based funding system to replace the Barnett Formula, so that the impact of overall UK spending cuts on the poorer parts of England could be mitigated, and the favouritism of the present system towards Scotland could be balanced out. Now that would be a proper UK-wide debate, in which the impact of the UK government’s fiscal and spending policies on each of the countries of the UK could be clearly set out and argued over.

In addition, it is quite possible that the SNP and Plaid Cymru could hold the balance of power in the not unlikely event of a hung parliament after the election. Therefore, it is vitally important to English and non-English voters alike that the leaders of those parties should be interrogated about their willingness to support a minority Tory or Labour government. What concessions for their own countries and parties would they demand as a price of their co-operation? And, more crucially, would the SNP or Plaid support the party of government on English bills as well as UK-wide ones? But of course, this is another dimension the main parties wish to keep under wraps: the fact that they may be reliant on the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs (their own as well as those of the nationalist parties) to pass legislation affecting only or mainly England. Just as the same parties need the support of Scottish and Welsh voters to have a chance of implementing their policies for England only as the party of UK government.

And this is the fundamental injustice that the so-called UK leaders’ debates are in danger of perpetuating: that the governance of England is decided on by all the people of the UK, even those not living in England. Organising and presenting so-called UK debates that fail to differentiate between matters affecting the whole of the UK and those relating to England only is tantamount to conspiring to defraud the English public of a fair and free election: one in which the facts are offered to them without bias or distortion; and in which the choices they, and only they, make determine the government policies that are applied to them alone.

A failure of this magnitude on the part of the broadcasters would, in short, be an infringement of English people’s human rights (including the right to free and fair elections), and a transgression against the Broadcasting Code: the duty to ensure impartial and accurate presentation of the news.

Will the BBC, ITV and Sky carry out their duty to make clear to the different UK nations which of the parties’ policies apply to them and which do not? Or will they conspire with the parties to falsify the true terms of the debate?

The national dimension to constitutional reform

I’m a supporter of the Power 2010 initiative that is attempting to keep radical constitutional and parliamentary reform on the political agenda. However, I have serious qualms about the organisation’s ‘British’ dimensions and the way in which it conceives of constitutional reform, ironically, in rather conservative terms: within the framework of the present United Kingdom state. For example, it has grouped the suggestions for reform of Parliament it has received from the public into categories that leave the current status of Parliament as the combined legislative body for reserved UK matters and all English matters fundamentally unchallenged:

  • Fixed-term parliaments
  • Normal holidays and working hours for MPs
  • Elect the second chamber by “sector”
  • Abolish party whips
  • Charitable representatives in the second chamber
  • A second chamber selected by lot
  • Accommodate MPs in the Olympic village
  • Give backbenchers control of parliamentary business
  • Limit government’s use of whips
  • Reform consultations
  • A class of MPs who won’t serve in government
  • Fully elected House of Lords
  • Local councils to nominate MPs
  • Lords to represent organisations
  • Independent Parliament watchdog
  • MPs accountable to their constituency

How about ‘prevent MPs from non-English constituencies from voting on English bills’, or ‘replace Parliament with a new body responsible only for reserved UK matters’? Indeed.

You won’t see ‘Establish an English parliament’ in this list because it appears under the heading of ‘Devolution and local government’ rather than that of ‘Parliament’. In this list, an EP appears third (although I assume these suggestions are listed ‘in no particular order’, as the reality-TV shows say) after ‘A stronger Parliament for Wales’ and ‘More power to regional government’ [in England, you understand]. The way these things are presented creates the impression of a smorgasbord of tasty options that could be mixed and matched according to individual preference, without thinking through their implications and the cross-overs between them. In particular, what would be the implications for England of a Welsh assembly or parliament with powers to enact primary legislation? And what sort of changes to the constitution and structure of the UK – and to the governance of its other nations – would the creation of an English parliament make necessary; in particular, how would the role and responsibilities of the UK parliament need to be modified?

In part, this pick-and-mix character of Power 2010’s options for reform is the product of the way it has been put together: out of a total of around 4,000 random suggestions from the general public, including mine, which was for an English parliament (surprise, surprise). But what is of concern to me is the UK-level process that Power 2010 is proposing in order to whittle the suggestions down to a short list of the five most urgently needed reforms, which prospective parliamentary candidates will be asked to commit to at the election:

“All of the ideas submitted are being looked at as we speak. They will be fed into a representative assembly of 200 citizens from across the nations and regions of the UK – people of all backgrounds and political persuasions.

“The assembly will meet in London in the new year to distil the ideas into a manageable shortlist for the public to vote on, weeding out irrelevant and weakly supported proposals.

“It’s then up to, you, the British public to choose the 5 reforms our democracy most desperately needs in a nationwide vote”.

I have already commented on the Power 2010 website (under my David Rickard pseudonym) about this use of the odious ‘nations and regions’ phrase and all that it implies. My main issue is that a UK-wide ‘representative assembly’, followed by a UK-wide public vote, is not really qualified to come up with constitutional recommendations for England, such as an English parliament. On the other hand, it is not justified in excluding an EP, either. Basically, it can’t make, pass or reject proposals about the governance of England, because only an English citizens’ convention and referendum is qualified to do that. Anything else is just replicating the West Lothian Question, if anything in an aggravated form: Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish representatives laying down England’s constitutional future.

By contrast, I feel sure that Power 2010’s proposed 200-strong citizens’ assembly will not take it upon itself to make recommendations about the ongoing process of transferring ever greater powers and sovereignty to the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales. Indeed, on Monday (St. Andrew’s Day), to coincide with the SNP’s launch of its ‘Your Scotland, Your Voice’ white paper on the options for the governance of Scotland to be included in a possible referendum, the same Power 2010 website published a contribution from Canon Kenyon Wright – one of the leading architects of the 1989 Scottish Claim of Right – outlining the ongoing work in Scotland to establish a written constitution for Scotland and the UK, and to reform the Scottish parliament. This work is going on entirely independently, as it were, of Power 2010; and there’s no suggestion from the Power 2010 team that it should be integrated with the broader UK-wide movement for constitutional reform that it is trying to steer. Nevertheless, Canon Wright himself is of the opinion that the work of the Constitutional Commission in Scotland, of which he is the honorary chair, can help to inform and drive the process of overhauling the decaying and defunct UK constitution and political system.

My question is this: if the ongoing progress towards full Scottish self-government, founded on the sovereignty of the Scottish people, is truly consistent with the aim of arriving at a “written constitution which creates a truly constitutional monarchy, and sets standards and principles which are above the common law, and redefine the sharing of power [and which] would be the basis for a very different and radically reformed Union” (in Kenyon Wright’s words), then why does the Scottish Constitutional Commission not make common cause with Power 2010 and other movements that are campaigning for radical UK constitutional reform?

The answer, I believe, is that Canon Wright’s movement is not primarily concerned with UK-constitutional reform at all: it is a Scottish-driven, Scotland-centred process focused on the Scottish national interest, which – in addition to the principle of popular sovereignty – was the other key pledge that the signatories of the Scottish Claim of Right committed themselves to: “We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount”.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a movement for Scottish self-rule putting the Scottish national interest first: that’s only what you’d expect. However, what I object to is the pretence that this is consistent with a joined-up approach to comprehensive reform of the UK constitution carried out in the interests of all its nations and not just one of them. The Scottish Constitutional Commission is basically out to procure a form of government that is both genuinely autonomous and in the Scottish interest, something which Canon Wright elsewhere terms ‘Secure Autonomy’ – a position similar to the third of four possible options presented in the SNP-government’s white paper: a sort of independence within the Union, with Scotland managing virtually all of its own affairs (including taxation) apart from things like defence and foreign affairs. In other words, this is having the cake of independence and eating the cake of security within the Union. Quite what the impact of these new constitutional arrangements would be on the remainder of the Union – if, indeed, anything remained of the Union at this point – is not spelt out by the Canon:

  • “The powers of the autonomous Scotland would certainly include constitutional matters, and full fiscal autonomy, though much more work needs to be done both on powers and on the implications for the Union.
  • “Links with a reformed Union, probably of a neo-federal nature, would be retained”.

Well, yes, a lot more work does need to be done on the implications for the Union. But that’s not Canon Wright’s concern. Scotland will get it wants, and the rest of the Union will just have to accommodate itself to Scotland’s wishes. As the Canon puts it: “Much can and must be negotiated, but sovereignty is non-negotiable”.

That’s all well and good; but this is not constitutional reform carried out in a way that shows much care either for the complex fabric and history of the UK’s unwritten constitution, nor much concern about the damaging impact on other parts of the Union of piecemeal reform to individual pieces of the jigsaw, motivated by partisan interests, that then loses sight of the bigger picture. This exemplifies the cavalier and short-sighted approach to constitutional reform that has characterised New Labour, and in particular the asymmetric devolution settlement designed to see off the nationalist threat in Labour’s Celtic heartlands without any thought for its impact on England. And I see a danger of more of the same being perpetrated through the Power 2010 initiative: the UK-wide representative assembly and vote will not impinge on the evolving devolution / independence processes in Scotland and Wales; but it will make decisions that affect every aspect of English governance by virtue of the fact that the UK parliament has the ultimate sovereignty over all English affairs. Will UK-parliamentary sovereignty simply be replaced by the sovereignty of the British, not English, people in matters of English governance?

I don’t see anybody in the Power 2010 movement rushing to acknowledge the principle of English popular sovereignty, in parallel to the principle of Scottish popular sovereignty of which Canon Wright is such an eloquent exponent. The reason why they do not embrace such a principle is that it would undermine the Power 2010 movement’s assumption that it can serve as the unified vehicle for a ‘national-British’ popular sovereignty and an integrated reform of the whole UK political system – or, as it puts it, “you, the British public [choosing] the 5 reforms our democracy most desperately needs in a nationwide vote”. So it’s not ‘we the English people’ deciding on the forms of governance best suited to our needs, but ‘we the British public’ once again making decisions on England’s behalf. The choice of the word ‘public’ here makes me think that my earlier comparison of Power 2010’s approach with the process of picking TV talent-show winners through a ‘public vote’ was not altogether misplaced. This is like a talent show of original reform ideas, in which the winners are those that are most ‘popular’ with the British public. But this sort of popularity does not necessarily correspond to a genuine exercise of popular sovereignty by and on behalf of the people (the English) who will be most affected by the decisions; nor does it automatically equate to real merit, as we know only too well from the mediocrity of so many talent-show winners.

So what I fear we will get from Power 2010 is a campaign for UK-wide constitutional reform that is meant to be adequate for England and yet will foster a piecemeal approach that allows Scotland and Wales to continue on their own paths to greater autonomy without considering the coherence of the Union as a whole or the rights of the English people to also exercise their sovereignty. Instead of rushing to come up with five glittering, vote-winning competition ‘finalists’ ahead of the general election, what is needed is a much more joined-up, deliberative approach that genuinely seeks to reconcile the currently opposing national interests and aspirations that otherwise risk breaking the Union apart altogether. If the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish people that aspire both to greater national autonomy, and to a continuing and revitalised Union inspired by common principles of democracy, solidarity and liberty, are unable to bring together their different national projects and perspectives, then there is no hope for the Union. A sustainable United Kingdom cannot be based on a multi-track, multi-system set-up where the different nations have different degrees of independence from the centre; and where England is governed as the UK, in the interests of the other UK nations, by UK-wide structures that ignore the will of the English people.

For these same reasons, there’s simply no point coming up with a list of the top-five options for constitutional reform if these are not linked in a logical way that sets out a coherent path towards real change. Certain pre-conditions need to be laid out and satisfied in order for the reform process to be genuine and to stand a chance of long-term success. In brief, here is what I would have as such a list of the five most important principles and objectives, without which the whole exercise lacks coherence:

  1. Formal recognition of the fundamental human right of national communities to determine their own form of government (popular sovereignty), and to decide whether they wish to constitute a national community or not
  2. On this basis, a formal process to determine which actually are the national communities of the United Kingdom, including, for instance, a referendum in Cornwall to decide whether Cornwall should be considered as a nation or not; and an even more contentious process for the Northern Irish to decide whether they regard the Province as a nation in its own right. If the people of Ulster chose not to become a nation, the Province could probably be considered as a self-governing British region, which would not be very different in practical terms from being a self-governing British nation
  3. Following this, referendums in each of the UK’s nations about membership of the EU. Based on the possibly divergent results (e.g. England voting ‘no’ and the other nations voting to remain in the EU), recognition that the UK’s nations may need to have separate responsibility for their international relations. The EU question needs to be resolved first, as it sets the parameters for the amount of genuine sovereignty each nation can have over its own affairs
  4. A genuinely multi-nation, cross-UK consultative and deliberative process to establish the core principles of a new written constitution for a new UK state. Creating written constitutions tends to arise when new nations and states are being established; and the process of constitutional reform in the UK should be no different: any written constitution for the UK must set out details regarding the relationships between the UK’s autonomous nations, and between each nation and the UK state
  5. A series of referendums in each of the UK’s nations to decide on the answer to two questions: a) Do you accept the core principles of the proposed new constitution?, and b) Do you wish those principles to apply to a new (con)federal UK or separately to your own nation as an independent state? Such a combination of options allows for a unified constitutional-reform process for all the UK’s nations as well as keeping open the possibility that some or all of them may seek to go their own way, albeit on the basis of common principles worked out in collaboration with their fellow-British nations.

These are the type of fundamental question that any meaningful process of constitutional reform for the UK must deal with if it is to do justice to the divergent and competing interests of the UK’s nations. The alternative is simply to carry on with the same fundamental identity and structure of the British state as it is now, requiring any idea of English popular sovereignty to be suppressed. But this is neither just nor sustainable in the long run, particularly if the other UK nations are allowed to pursue their own destinies and preserve their influence over England via the Union out of increasingly self-interested motives.

Salmond’s insistence on participating in a leaders’ debate throws the nationalist cat amongst the British pigeons

A truly comical row has broken out over SNP leader Alex Salmond’s insistence that he should participate in any debate between the party leaders broadcast in Scotland ahead of the next general election. The three main parties are insisting that as Salmond isn’t even standing for parliament – and therefore, by definition, is not a candidate for PM – he has no business taking part in the debate. By contrast, the SNP argues that it is entitled by law to equal air time to the other parties and that, as the party leading the opinion polls and the government in Scotland, the SNP should be represented by its leader in the broadcasts. Otherwise, according to SNP Finance Minister John Swinney, “it deprives the voters in Scotland of hearing the breadth of political choice that quite clearly exists here in Scotland about the input of Scotland into the UK General Election”.

On the one hand, the national-UK parties are right – but not in the way intended – when they say, as did Shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell quoted in the BBC article linked above, that it is “not appropriate for Mr Salmond to take part in a debate about who should be the prime minister of Britain”. But this is only true in the case of one of the three main meanings of the word ‘Britain’ in contemporary political discourse: when it means ‘England’. It would indeed be entirely inappropriate for Alex Salmond to debate matters such as education, health, justice, communities, housing, planning, the environment, etc. The other parties want to con English voters into thinking that their policies in such areas relate to an entity known as ‘Britain’, whereas in fact they relate almost exclusively to England alone. If Salmond took part, he would continually be pointing out that he had nothing to say on these matters, as they had nothing to do with Scotland. And the parties want to prevent the electorate from being aware of this fact as much as possible. So yes, ‘it is not appropriate for Mr Salmond to take part in a debate about who should be the prime minister of England‘.

With respect to the two other meanings of ‘Britain’, however, it is entirely appropriate for Salmond to take part. Indeed, John Swinney’s argument is quite compelling: Scottish people need to be informed about the specifics of their input into the election. In other words, they need to be aware that they should not base their votes on the parties’ spuriously ‘British’ policies on devolved matters but only on UK-wide matters that do genuinely affect them, such as defence, foreign policy, the EU, taxation and the amount of money that the Scottish government will have to spend on devolved services. This is ‘Britain’ in the sense of reserved UK-government matters, and ‘Britain’ in the sense of the devolved nations as affected by UK-government policies. In these senses, David Mundell’s statement, referred to above, is quite preposterous: of course, it is appropriate for Mr Salmond to take part in a debate about who should be prime minister of Britain. That is if the meaning of ‘Britain’ is correctly applied to mean both a state of which Scotland is a part, and the devolved-governmental parts of a territory named Britain of which Scotland is one.

What this argument neatly illustrates is the absurdities occasioned by the UK-national parties’ pretence that the UK government, the general election and their policies are a completely unitary affair: one set of policies applying in a homogeneous manner across the whole of Britain. What’s inappropriate isn’t so much Salmond participating in these debates as the very fact that the general election is two elections rolled into one: one for England and one for the UK. What’s inappropriate is the fact that voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can determine the composition of a parliament that makes laws for England only. And what’s inappropriate is the fact that the parties actually seek to make electoral gain from that fact by encouraging voters in the devolved nations to vote on English policies by calling them ‘British’. And that they seek to keep English voters in a state of ignorance about which policies apply to the whole of the UK and which policies are meant for England only.

Clearly, the only way to structure these debates fairly would be to have one or more debates devoted to UK-wide policies, in which – at the very least – the leaders of all parties with representation at Westminster would be invited to take part. And then you could have one or more additional debates devoted purely to English matters, in which only the three main party leaders would participate.

As the leader of a party in the UK parliament, it is of course right that Alex Salmond should contribute to a debate on who should be the next UK prime minister. But it is not right that he takes part in a debate on English matters.