Thursday, July 06, 2006

English votes on English matters?

Ken Clarke has said that the fairest solution to the West Lothian question would be for MPs representing Scottish constituencies to be ineligible to vote on matters that do not affect their constituents. Otherwise the anomaly remains that measures that affect only England and are opposed by a majority of English MPs are nonetheless voted in on the strength of MPS who are unaccountable to their constituents.

This has already happened with tuition top-up fees, where the Labour majority of 5 included some 20 Scots, whose constituents had no dog in the fight. So, as a solution to Tam Dalyell's old question, how does it stack up? Well, the Labour Party are unhappy, as are the Lib Dems. A variety of arguments are used, that range from the trivial, to the wifully wrong-headed via a few reasonable ones.

Tony Blair (I suppose we ought to start with him) has said that the plan is a 'constitutional abortion'. Presumably that means he's in favour. Wait, I've double checked and he thinks this is a bad thing, in flagrant disregard of an electorate's right to choose. Disgraceful. Blair thinks that the entire British constitution, about which I waxed so lyrical, is predicated on not having two classes of MPs. Well, he should probably have thought about that before he created the current system, which creates two classes of MP.

The current system, as has been said many times, is ridiculous. It is inequitable for it to continue in the same way. Something must be done ((c) Daily Mail). The Tories have come up with a solution that will have absolutely no financial cost, and yet seeks to address the main issue. Blair has derided it as detrimental to the greater Union, but from the man who has done more than anyone since Bonnie Prince Charlie to diminish that Union such words are meaningless.

Lets look further at contrary arguments, stretching our gaze to the blogs that the BBC hateso much. Some chap called Alex Wilcox, a Lib Dem, attacks Clarke's idea thus:

So, let’s recap: it’s wrong for Liberal Democrats to point out Four Jobs Bob isn’t local to Bromley because he lives somewhere completely different – which is a statement of fact. But it’s all right for the Conservatives to say the leader of a country that’s a union of different nations can only come from the bit that the Tories have all their votes in, ruling out Scots not because of their ability or their ideas but simply because of where they live.

This objection appears to be based on the fact that it is unfair for the Tories to object to a Scottish Prime Minister because that would be racist. I'll attempt to address this point with a modicum of seriousness. There is of course no problem with a Scot becoming Prime Minister. Indeed, Cameron is a very Scottish name. The argument is not on where they were born, but where they are representative MPs. It is a philosophically harder point as to whether an MP should become leader of a country where his constituents are hardly affected by the laws he passes but where the people who are affected are not his constituents. When the British did that in India it was called Empire.

I assume Alex is exaggerating for comic effect. Ha ha ha. It is important to stress that the idea of English votes on English matters is not in any sense racist. As someone said, there is no issue with what nationality an MP is, merely where his constituency is.

More serious complaints have come from more interesting bloggers. Particularly MatGB, who I must get round to blog-rolling. Mat also uses the constitutional argument - that the introduction of differential voting rights is an affront to the constitution. But I think he misses a few key points.

The UK constitution, on paper, simply doesn't work, it makes no sense. But in reality, we know it has worked for centuries. Squaring the circle of competing demands is difficult. Trying to brush it under the carpet as the Tories are doing isn't the way to deal with it.

Well, of course the constitution doesn't work on paper: it's unwritten. More seriously, the damage that it is claimed the Tories would do to the constitution by intriducing differential voting rights has already happened thanks to devolution. What the Tories are proposing is an imperfect solution to an intractable problem: now that really is the spirit of the constitution.

The final area of opposition I would like to deal with comes from a blog that is, shamefully, new to me, though I have noted the sterling work it has done over the Prescott business. The Ministry of Truth, for it is he, has pointed out that the Tory plan might lead to a situation where:

[A party] has the parliamentary mandate and majority to form a government unaided by any other party, and therefore the power to introduce legislation as sees fit, only for it to be entirely unable to pursue that legislation when it comes to English issues by virtue of being in the minority in the face of an English Lib-Dem/Tory coalition in the House of Commons.

Well yes, that's democracy. In such circumstances, a party would be unable to pass legislation that was opposed by the majority of English elected MPs. What's the problem here? In such a case the ruling part would have to seek consensus in matters in which it did not automatically command a majority. Is this really a problem. Is it really better for a non-majority party to force legislation through with the votes of unaffected members?

As so often with Cameron's Conservative Party I am forced to put some words into their mouth. Jeeze, if I don't who's gonna? If some matters only affect England (or England and Wales in the case of legal matters) why should Scottish MPs, whose constituents are unaffected, have a say? What reason is there? The only ones I've heard are the 'it'll break up the Union!' which is absurd, and the 'it's racist!' which is ridiculous. Ultimately the frenzied Labour/Lib Dem opposition looks like the famous Christmas Bill, voted down by an organised Turkish majority in 1877.


Blogger MatGB said...

Hi Tim. Nice post, and, naturally, I have to disagree with the substance of it. Unfortunately, it means doing something I hate doing. The following sentence will be hard to type.

I agree with Tony Blair. He's right. Constitutional abortion, that's actually not far off. The very basic precept of the House of Commons is that all MPs are equal. That's always been the case (to my knowledge, and while I'm open to be corrected, I've studied the history of Parliament in depth).

The other specific issue with EVOEM is that the principle of "power devolved is power retained" would need to be changed as well, and that opens another can of worms.

Essentially, any Act of Parliament can, at any point after it was passed, be applied to Scotland and Wales by a simple Order in Council (Privy Council, membership of which is controlled by the PM). So if you implelemt EVOEM, you also need to remove that power, which would mean Holyrood is no longer "devolved", it's sovereign, and that's a big change on other issues.

Ultimately though, Dave's West Oxfordshire Question is the big one. The British Government needs to have a majority in the Commons. Basic fundamental principle of the way we've been governed since 1688.

If we're going to say a consensus is needed, then you're talking coalition. Good bye "strong government" and the supposed benefit of First Past the Post. Now me? I favour electoral reform, I want to give the voters real choice and real power. I want to see Scottish Tories in Westminsted, I want to see Labour MPs from Hampshire and the other Home Counties, and I'd like to see Lib Dems and Green MPs in those areas of the country that they have voters.

But, apparently, the Conservatives don't want that. So, consensus Govt is OK if we implement EVOEM, but not if we want genuine voter choice and a Parliament that represents the nation (no need for an "A" list under STV)?

I want to have Westminster responsible for Westminster and national issues, and have other issues devolved to more appropriate levels. EVOEM doesn't localise, it doesn't devolve, it perpetuates the centralisation.

It would mean redefining the basic fundaments of Parliament. If we're going to do that, can we have a proper constitutional convention and decide how we're governed properly? 1688 MkII?

Scratching at the edges (as Labour have done) has created a potential crisis. Trying to paper over the cracks, as this is doing, isn't going to help. It's the worst possible answer, the other 3 options are each much more equitable and constitutionally valid.

Oh, Ministry of Truth was Talk Politics until recently, he's also one of the founders of Liberty Central, which we'll relaunch in the autumn properly.

10:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm... there is really no good solution. Once you break something you don't know where you end up. Constitutions evolve over time usually in reaction to the pain caused by past changes and events. Scottish devolution opened a can of worms and we can expect instability for a while.

It looks to me that Cameron is saying "this is a problem - it cannot stand". They are not really pushing a detailed solution. I assume the aim is just to put down a marker on the issue as a contingency against a narrow Scottish Labour majority next election, so that a campaign to delegitimise that result doesn't look like sour grapes.

The procedure is no big deal (some arrangement of Grand Committee's, standing orders, legisiation, regulations, convention, whatever...)

Most MPs have little direct interest or constituency interest in most of what they vote for.

The West Loathsome issue is driven by a combination of factors - excessive representation of Scots, Scottish racism, the Barnett formula, etc. that make it to predictable and too obvious.

The fear is that once the unravelling starts we end up with no stable result (except perhaps more politicians spending more time arguing about who gets to do what). Worst of all worlds.

3:42 pm  
Blogger Unity said...


You have to look at EVOEM on both sides to appreciate the problem it can cause.

Let's take a hypothetical scenario for the next election in which Cameron's move to the centre ground results in a Lib Dem collapse, leaving a situation in the Tories have an actual majority in England but Labour has a small majority overall, when the rest of the UK is taken into account - Remember, the old Liberal Party went down, at one point, to single figure representation.

The problem you have then is the Tories control the 'English legislature' outright, but without being able to form a UK government - no government means no PM which mean no royal prerogative powers and no ability to introduce public legisation. Okay so you have a wrecking ball on anything you don't like that applies only to England, but still no real power without the prerogative, and no ability to govern England.

That's why, in pure consitutional terms, an English parliament is a superior (but not perfect) solution to EVOEM, as with powers devolved to it, the majority party - whoever that might be - can govern within the limitations of the power accorded to that parliament.

12:23 am  

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