Saturday, September 20, 2014

Why try to answer the West Lothian question?

A footnote to yesterday's reflection on the aftermath of the referendum.

I watched Tam Dalyell on Newsnight last night. He's the instigator of the so-called West Lothian question. It became clear in the course of the conversation he had with Kirsty that he had asked the question originally, not as something that needed to be addressed if devolution went ahead, but as something that in his view scuppered devolution entirely.

The question is unanswerable if you have a devolved assembly within a union of nations. The problem he raises, as I understand it (and please correct me if I am wrong), is that if you devolve certain powers to a regional administration which means that the MPs elected to Westminster from that region are barred from addressing issues devolved there (unless they are members of both assemblies), they should also be barred from discussing and voting on issues in Westminster that apply only to other parts of the union that the said MP does not represent.

So, the answer to the West Lothian question is not the imbecilic 'English votes for English laws' within the current Westminster system or the 'what's good enough for Scotland is good enough for England cry' of John Redwood. The answer is the same arrangement as in Scotland, i.e. an English assembly that has devolved powers similar to those of Scotland with representatives elected to it on the same PR system used in all the other devolved assemblies. English Westminster MPs would, of course, in exactly the same that Scottish MPs currently are, have no say in those English laws (unless they sat in both the English devolved assembly and Westminster).

Merely, having days at Westminster devoted to English business that all other MPs are barred from involvement in, does not replicate the arrangements in other devolved regions in any way equitably.

This suggests that the only way to move forward is to have a federal UK with a number of devolved assemblies around the country - perhaps based on cities or urban conurbations and their surrounding rural areas - with an elected chamber for the UK sitting somewhere in the middle of the country - Northampton or Lincoln - to act as arbitrator when the regions clashed on policies affecting the whole country and foreign policy. I think the NHS would have to be in the UK assembly t ensure that it was genuinely national and remained a public service funded by taxation and delivered by public servants.

This is similar to Gordon Brown's proposal, I think, with his idea of an elected house of Lords or second chamber taking the national and arbitration role. It is, of course similar to the system in the USA which might not be a model of governmental efficiency!

Anything else would not answer the West Lothian question at all. The question remains, of course, whether this would lead to the fragmentation of the UK into a series of competing city states, all out-gunned by London to which the answer is almost certainly, yes.

It's right, as all the headlines this morning suggest, that the union can't survive in its current form. But as the Times banner headline puts it 'Salmond quits as powers for Scotland are blocked' shows, the current government's plans are not going to solve the problem raised by the referendum; they are only going make matters worse. No surprise there, then.

1 comment:

Clifford Griffith said...

Devolved administration is matter of taste for Central Government. The Conservative government in the 1980s did not like how the Labour run GLC went about things, so they got rid of it. Therefore devolution does not really have any teeth as Westminister can easily have the final say on any decision. Any promises that Westminister make to Scotland can easily be taken back by another government. Therefore any promises made now will only dampen the flames but not totally extinguish them.