Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 October 2014

National parliaments with a regionally elected federal parliament: a new constitutional model for the UK

The following is the outline for a new federal UK: a modest contribution to the ongoing debate about options for the governance of England and the UK as a whole. I offer this despite thinking that the ‘federal moment’ has perhaps already passed, primarily because Scotland has embarked on its own journey of reinvigorated democracy, and is growing into an independent-minded polity, even though the cause of full independence has been lost, for the time being at least.

For this reason, any new federal model for the UK constitution would need to offer a considerable measure of autonomy to Scotland – and, similarly, to all of the UK’s nations, as all must be treated equally – in order to satisfy the powerful aspirations towards real self-government to the north of the border with England and, indeed, to its south.

My model can be stated succinctly: four national parliaments (preferably elected using the AMS proportional system presently used in Scotland and Wales) to deal with devolved matters, and a UK-wide, federal parliament, elected on a ‘regional’ basis, to deal with reserved matters. As observed above, the policy areas devolved to each national parliament would be substantial and could include – in addition to the types of matter that are already devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the majority of income tax, corporation tax and some other taxes; most of welfare and social security; all of transport policy; national infrastructure and major planning projects; energy; considerable primary-legislative powers; and all of justice and policing. Some of these powers are already enjoyed by Scotland (e.g. a separate justice system and major planning projects), so these responsibilities should be devolved consistently to all four nations.

Accordingly, the reserved policy areas would be narrowed down to: macro-economics (i.e. overall fiscal policy co-ordination and monetary policy); residual taxation and welfare responsibilities (e.g. a UK-wide state retirement pension); defence and security; immigration and citizenship; foreign policy; and possibly, science, research and development.

I imagine the regionally based federal parliament (which would also replace the House of Lords as a revising chamber for legislation passed by the national parliaments) as being elected via a similar PR system to the present European Parliament elections, with each ‘region’ forming an electoral college. However, the UK federal parliament would not necessarily adopt the Euro regions, many of which have no basis in English history or local identity. Instead, my concept is one of ‘elective regions’, which could be built up from the bottom upwards from counties, cities and unitary authorities.

In other words, individual counties, cities, etc. could decide to group together to form ‘regions’ based around shared economic, social and environmental challenges. It would be up to the people in each prospective region to approve its formation in a referendum. These regions could straddle national boundaries, e.g. there could be a ‘Borders’ region to the north and south of the Anglo-Scottish border, or a ‘South Wales and Avon’ region encompassing, say, the area including Cardiff, Newport and Bristol (just for argument’s sake). In reality, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be more likely to constitute ‘regions’ in their own right for the purposes of the new federal parliament – although something like a Highlands, Islands and Lowlands split in Scotland is easily conceivable, just as is a split between South Wales and Welsh-speaking West and North Wales. Similarly, the formation of a Cornwall region would be highly likely.

This is not devolution to the regions. Indeed, any intra-national devolution down to ‘regional’ or local level would be a devolved responsibility of each of the national parliaments, in keeping with subsidiarity principles. In fact, my proposal is partly intended as a means to channel and fend off the potentially centrifugal and divisive drive towards regional devolution in England in the form of Euro regions or new ‘city regions’, as typically supported by Liberal Democrat federalists and Labourites respectively.

The new regions would have a powerful voice in the federal parliament, and would be able to forge alliances – including across borders – to help co-ordinate the economic-development plans produced by the national parliaments and, if necessary, to block legislation they felt was contrary to their interests or to those of the UK as a whole. And electing the federal parliament on a regional, rather than national, basis provides a counterbalance to the individual nations and a means to prevent England in particular from assuming a dominant position across the new federal polity – a fear which is routinely adduced to counter demands for an English parliament, i.e. that it would be too big and powerful, and would destabilise any UK federation.

The new regions could also push for more devolved powers – but as stated above, decisions about whether to grant them should be the responsibility of the national parliaments, combined with referendums in the regions concerned.

So this is my draft blueprint. I think this could be an effective way to satisfy aspirations for national self-government, and decentralisation to regions and local authorities, while preserving a strong UK-wide government. But as I say, it may already be too late, as the Scottish genie is already out of the bottle – and England, too, increasingly demands a say on its own government.

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24 October 2014

EVoEL made simple: two simple solutions to the West Lothian Question

By now, anyone with even a remote interest in British politics will know what the West Lothian Question is, and will be aware that one of the answers proposed to it is ‘English votes for English Laws’ (EVoEL).

Should anybody need a quick reminder, however, the West Lothian Question relates to the fact that, following devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is possible, on occasions, for MPs elected from those countries to have a decisive say on legislation pertaining to England only, whereas English MPs have no such say on bills on similar matters affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because those matters are devolved to the parliament and assemblies of those countries respectively.

EVoEL is one remedy proposed to this imbalance and – in the view of many – injustice. EVoEL says that, on occasions such as those described above, only English MPs should be allowed to exercise the decisive vote (or, by extension, only English MPs should have any say and / or participate in debates) on such bills, including in all or just some of the stages of such bills’ passage through the Commons.

In practice, it is highly complicated to implement EVoEL, for a number of reasons that have been well documented and argued about elsewhere, two of the main ones being that:

1) On the basis of current bill-drafting practices, there are in fact very few England-only bills, either in whole or in part, so that even if a bill ‘primarily’ relates to England, it may not be justifiable to exclude non-English MPs from voting on it given the direct or indirect effects it may have on their constituents

2) One of those indirect consequences is the financial impact via the infamous Barnett Formula, whereby funding for the devolved nations is linked to the English budget allocation in such a way as to effectively guarantee a higher level of spending per head of population in those countries than in England. The fact that many England-only or England-mainly bills involve decisions about spending in England has therefore been used as justification for non-English MPs to continue voting on them. Even the SNP, which generally exercises a so-called ‘self-denying ordinance’ (i.e. doesn’t vote) on non-Scottish matters, does vote on mainly or exclusively English bills that affect Scotland in this indirect way.

I want here to suggest two non-mutually exclusive, ‘simple’ ways to implement EVoEL, or rather to solve the problem EVoEL is intended to solve without in fact preventing non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ laws. Of course, the most clear-cut solution is a separate English parliament, which comprehensively redresses the asymmetry of New Labour’s devolution settlement in that, by definition, only English-elected representatives would vote on England-only bills, in an England-only parliament.

But assuming that the present UK parliament is retained, for a time at least, as the legislative body for England, my simple solutions to the West Lothian Question would run as follows:

1) Introduce proportional representation (PR) for UK general elections. This would effectively eliminate the political dimension to the West Lothian problem, if not the national and constitutional aspects to it. The political dimension derives from the differential parliamentary representation of Labour and the Conservatives across the UK’s nations: Labour generally – but for how much longer? – winning most of the seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore, when in government, being keen for its MPs from those countries to vote on its ‘English’ bills), and the Conservatives being more likely to win parliamentary majorities in England that are insufficient to form UK-wide majorities, owing to the party’s lack of seats in Scotland and Wales (and therefore making it necessary to form coalitions with parties whose numbers are in part made up by non-English MPs, who also vote on English bills – something which the Conservatives have been perfectly willing to go along with as part of the present coalition with the Liberal Democrats).

With PR, there would be very little difference between the state of the parties UK-wide and England-only, owing to the sheer demographic dominance of England, which has around 85% of the UK population. Accordingly, in 2010, the Conservatives won 40% of the popular vote in England only and 36% UK-wide. Similarly, Labour won 28% in England and 29% UK-wide, and the Lib Dems won 24% and 23% respectively. If these vote shares had been translated into shares of seats, the coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have had 63% of English seats and 59% of the seats UK-wide. In general, it would be unlikely that any UK-wide coalition necessitated by PR would not also command a majority of English seats, and it would certainly be politically unwise to put together a UK majority that failed to deliver an English majority.

By introducing PR, then, you could avoid having to ban non-English-elected MPs from voting on ‘English’ matters: you would not need to make any changes to existing parliamentary procedure, in fact, as the ruling coalition would depend on the loyal support of its English MPs to pass any of its bills, England-only or England +.

It would still be theoretically possible, though arithmetically unlikely, for ‘English’ bills to fail to obtain the support of most English MPs but still be passed owing to the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs. However, a fairly substantial rebellion by the coalition parties’ English MPs would be required, and this would present a bigger political problem to a coalition government than it did for the New Labour government that introduced foundation hospitals and university tuition fees in England despite a majority of English MPs rejecting the measures. This is because the English MPs voting against the government would be likely to be from only one of the coalition parties, rather than both (or all), meaning that any such rebellion would represent a direct challenge to the coalition’s very survival. Accordingly, rebellions on this scale would be more likely to be nipped in the bud.

2) All bills to require a majority of both England-only and UK-wide MPs. The two main parties are unlikely to embrace PR as an answer to the WLQ, despite the simplicity and elegance of the solution, as this would involve relinquishing their ambitions to win outright parliamentary majorities, pretty much for good. This fact reveals just how much the obfuscations and disingenuousness around the WLQ and EVoEL are bound up with narrow party self-interest: Labour’s ambition to govern being tied up with continuing to allow its Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote on English matters, and the Conservatives lust for power being bound up with denying the selfsame right to Scottish and Welsh members.

So an alternative ‘solution’ to this conundrum (although it could also be introduced in tandem with PR) would be to introduce a simple rule that all bills and clauses should require the support of a majority of both English MPs and all UK MPs to be passed. This again requires no modification to any parliamentary procedure – no ‘two classes of MPs’, and no endless disquisitions as to the geographical extent of bills or clauses – and simply ensures that no bill can be passed without procuring the support of a majority of England’s representatives.

The justification for this approach is based on a view about the relationship of Parliament to England, which is as stated in a previous blog about the televised leaders’ debates: that it is not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should putatively be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but that in reality, all laws are English, while some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or to one or two of the above).

I can’t think of any legislation in recent years, other than the actual devolution legislation, that has not applied to England. The UK parliament is therefore the de facto English parliament: the English legislature. So if EVoEL is ostensibly a means to give England a voice, and to create something of a distinct English parliament within the UK parliament (as opposed to a separate body), then it seems fair that legislation should always be required to command a majority of English MPs.

I can hear the howls of indignation in certain quarters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: that this ‘discriminates’ against their MPs. But it does no such thing, really, because any legislation – even fully England-only bills – would still be required to obtain the support of a majority of MPs from across the UK under this rule. I.e. if a bill is supported by most English MPs but not by a majority of all UK MPs, then it is not passed – just as would be the case today.

There would, of course, be implications for the forming of governments, i.e. the need to ensure – where possible – that any incoming government enjoyed both a UK-wide and England-only majority. However, here again, not much would need to be changed. The process, as now (assuming PR had not been implemented), would be that any party winning an outright UK majority would normally form the government on their own, unless they failed to win a majority in England. In that case, they might wish to enter a coalition with another party with sufficient English MPs to make up an English majority – or alternatively, they could just work with other parties to secure English majorities for their bills on a case-by-case basis.

If no party won an outright majority, the process, as now, would be to find the single party or coalition that commanded the largest number of seats UK-wide: preferably, but not necessarily, a majority; and preferably, but not necessarily, the largest number / a majority of English seats. In the absence of a UK-majority (and English-majority) government, the same rule about getting English bills passed would apply: the government would just have to collaborate with other parties, which is probably a good thing for England’s governance, in any case.

In reality, it would be extremely unlikely for a party or coalition with a UK-wide majority to fail to secure an English majority. This has not happened in the post-war era: contrary to popular misconception, every single Labour majority government since 1945 has also succeeded in winning a majority of English MPs. The only two post-war Labour governments that have failed to win an English majority also failed to win a UK one: those elected in 1964 and February 1974.

If this dual-majority rule for votes in Parliament were introduced together with PR – which it could be – then the chance of a UK majority failing to deliver an English majority, or vice-versa, would be witheringly small.

The two answers to the West Lothian Question outlined here do not provide an answer to the ‘English Question’, which is: who governs England, and in whose name? If one or both of my proposals were implemented, the answer to that question would still be: the UK parliament and executive govern England, in the name of the UK. There would still be no properly English parliament: no English voice or recognition as a sovereign nation, with a right to determine the government of its own choosing.

But what would be achieved, if my proposals were adopted, would be a parliament more fitting to serve, even if only provisionally, as England’s legislature: properly accountable to the people of England; more accurately reflecting the priorities of English voters; and leading to the formation of governments that could not use their support from other parts of the UK to override the views of England’s elected representatives.

14 October 2014

TV leaders’ debates: English debates for British votes on English laws

The proposed format for the leaders’ debates on TV ahead of next May’s general election, announced yesterday, reveals the fundamental character of Parliament and UK government as a reimagining-as-British of an essentially English polity. Three debates are mooted: one involving only the two ‘prime ministers in waiting’ (David Cameron and Ed Miliband – so much for the voters being in charge!); one including Nick Clegg in addition the two above ‘presidential’ candidates (ostensibly, to allow the Lib Dem leader to defend his party’s record in government); and one adding UKIP’s Nigel Farage to the mix, because UKIP is putting up a candidate in every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales (and because, let’s face it, its poll ratings and electoral performance can no longer be ignored).

It is staggering how easily and casually the SNP in particular, and also Plaid Cymru, have been excluded from the debates, even though the SNP is now the UK’s third-largest party in terms of members and is likely to be the largest party in Scotland after the 2015 election, as current polling stands. This means that the SNP could well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and be invited into a UK coalition. Despite this, and despite the fact that the SNP already has six MPs, David Cameron indicated he thought the Green Party should also be included in at least one of the debates, on the basis that it currently has a single MP. If the Greens, why not the SNP, or Plaid, or indeed the Northern Irish parties?

The answer, clearly, is that only parties with MPs elected in England are thought to matter. This is ultimately because the UK polity itself is effectively at core an English polity (though never openly avowed as such). This means that parties’ electoral ‘pitch’ is mainly to English voters on English laws and policies.

The practical reality of Westminster politics is actually the opposite of the way it’s normally construed: it’s not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, the argument goes, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but in reality, all policies are English, and only some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In this context, the real function of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, particularly in the post-devolution era, is merely to add their numbers to the parliamentary arithmetic that determines the composition of UK governments and the passing of English laws. It is assumed, therefore, that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru needn’t be invited to participate in any of the TV debates because they will not be determining the content of UK (i.e. English) laws after the election – even though the votes of their MPs may be essential in passing those laws, and the participation of their MPs in government may be required as part of a ruling coalition.

But if SNP and, potentially, Plaid and some Northern Irish MPs are needed to form a coalition, don’t English voters have the right to hear what their leaders have to say about the policy concessions they would demand on entering a coalition, and what stance they would take on voting on such a coalition’s England-only or England-mainly laws?

But the ‘English’ parties don’t want English voters to realise that they are dependent on non-English-elected MPs and, by extension, non-English voters for the passing of essentially English laws – by which I mean not only laws whose extent is in fact strictly limited to England (which are in reality very few in number), but all UK laws and government policies: on the basis of my contention above that all UK laws are fundamentally and primarily English laws in the first instance.

On this basis, the moniker of ‘English votes for English laws’, used to justify the potential exclusion of non-English-elected MPs from debates and votes on England-only legislation, is a convenient fiction to cover up the fact that all laws are England-mainly: designed for England by English parties (but which style themselves as ‘British’) and only as it were incidentally extending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or one or two of those additional parts of the UK, depending on the geographical extent of any actual bill).

So the UK-wide (i.e. ‘English’) parties don’t want the Scotland- and Wales-only party leaders to participate in the ostensibly UK-wide (i.e. English) TV debates because they don’t want English voters to realise that those Scottish and Welsh parties, as well as Scottish- and Welsh-elected MPs in ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, may ultimately call the shots in terms of both ‘UK-wide’ (i.e. England-mainly) and England-only laws.

But the English parties nonetheless want the votes of those parties in Parliament and, potentially, the participation of those parties’ MPs in coalition government. Hence, they need the votes of the Scottish and Welsh electorate, including on genuinely England-only matters: all three ‘UK’ debates will air in Scotland and Wales, even though all laws in devolved policy areas will not affect Scottish and Welsh voters. If those Scottish and Welsh votes can be channelled into ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, all the better. Hence, the exclusion of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid fulfils a convenient double purpose: optimise the non-nationalist vote in Scotland and Wales (i.e. the vote for ‘English’ parties in those countries), while preventing English voters from being aware that Scottish and Welsh MPs will play a decisive role in shaping their next government and their laws.

So we’re left in a ludicrous situation of England-only parties in the debates canvassing the votes of all British voters for the passing of English laws in the UK parliament! If the SNP and Plaid are sidelined out of the equation, then you don’t have to consider the awkward potential situation whereby either a Conservative- or Labour-led coalition might actually require the votes of Scottish- or Welsh-nationalist politicians to pass English (i.e. all) their laws.

In which case, we might find that calls for English votes on English laws are quietly dropped. But in the meantime, we mustn’t have the inner workings of a parliamentary system exposed to the view of English and non-English voters alike in which the votes of non-English MPs – and ultimately, of non-English voters – are reduced to the role of providing parliamentary voting fodder in support of fundamentally ‘English’ policy agendas.

But the essentially English status of those policies and of Parliament itself must never be openly acknowledged. If it was, then there would be no alternative other than to move to a more honest separation of English and UK-wide policies and politics: a genuinely English parliament to debate English laws, and a genuine UK parliament to reflect different views and priorities from across the UK, and not just a ‘Britain’ that is fundamentally England re-imagined and re-named.

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