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Constitutional Confusion…

January 22, 2007

Constitutional Confusion...

Three hundred years ago this month, Scotland and England became united under an Act of Union.

Although a Scottish Parliament has existed again since 1999, a strong sense of distinction has existed between the two countries over the past three centuries. The Act of Union was never one of equals ? even today England’s population is virtually ten times that of its northern neighbour.

Funnily enough, my earliest memories were from a time when I lived in Scotland. My late father, while he was serving in the army, was posted to Edinburgh during 1967 and 1968. Certainly I remember how cold the Scottish winters were ? I suspect global warming or not, things haven’t changed that much in the past forty years!

Scots still have their own distinct legal system; north of the border post boxes may be painted red, but the initials inscribing the monarch are E I R ? our present day queen is the first Elizabeth to reign in Scotland; her sixteenth century namesake never did and is best remembered for ordering the execution of the tragic Mary Queen of Scots.

Today we are at something of a crossroads, partly because of the existence of what is described as ‘the West Lothian’ question. Indeed since the Scots have had their own parliament, this has become an even more serious matter. Scotland’s constituency MPs in the Westminster parliament represent not a single constituent on health, education or transport matters, for example, as these matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Accordingly we are left in the perverse situation that an MP for a Scottish constituency who cannot speak for his own constituents on hospital closures can happily vote for government policy which affects the future of St Mary’s Paddington or Barts here in the centre of London.

It is for this reason that the Conservatives have sought to introduce "English votes on English laws." Admittedly, it will sometimes be very difficult to judge whether a particular piece of legislation will apply under this rule, but the Conservatives would argue that this is a complication which has been foisted upon them.

As a Conservative of sceptical disposition, I have watched Chancellor Gordon Brown’s interventions in this debate in recent years with some amusement. He has talked boldly about the importance of Britishness ? largely because he recognises that his Scottishness potentially does him political damage here in England. Now he criticises the Conservatives for trying to make political capital out of this issue (which admittedly we are!). However in this regard he is really trying to have his cake and eat it ? Mr Brown and his Labour party always had a keen eye on partisan political advantage in promoting devolution up to the 1997 election (which led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament after a referendum) and now he is reaping what his government have sown. Make no mistake ? the future of the UK has been endangered by his government’s playing fast and loose with the constitution.

The Prime Minister has also recently entered into this debate by suggesting that ‘a separate English parliament would be unworkable and unnecessary’. He makes the contentious claim that it would be unworkable to have two different classes of MP here in Parliament. Yet since the 1999 devolution, we have ? in my view ? had precisely that.

Understandably there has been increasing concern among English residents about the effect of devolution. Although the Scottish Parliament has tax raising powers, to date it has not chosen to apply them. However, Scotland receives a considerably larger proportion of tax revenues per head than England (a situation that was institutionalised in the 1970s after the imposition of the Barnett formula.) As a result, the Scottish Parliament has been able to provide preferential treatment to its residents in relation to university fees and health provision for the elderly. In Scotland, 51% of GDP is devoted to public spending, yet only 39% of GDP is taken in tax.

In essence, English taxpayers are subsidising Scottish taxpayers to enjoy public service benefits that they do not receive themselves. No one should be surprised that this has led to increasing disgruntlement for many English folk who now seek the establishment of an English Parliament.

I hope that the political establishment will now examine the constitution issue more broadly and deal with the ‘Scottish question’ at the same time as we look at proposals for House of Lords reform.

Since the expulsion of all bar 92 of the hereditary peers, I have in principle favoured the option of a largely-elected House of Lords. However, I recognise that such an outcome is unlikely to be within the realms of practical politics. For a start, the strongest opposition to an elected House of Lords comes from existing life peers from all parts of the political spectrum. In addition, even if the principle of election was established, it begs the question as to the timing and process of such an election ? would it be first past the post, proportional representation, for fixed or variable terms or on the same day as the general election? The list of practical difficulties is almost endless.

Needless to say there is also very little appetite amongst the general public for yet more elected politicians, so the solution I would prefer is one that has been put forward by one of my local constituents, Dr Jonathan Munday, a partner in a GP surgery in Pimlico. In simple terms his proposal is to abolish the House of Lords entirely. Having held a referendum throughout the United Kingdom to confirm democratic consent for continuance of the Union, I propose setting up a federal parliament with four national parliaments elected by first past the post for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each national parliament would have all the powers of the current Scottish Parliament but also take on immigration and social services policy as well as enjoying full tax raising powers in its territory. The English Parliament would sit in the old House of Commons chamber.

Furthermore, each of the four national parliaments should then send representatives from their number according to their national populations to a federal UK Parliament (there would be no need for a specific election to the UK Parliament which would sit in the House of Lords chamber.) The UK Parliament would determine laws on the non-devolved issues of foreign policy and defence and enjoy limited economic responsibility to ensure that revenues from the richer parts of the UK could be transferred to poorer areas.

I believe that such a measure would help correct the obvious constitutional anomaly we have in relation to the House of Lords, but also address the increasing concern in the UK, and in particular in England, that the constituent parts of the United Kingdom are not getting a fair democratic or constitutional deal.