The sledgehammer and the nut
The problems created by devolution are tiny compared with those it solved, says TOM HARRIS
Let’s start with some trivia. It was indeed Tam Dalyell who first asked the question that so vexes today’s English nationalists: in a post-devolution House of Commons, why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on English issues when neither they nor their English counterparts can vote on the same issues as they affect Scotland? But it was Enoch Powell who gave the question its name: the West Lothian Question.
Less trivial are the consequences that devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could have for the Union that makes our four nations one. No political Union can survive when its largest participant is terminally unhappy with the arrangement.
But is it? More to the point, does England have a legitimate grievance against the new constitutional set-up?
Before English nationalists reach for the lever marked “English parliament”, it’s worth remembering why there was such a demand for devolution in Scotland – and, to a lesser extent, Wales – in the first place. Historically, Scotland sent 72 MPs to Westminster (it’s now 59 and will drop to about 52 at the next election). Even in the extremely unlikely event that all of them would be united on any one controversial policy issue, they could be easily outvoted by even a fraction of the massed ranks of England’s 530-odd MPs.
Before devolution Scotland was powerless to prevent itself being used as a pilot ground for the poll tax. Even with 100 per cent opposition from our parliamentarians, the policy would have remained completely unaffected. This was a regular and inevitable consequence of a unitary state and a single parliament dominated by a large nation. England would never tolerate being placed in such an emasculated position, and neither should it. Nor will it ever be forced to.
Yes, since 1999 there have been occasions when a (small) majority of English MPs have been frustrated by the combined votes of a (large) minority of English MPs in conjunction with MPs from the other, smaller, nations. And yes, if every Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish MP wished to foist an unpopular policy on England alone – and, crucially, were joined in the lobbies by at least 209 English MPs – then they might succeed against the wishes of the remaining 324.
But England, unlike any of the three smaller nations before 1999, could never be put in a position when its will was subjugated by other nations. That is as much a matter of arithmetic as of democracy.
Moreover, a devolved Scotland still cannot always get its own way on matters reserved to Westminster – nor should it. If all our 59 MPs were united against the renewal of Trident, or opposed to a foreign military engagement, or opposed to a particular tax change, then our voice would count for little when added to the other 591 MPs from the rest of the United Kingdom. England will never have to face that kind of reality under any constitutional arrangement, including the existing one.
Devolved Britain is an uneven and untidy solution to a political problem. As an American friend once put it to me: “The British constitution is all very well in practice, but it would never work in theory.”
The question we need to ask is not the West Lothian one but: has devolution created a more serious problem than the one it set out to fix?
The answer to that is no.
Allowing MPs from every part of the UK to vote on any issue before the Commons seems unfair to many. But it is more tolerable than banning them from doing so. That particular “solution” fits easily into a tabloid headline but doesn’t stand any level of scrutiny. A two-tier Commons could quite easily result in two executives, each with their own majority, remit and Prime Minister. Utterly unworkable, and its advocates must recognise this.
If my presence – and that of my compatriots – in the Commons during debates and votes on devolved issues affecting England is such an abomination, then surely the only solution short of the break up on the Union would be an English Parliament?
Whenever I’m asked about such a development, I’m careful to answer that such a move must be made exclusively by the English people themselves. That’s not a debate in which I would want to become embroiled. But, as we (sometimes) say in Scotland, ca’ canny: be very careful. The Scottish Parliament was an inevitable solution to a grievous injustice. An English Parliament might be seen as an unnecessary luxury, a disproportionate answer to a situation which is sometimes a bit annoying.
Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South and a former transport minister He used to blog a lot. This is a cross-posting for the Campaign for an English Parliament website. Follow Tom on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.