Reply from the West Lothian Commission, and follow-up on the vote on same-sex marriage

On Tuesday 5 February, at around 4.20 pm (two and a half hours before MPs were actually due to vote on the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill), I received a reply to my email to the McKay Commission (aka the West Lothian Commission) asking them to make a recommendation that MPs from Scottish and Northern Irish seats should not vote on the Bill, which relates to England and Wales only (see previous post).

The reply read as follows:

“Thank you for your interest in the work of The McKay Commission and your email, the contents of which we have noted. The Commission will take into account whatever matters are relevant to inform their considerations and eventual recommendation.”

That’ll be a no, then. Too little too late.

The Bill of course passed its second reading in the Commons by a majority of 400 in favour to 175 against. For the record, 44 Scottish and Northern Irish MPs voted in favour of the Bill, and 15 voted against; five abstained, including – interestingly – Gordon Brown and Charles Kennedy. So, counting only the votes of English and Welsh MPs, the Bill elicited 356 votes in favour and 160 against. The complete list is here.

Adding his name to the roll call of shame of Scottish MPs butting into affairs not concerning their constituents was the sole Conservative MP from north of the border, David Mundell, who supported the Bill. A total of 31 out of Labour’s 40 Scottish MPs also voted in favour, while six opposed the Bill. Nine out of the Liberal Democrats’ 11 Scottish MPs somehow thought it appropriate to support same-sex marriage for England and Wales but not their own voters. The other two abstained. The remaining supporters of the Bill from outside England and Wales included the one SDLP MP and one Alliance MP (from Ulster), and the independent (ex-Labour) MP for Falkirk, Eric Joyce. All of the DUP MPs (Northern Ireland) opposed the measure.

So the Bill would have passed easily had voting been limited to English and Welsh MPs, as it ought to have been in all fairness. Be that as it may, it’s still outrageous that so many Scottish and Northern Irish MPs feel entitled to vote on such a significant matter that doesn’t apply to their constituents. But, as usual, there was utter indifference to this basic democratic injustice on the part of British-national media, which, while they made a better-than-average pass at referring to the Bill as applying to England and Wales only, still did not think fit to point out that, nevertheless, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs were also having a say in the matter.

I have to say that I was, but perhaps should not have been, rather disappointed at the almost total lack of response my various communications on the subject, mostly on Twitter, were met with. For instance, none of the 60 or 70 Conservative MPs on record as opposing the Bill who I contacted to suggest they could object to Scottish and Northern Irish MPs voting on it even bothered to reply. In fact, apart from the belated McKay Commission response (above), I received only two other replies from organisations or individuals involved in campaigning or voting on the Bill.

The first of these responses was from the online campaigning and petitioning website Avaaz. A couple of days before the vote, they started a campaign to urge ‘Britons’ to contact their MPs to vote in favour of the Bill, although the body of their article did make it clear the Bill related to England and Wales only. I objected in the following terms:

“You should not be canvassing the support of all ‘Britons’ on this, as the measure relates only to England and Wales. Indeed, only MPs representing English and Welsh constituencies should really vote, especially as a separate Bill to legalise gay marriage has been introduced to the Scottish Parliament.

“Get it right, Avaaz!”

I received the following somewhat arrogant reply:

“Thanks EnglandUncut. We are aware this measure only affects England and Wales, which is why we have specified “England and Wales” in the article and the petition – and have noted the separate bill for Scotland here: http://en.avaaz.org/1233/uk-ga…. But the reality on Tuesday is that all British MPs will get to vote on this, therefore all Britons do, currently, have a say on this matter. So we are reflecting the reality of how the law works now, not how it might or should work in the future.”

In other words, Avaaz couldn’t give a monkeys about democratic fairness to English and Welsh residents. For them, it was the issue that mattered, and they were willing to exploit an unfair system to get the desired result. Or, as I put it in my reply:

“Yes, but you shouldn’t be encouraging the UK parliament’s infringement of the English and Welsh people’s democratic rights by indirectly encouraging MPs whose constituents will not be affected to influence the result – either way, simply by voting.”

To which I received no further reply. You can read the exchange here.

The second come-back was from the Twitter feed of the pro-same-sex-marriage group of Conservative MPs ‘Freedom To Marry’, who responded to a tweet of mine that was also in response to a tweet from Stephen Fry urging people to ask their MPs to support the Bill – including, you guess it, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs. You can read the exchange here. It is indeed the case, as I put it to Freedom To Marry, that only very minor aspects of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill affect the whole UK; whereas the core of the Bill – the actual same-sex marriage bit – is limited to England and Wales.

But from everybody else, nothing. But nothing.

It seems to me that the attitude of mainstream media, Westminster politicians of whatever hue or from whichever country, and liberal campaigners alike towards England is like that of a child to whom one is trying to convey an inconvenient truth: they stick their fingers in their ears and cry ‘La la la, not listening!’

Letter to the West Lothian Commission on Same-Sex Marriage

I have today emailed the following letter to the McKay Commission, known ‘popularly’ as the ‘West Lothian Commission’:

Dear Sirs,

Would the Commission consider examining the Marriage Same-Sex Couples Bill, published today, as a transparent example of how it can be inappropriate for Scottish and Northern Irish MPs to vote on legislation affecting only England and Wales?

In this instance, there is no ambiguity about the fact that the whole Bill relates only to England and Wales. In addition, the Scottish Parliament has produced its own draft bill on this subject, and the government there intends to pass it into law. It would therefore be wholly illegitimate for Scottish and Northern Irish MPs to vote on this matter when English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs are denied a say on same-sex marriage in Scotland.

Would the Commission be prepared to issue a strongly-worded recommendation that the House of Commons Business Committee or the Speaker make a recommendation on this matter? If not, why not?

Yours faithfully,

Let’s see what response we get!

It’s time to address the Westminster Question, not the West Lothian one

The extremely modest terms of the West Lothian Commission were announced yesterday:

“To consider how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales.”

Well, I’d like to make a comment on the ‘terms’ in which this announcement was made and, indeed, on the term ‘West Lothian Question’ itself. You might have noticed that the word ‘England’ is absent from this announcement, despite the fact that the term ‘West Lothian Question’ in common usage relates primarily or even exclusively to House of Commons voting on legislation which affects England, not just “part of the UK”. And what on earth is “part of the UK” supposed to mean, anyway? It’s obviously another rhetorical device to refer to England without actually saying ‘England’, because if what you wanted to say is ‘one or more parts [i.e. countries] of the UK’, you’d say ‘parts of the UK’ (plural). So England, in the very terms of reference of the West Lothian Question, has been reduced to an amorphous, anonymous ‘part of the UK’. Very promising.

And it’s not only in these explicit terms of reference for the commission that the very concept of England has been evaded. The West Lothian Question itself, in its original form as posed by West Lothian MP Tam Dalyell in 1977, explicitly focused on England:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable Members tolerate . . . at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

So I’d like to suggest to the West Lothian Commission that they need to revise their terms of reference. Whatever they’re getting together to discuss, it isn’t the West Lothian Question if it doesn’t include an explicit consideration of how England should be governed, and whether the House of Commons as a whole is fit for that purpose.

And that’s the problem, really. The Commission will focus merely on parliamentary procedure, i.e. on the second part of Tam Dalyell’s question: “How long will . . . English Honourable Members tolerate . . .?” The answer in practice has been, in fact, that English MPs in the main have tolerated the West Lothian anomaly remarkably well, for reasons of political convenience. The WLQ artificially bolstered Labour’s parliamentary majority between 1997 and 2010, including in certain decisive votes (such as those on university tuition fees and Foundation Hospitals) in which Tam Dalyell’s words were proved prophetic: “Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics”. And now, the addition of the Lib Dems’ cohort of Scottish MPs to the governing coalition provides a spurious veneer that it constitutes a genuine UK-wide government, which it would not have if it were a minority Conservative administration – the Tories having only one MP north of the border.

From the parliamentary perspective that is that of the Commission, the problem, it seems, is more how ‘Honourable Members’ from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would tolerate being excluded from having a decisive impact on English politics if the answer to the West Lothian Question was to exclude them, rather than how English members get on with not having a say in corresponding matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which they don’t seem to mind at all! Perhaps that’s why the story was covered on the BBC’s Scottish politics page yesterday, rather than its ‘English politics’ page, as Tam Dalyell might put it. Or perhaps the BBC had no other place to run it, as it doesn’t even have an ‘English politics’ page but only a heading on the general politics page reading ‘Around England’, containing separate links to stories from ‘around England’, i.e. from the (English) regions.

So the answer to ‘the part’, to coin a phrase, of the original West Lothian Question that deals with parliamentary protocol can be reasonably accurately predicted from the terms of reference adopted: it will try to find a mechanism that preserves a role for non-English-elected MPs in debating and scrutinising English bills, without allowing them to have a decisive impact on that legislation in terms of their actual voting – although they will still be able to have a decisive impact overall, in that Scottish- and Welsh-elected MPs would still be able to become prime ministers or ministers with English portfolios; so they would still be involved in drafting English legislation as well as in ensuring its passage through the parliamentary process as a whole.

But, as I say, this is only one part of the West Lothian Question – the other part being: “How long will English constituencies . . . tolerate . . .?”. For ‘English constituencies’, substitute ‘English voters’ or the ‘English people’. While English-elected MPs may have accepted the West Lothian anomaly tolerably well since 1999, English voters are increasingly furious about it, a recently publicised IPPR poll finding, for instance, that 79% of English people want Scottish MPs barred from voting on English bills. A minor tweak to parliamentary procedure, in which non-English-elected MPs will still be able to direct and shape English legislation, even if they are not able to override the voting decisions of their English-elected colleagues, will do nothing to appease this anger or mitigate this injustice.

I think we may have to re-name this part of the West Lothian Question the ‘Westminster Question’. A contemporary re-phrasing of it might read as follows:

For how long will English voters tolerate non-English-elected Westminster MPs making their laws?

Simple question. But the mis-named West Lothian Commission isn’t even addressing the limited parliamentary aspect of the question properly (because it won’t acknowledge that it centres on England) let alone the Westminster Question. But the looming importance of the Westminster Question makes their deliberations virtually null and void before they’ve even started.

English parliament

Unionists need to find reasons for England to remain in the Union, as well as Scotland

As it was reported this morning that several leading Scottish-elected Westminster politicians were up in Scotland campaigning in favour of a pro-Union vote in the Scottish referendum on Scottish independence – whenever it happens – the Daily Telegraph reported that a majority of those in England who expressed a preference in a new ICM poll favoured independence for Scotland (43% for, 32% against). By contrast, in Scotland, there was a majority in favour of remaining in the Union; and not only that, the share of those in favour of independence was lower than in England (40% for, 43% against).

While Scottish and English nationalists will doubtless take comfort from these figures – the Scots because the margin between the no’s and the yes’s has narrowed, and the English in particular taking delight at the massive majority in favour of an English parliament (49% for, 16% against) – the fact that support for Scottish independence is greater in England than in Scotland itself should surely make Unionists pause for thought, if not substitute some of their scheduled speaking engagements north of the border with similar events to its south.

Many of the Unionist persuasion may not in fact be terribly surprised at English people’s lack of enthusiasm for the 300-year-old Union. The ICM poll also shows that 61% of people in England think that higher per-capita public spending in Scotland is unjustified, while 53% of Scots believe it is justified. What did Westminster politicians, who’ve continued to justify the Barnett Formula for so long as a bribe to keep the Scots sweet and to provide a spurious justification for MPs elected outside of England to vote on English bills, think that the long-term effect of these injustices would be?

But the bigger point is that it’s the English that most need persuading that the Union is worth preserving. OK, the Scots may vote against independence; although they might just vote for it. But even if they opt to remain in the Union, how sustainable will that Union be if the English no longer believe in it? The English majority can be ignored only for so long.

And that’s the Unionists’ dilemma: they have ignored England for so long that they no longer have a language in which to present a positive case for England to remain in the Union. The phrase ‘for England to remain in the Union’ is itself a revealing paradox. The idea of the Union – any Union – persisting if England decided to leave it is a complete non-sequitur. If such an eventuality arose, all you’d be left with is a set of disparate nations and territories that would have to make their own minds up as to how they wished to govern themselves and relate to one another. However, despite the fact that the Union between Scotland and England is supposed to be a marriage of equals, no one assumes – but perhaps they should – that the consequence of a divorce would be to break the bonds between the UK’s other nations. Using the marriage analogy, if England and Scotland are the parents, why is everyone assuming that, after their divorce, England will automatically gain custody of the kids (Wales and Northern Ireland, and perhaps Cornwall)? Perhaps Scotland should take on some responsibility for them, such as paying them maintenance out of its oil reserves. Or perhaps they’re grown-up enough to take care of themselves.

The absurdity of this analogy shows how invalid the marriage analogy is. The Union is not a marriage, it’s a family of four children, the largest of whom – England – has acted in loco parentis (the parent being called ‘Britain’) for so long that she has invested her emotions and personality wholly into the role, to the extent that she has lost sense of who she is apart from that role. But now her siblings are growing up, they understandably want to manage their own affairs; and England, who has thought of herself as Mother Britannia for so long, has now got to rediscover a new mission in life as a grown-up, independent person – albeit that she might continue to play a key role in the family business going forward.

But this is my point: once England starts to think of herself separately from the Union, then this is as much a consequence of the Union having already begun to break up as it is a precursor and cause of England’s political separation from the Union. The Union is as much in England’s mind as it is a political reality; and for the thought of ‘England remaining in the Union’ to even be possible, that Union must have already have begun to dissolve.

It’s that England that the Unionists must try to convince of the Union’s merits. But the mere fact of that England existing as a distinct entity means the Union as it has existed for 300 years has already begun irrevocably evolving into a different set of relationships between its constituent parts.

English parliament

West Lothian Question: Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer

We were told this week that the West Lothian Commission would finally begin its work in February 2012 and would report in spring 2013. But I would caution people not to expect any answer to be put into effect until after the next UK general election in 2015 at the earliest.

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the options available for addressing the West Lothian Question (WLQ) will be affected by the options that are offered to, and chosen by, the Scottish people in the SNP’s planned independence referendum, in 2014 or 2015. It is, for example, widely expected that three choices will be offered to the Scots: the status quo, devolution max / independence lite (i.e. fiscal autonomy and greater devolved powers but under a continuing UK umbrella) or full independence. The solutions required to adequately deal with the WLQ are different under the status quo than under devo max, let alone Scottish independence.

For instance, under the status quo, the West Lothian Commission would be likely to propose, if anything, only a modest procedural tweak to parliamentary procedure along the lines of that recommended by the present Justice Secretary Ken Clarke when in opposition. If I remember correctly, this involved only English MPs being allowed to vote at English bills’ report and committee stages in their passage through Parliament, but all UK MPs being allowed to vote at those bills’ other stages – but not being able to reverse the decisions of English MPs made at the report and committee stages. This is such a technical fix that most laypersons would hardly notice the difference; and this still does not address, let alone resolve, the question of non-English-elected ministers, prime ministers and MPs being allowed to bring forward England-only bills and play an active role in seeing them through the legislative process, even if they couldn’t participate directly at every stage of that process.

If, on the other hand, the Scottish people opt for devo max / indy lite, then the demand for a more meaningful answer to the WLQ, including from Tory backbenchers, would probably become irresistible. It would clearly be unjustifiable for Scottish MPs to determine policies and make spending decisions for England that had no impact on their own constituents at all. This is of course the main reason why the unfair Barnett Formula has remained in place for so long: it provides a justification for non-English MPs to vote on English matters because of the consequential impact on spending in their own countries.

Therefore, the solution to the WLQ that is applicable will be dependent on the timing and outcome of the Scottish referendum. This impediment could be alleviated if the government came good on its threat to organise its own Scottish-independence referendum sooner than 2014. However, UK ministers and MPs that have advocated this course of action have insisted that such a referendum should ask a straight in / out (union or independence) question, and not offer the middle way of devo max. Accordingly, even if there were a ‘no’ vote in an in / out referendum, the option of devo max would still be on the cards, as the Scottish government would almost certainly still proceed with its own referendum (for which it justifiably argues it has an electoral mandate) and would undoubtedly offer devo max as an alternative to independence. So one way or another, a durable solution to the WLQ cannot be arrived at until after the Scottish referendum.

The second reason why no workable answer to the WLQ will be implemented until 2015 at the earliest is that some of the potential solutions could fundamentally alter the balance of power within the governing coalition. If, for example, only English MPs were allowed to introduce and vote on England-only legislation, the Conservatives wouldn’t need the support of Lib Dem MPs for those bills, as the Tories enjoy an overall majority in England. Therefore, the Lib Dems are hardly likely to approve any measure that compromises the coalition, which they and the Conservatives have adamantly insisted is set in stone until the next election.

This wouldn’t be an issue if my own particular ‘solution’ to the WLQ were adopted: the ‘English Majority Lock’ (EML). In essence, this rule says that any bill that relates substantively to England only (or to England and Wales only, for example) must be approved by a majority of English MPs only (or English and Welsh MPs only respectively) as well as a majority of all UK MPs. In other words, a majority of all UK MPs cannot trump a majority of English MPs on any England-only matter; but equally, the support of a majority of all UK MPs is still required for any England-only (or England and Wales-only) measure. The EML would not compromise the coalition in any way, because the Lib Dems would still be needed to provide the support of all UK MPs for any Conservative England-only measure – which is pretty much how things have been working out in the coalition in any case!

However, the chances of the EML being adopted are pretty slim, I would say, as it would mean that any workable UK-government majority would in future need to command a majority of English-elected MPs as well as a majority of all UK MPs, which the Labour Party would reject, as it would prevent them from using their Scottish and Welsh MPs to outvote the majority of English MPs as they did most notoriously in the case of Foundation Hospitals and university tuition fees. But maybe if the Conservatives and Lib Dems are smart enough, they could latch on to the EML precisely for this reason. However, even the EML is predicated on the status quo vis-à-vis Scotland, and it’s doubtful how long that will continue; and no one, least of all the establishment, unionist parties seems willing to think beyond the long grass to the obvious long-term ‘solution’: an English parliament within a federal or confederal UK, with or without Scotland.

None of these more fundamental issues are likely to be resolved until after the Scottish referendum and the next UK general election. So my guess is the West Lothian Commission will come up with a series of options that are dependent on a range of eventualities. And the eventual decision will be taken not by the people of England but by the people of Scotland and by the body of UK MPs as a whole, who, like turkeys, are unlikely to vote for Christmas.

Seasonal greetings to you – and them – all!

English parliament

Can we expect more progress on the WLQ Commission after the Scottish and Welsh elections?

Doh! It suddenly struck me that that must be the reason – or at least one of the main reasons – why the Con-Dem government has been so cagey about the timing of the promised Commission to look into the West Lothian Question: they don’t want to give Labour and the Nationalists in Scotland and Wales another weapon to use against them in the devolved election campaigns presently taking place in those countries. Labour and the Nationalists would be able to spin any move to prevent Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English matters in Parliament as a sign of the Westminster government’s enmity towards Scotland’s and Wales’ present public sector-friendly, social-democratic settlement – with MPs from Scotland and Wales no longer able to influence spending decisions for England that have knock-on effects in those countries via the Barnett Formula.

Does that mean we can expect the WLQ to mysteriously appear on the parliamentary agenda as soon as the Scottish and Welsh elections are put to bed? I suppose that depends in part on the results and on how well (or badly) the Tories and Lib Dems perform, particularly in Scotland. If they do really badly – as the signs are they will – this will make it less likely that they’ll do anything on the WLQ, as they won’t want to undermine their position in Scotland and Wales still further. So while a dramatic SNP victory will put Scottish independence – and, indirectly, the English Question – back on the political agenda, it may delay still further any attempt to resolve the West Lothian Question.